The Healing Power of Food
If you’ve ever had a reason to visit a hospital, chances are it’s not because you were craving the cafeteria food. Now, imagine being in a hospital setting and enjoying a meal that is comparable to those served in some of the Central Coast’s finest restaurants. Thanks to the innovative techniques and skills of Chef Eric Mau, flavorful yet healthy meals are the norm at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo.
“It’s all about healing people through flavor-packed food,” says Mau. “To me, it’s really amazing to be able to play a role of helping in the lives of people who stay with us.”
All those preconceived notions you may have of hospital food? Throw them out. Any memories of bland, colorless plates fall by the wayside as this classically trained chef prepares and serves up tasty, visually pleasing dishes to patients, staff, and visitors on a daily basis.
Sourcing from local suppliers has been a game-changer in the kitchen, according to Mau. He favors produce and fresh herbs from The Berry Man, breads and baked goods from Edna’s Bakery, and locally-sourced milk and dairy products. Freshness is key, and Mau seeks out suppliers with an ability to make daily, or at least timely, deliveries. He’s all about sustainability, reducing waste, and managing food costs—all while creating enticing meals.
Mau grew up in SLO County and is a graduate of the Grizzly Youth Academy. He was working in construction when a friend who attended culinary school prepared him a meal. When Mau, just 21 at the time, realized he could earn a living creating fine dining experiences for others, he was hooked. He dove right in, earning his diploma from the Institute of Technology’s Culinary Arts Program in Clovis where he was trained in a Cordon Bleu-style curriculum.
The techniques he learned at culinary school, and the science behind those techniques, have helped Mau bring an appetizing twist to ordinary hospital food. Contracted through Morrison Healthcare, he has worked at Sierra Vista for 10 years.
Flavor is Key
Whether through braising, sautéing, or another technique, Mau is committed to the overall taste, texture, and presentation of his cuisine. Perhaps it’s knowing the exact amount of oil to add to a pan, or preparing vegetables in ways that honor flavor profiles while maintaining the highest nutrient levels.
“Let’s face it,” Mau says, “nobody likes mushy vegetables or colorless meat. What I learned at culinary school, and what I do in the kitchen, is all about building flavor profiles. I treat every ingredient individually, tasting and seasoning as I go. So, when I put all the ingredients together, it takes the dish to a whole different level.”
In a hospital setting, being mindful of nutritional and dietary standards is a must. By building these flavor profiles, Mau can eliminate a diner’s need to add salt to their meal. For instance, he grills chicken to ensure robust flavors are picked up from the smoke and enhanced, making all the difference when it comes to taste.
Weekdays, Mau and his crew set up an exhibition station in the cafeteria called the Murray Street Café, where they make food to order. Focusing on seasonal foods, they might prepare omelets, sizzling citrus shrimp tacos, or a quinoa strawberry grilled chicken salad. Mau and Director of Food and Nutrition Services, Kaitlin Gibbons, RD, make daily rounds to visit patients and gain a better understanding of who they are cooking for and share tips on meal prep—and the patients love it.
“Through food, I hope to bring some goodness to their hospital stay,” he says. “Our physicians heal people through medicine, surgery, and medical techniques. And we have our own ways of helping people heal. They need the right calories, vitamins, and nutrients to give their body the energy it needs to recover from a surgery or procedure. We are healing people through food. That, to me, is phenomenal.”