This East Bay chef may be retired, but she’s still in the kitchen
Being a chef is hard on the body. Just ask any chef. But how to stay engaged and fulfilled in retirement? One could look to Alison Negrin as an example.
Negrin, who is 71, works on a panel of chefs who are called upon occasionally to give feedback on new culinary products, and she serves on the board of Culinary Angels, which prepares and delivers healthy meals to cancer patients and their caregivers. Earlier in her career, she considered doing that full time, but a headhunter steered her in a different direction. She also loves working events to help her friend, chef Aliza Grayevsky Somekh of Bishulim SF.
Negrin, a resident of Alamo in the East Bay, has had a long and varied career. Highlights include working in Chez Panisse Café; it’s where she met her husband who was bartending while getting a master’s degree at UC Berkeley. She opened and served as executive chef for several years at Bridges, which she describes as the “first good restaurant in Danville.” She introduced the concepts of seasonality and sustainability to John Muir Health, a network of hospitals and doctors in the East Bay. She taught in the culinary program at Diablo Valley College and, most recently, developed recipes for two food tech startups.
She still enjoys spending time in the kitchen, whether she’s developing recipes, teaching, cooking or mentoring younger chefs. “I love recipe development, and I’ve gotten pretty darn good at it, given that most recently I’ve had to do it with machines,” she said, speaking of her recent time creating recipes for a startup called Chowbotics. The company developed a salad-making robot named Sally. Chowbotics was ultimately bought by delivery app DoorDash and then shut down, but Negrin enjoyed the work while it lasted.
“I loved working with the mostly 30-something engineers and techies,” she said.
Negrin can also take credit for matzah ball soup on the John Muir menu during the years she worked there. “We often did brisket and asparagus during Passover,” she said.
The hospital network’s chaplaincy program included people of all faiths, she added, and the administration encouraged its employees to share their faith traditions. “In the 12 years I worked there, I enjoyed sharing a lot of Jewish food for the holidays.”
Negrin was born in the Bronx and moved around frequently as a child due to her father’s job, finishing high school in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her paternal grandmother and her mother were the cooks in the family.
Her father’s family came from the Greek city of Ionnina, which is on the mainland across from the island of Corfu, and her paternal grandparents came to America at the time of the Ottoman Empire. It’s a rare enough name that when she meets another Negrin, she always asks whether they might be related.
Negrin was always aware that her grandmother’s fridge was full of foods, such as feta and Kalamata olives, that she didn’t see in the refrigerators of her Ashkenazi friends. Her grandmother made many Greek dishes. Negrin remembers her borek dough as well as her tomato-eggplant casserole.
Meanwhile, her mother liked to experiment. After Negrin told her about trying a taco for the first time in Washington, D.C., the next thing she knew her mother was making them. “I just loved her food,” Negrin said.
Negrin began cooking family dinners as a teenager, but her dishes weren’t always so successful.
“My mom would leave a recipe for me to cook while she was at work, and I’d improvise and go crazy with spices and use way too many different ones,” she said. “Just as how when you add all the colors you get brown.”
She started college on the East Coast, but she finished at UC Berkeley, which is what brought her to the Bay Area.
After college, Negrin spent several years in Denmark, where she became interested in fermentation, made syrups from herbs and ate with the seasons. By the time she returned to the U.S., she decided to attend the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and after that, began working as a chef.
While becoming a mother put an end to Negrin’s restaurant career, it opened up other opportunities with food that she couldn’t have imagined when she started.
She had studied on her own about the health benefits of food, but she became a certified nutrition educator at the East Bay’s Bauman College and got hired by John Muir.
In her long run with the hospital network, she not only created upscale patient menus, board dinners and staff events, but also changed much of the food sourcing.
“In hospitals, you have such an opportunity to educate not only patients, but employees about healthy eating,” she said. “Plus, the fact that we purchase so much in such volume — it can really make a difference if a hospital asks for healthy and sustainably sourced food.”
The hospital started composting under her watch and switched to cage-free eggs, for example.
In the same vein, Negrin is involved with the Climate Leadership Council at B’nai Tikvah, her Walnut Creek synagogue.
When she left John Muir to start her own consulting business, one of her first clients was the Reutlinger Community. She ended up working with the Danville senior living facility for a year, updating its menus to include healthier food.
While she is always open to the right opportunities if they present themselves, Negrin said, “I’m happily enjoying my older years.”
J. covers our community better than any other source and provides news you can't find elsewhere. Support local Jewish journalism and give to J. today. Your donation will help J. survive and thrive! Support J. Alix Wall Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child." Follow @WallAlix