My name is Santana Diaz, and I am the executive chef at UC Davis Health. My team at Food and Nutrition Services recently wrapped up cooking meals for the health system's annual Thank Goodness for Staff (TGFS) and graduation reception events. I am often asked, “How do you pull off an event of this quality and scale?”

When organizing the culinary side of an event where we must serve an average of 2,800 staff members per hour, your first thought may be to make something easy like hamburgers or hot dogs. We decided the best way to thank our staff was to create a meal made with locally sourced and sustainable foods that was also delicious and nourishing. Here's a snapshot of how we plan, prepare and plate meals on a very large scale while continuing day-to-day operation.

We take a very strategic, detailed and systematic approach when serving thousands of people in short, calculated periods of time. If we don’t follow processes on the front end, we can cost the operation tens of thousands of dollars since we deal with perishable items.

I won’t bore you with the hundreds of actual steps between menu engineering and true menu implementation, but here are a few of the essential ones:

1. Create a menu. It starts with partnering with local farmers and using what seasonal and sustainable ingredients are available. For this event, we started this process about three months before the event.

2. We order the foods with our purchasing/stores team. Part of this is working with our distribution companies to make sure we will be able to receive the ordered amounts on the dates specified.

3. Our stores team receives and checks in the orders. Since our cafés are still open and we are still turning out our average 6,500 daily meals, we had  to bring in a refrigerated truck to store all of this extra food. This can sometimes become a complicated shell game.

4. After food is checked in, our cooks itemize and measure the recipes according to the prep list(s) created. (In culinary terms, this would be referred to as gathering, prepping and staging our mise en place).

5. The culinary team cooks the food in stages to prevent inadvertent waste by cooking too much too soon. The prepping process started five days before the TGFS event to ensure everything was processed in time. I am a firm believer in getting the bulk of the work done in the beginning so we can execute efficiently in the end.

6. On the day of the event, or “Game Day” as I call it, our team tightens up all day-of prep starting at 3 a.m. This early arrival accounts for any 11th-hour equipment mishaps and allows us enough time to react. This ensures we were ready to serve by 11 a.m. when our staff arrived ready to eat.

One of the most important parts of our operation is teamwork. This event could not have happened without the hard work put in by each of our Food and Nutrition Services culinary and catering team members. An operation this big takes a village and a lot of time to make it happen. It was worth every early morning and late night to see how much our UC Davis Health staff enjoyed the food.