UCLA Health Chef Gabriel Gomez aims for the best hospital menu in the U.S.
Here, hospital food is not a laughing matter
It’s easy to joke about the quality of hospital food without considering the logistics of preparing 10,000 meals for a major hospital system to accommodate a range of health conditions. Still, that amount of work doesn’t stop Gabriel Gomez, UCLA Health’s executive chef, from raising the bar when it comes to his menu.
“When a patient says, ‘Thank you for this food, this is the greatest food I’ve ever tasted in any of the hospitals that I’ve been in?’” Gomez says. “that makes my whole day and week and motivates me to keep doing it.”
Patient conditions that require specialized nutrition such as low-sodium, fat-restricted or liquid diets aren’t so much a challenge as they are inspiration, he says. He enjoys getting creative with the dietitians and a software program that helps to modify recipes based on a patient’s needs.
“With food, you never stop learning,” he says.
Other area hospitals? “Not even close” to the diversity of cuisines offered at UCLA Health, he says. His goal is to have the best hospital menu in the U.S.
“We’re getting there,” Gomez says. “We have dishes from all over the world.”
For 28 years, Gomez has remained with the UCLA Health system through many changes: moving food operations from the Center for Health Sciences (CHS) building to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, shifting the entire service model from tray service to room service, and now planning and preparing for the Olympia Medical Center renovation.
He credits his long tenure and success in the role to his passion for food and the trust of his team. He says he’s learned to listen to his team because they’re the real experts in the kitchen, whereas in his leadership role, he now spends limited hours per week in his apron.
“They’re spending eight hours every day doing what they do,” he says. That “makes them masters of their craft.”
Though Gomez is cooking less now, he remains passionate about the quality, taste and design of the dishes.
“One little piece of chicken can lead to 100 different recipes,” Gomez says. “You can create anything you want.”
Finding his way to UCLA
Gomez came to Los Angeles from Mexico at 16 and worked in the farming and construction trades before entering the restaurant industry.
“One of my cousin’s friends worked in a restaurant that needed a dishwasher,” Gomez says. “I washed dishes for three months before the owner moved me to the prepping station.”
Gomez quickly climbed the ranks in some of California’s well-known restaurants, including White Feathers in Playa del Rey and Cliff House in San Francisco (both now closed).
On his journey from cook to sous chef to head chef, Gomez faced hardship and discrimination in the industry. In one restaurant, he was constantly yelled at and told that the owner, “didn’t like Mexicans.”
“To tell you the truth, there were moments when I just wanted to walk out,” he recalls. “Somehow I managed.”
In the early '90s, Gomez learned of an opportunity at UCLA from his second-oldest brother, who was working for Century City Doctors Hospital at the time. He started in catering two days a week.
Today, he oversees more than 60 employees in a department of 200.
“After 28 years, I thank God for this company and for the opportunity that I had,” he says.
One of his more famous specialties is his bread pudding dish. Faculty and staff would line up outside of the cafeteria on bread pudding days to the point where it was decided not to serve the dessert during the pandemic to prevent crowding.
When asked when he’s bringing it back, Gomez smiles and says it’ll be on the menu again soon. For those who cannot wait, they can try their hand at making the dessert at home.