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Take Five with Peninsula Chef-Restaurateur Jesse Cool, On Three Decades of Championing Organic Food

Long before it was popular, Peninsula chef-restaurateur Jesse Cool served organic food. Back then, it wasn’t what most diners wanted to eat. They certainly didn’t want to pay extra for it, either.

How the culinary landscape has changed. And Cool couldn’t be more pleased.

Despite hard times for so many restaurateurs now, Cool is coming off her busiest year ever in 2008. There’s more to come, too.

June 7, she’ll host “Dirt to Dining,” a benefit held at her Palo Alto home for the Ecological Farming Association. Spend an afternoon enjoying appetizers, mingling with organic farmers and vintners, and learning about organic gardening and pest control. There also will be a silent auction.

Price is $25 for the garden tour alone; $75 for the organic food and wine tasting if purchased by May 29 ($100 at the door). For information, call (650) 854-1226.

Additionally, Cool just closed her 10-year-old jZCool Eatery in downtown Menlo Park. She is moving her CoolEatz Catering to a larger site in the Menlo Business Park in East Menlo Park. In June, a new organic lunch café will open there, as well.

The business park also happens to be where she held her 60th birthday party earlier this year. I sat down with her over lunch at her Cool Café inside the Cantor Arts Center in Palo Alto to dish about how her interest in local and sustainable food came about, what she’s most proud of, and whether 60 is indeed the new 40.

Q: You’re the hippest 60-year-old around. How do you do it?

A: I am who I am. I think it’s more organic to be real about your age. I attribute it to exercise, attitude, and eating real good food. It does make a difference.

Q: This is the chicken-and-egg question: Who was the first organics pioneer in the Bay Area — you or Alice Waters?

A: We both were. In the beginning, I was into organics and chemical-free. That spilled into sourcing locally.

In the beginning, Alice was into small, local, and artisan. We were both ingredient-driven.

Q: Back in the day, organic food was a hard sell, wasn’t it?

A: It was when I started with Late for the Train in Menlo Park in 1976 and Flea St. Café in Menlo Park in 1980. Back then, I couldn’t put organic on the menu without people thinking it was hippy-dippy, that it was unwashed and unsanitary, which it wasn’t.

Being in the South Bay made it even harder. Just try getting product down here back then. The trucks stopped at San Francisco and Berkeley. I had to go pick up from Niman Ranch, myself.

The cool thing is it’s mainstream now. Food is finally connected to personal, long-term well-being.

Q: What’s your business philosophy?

A: That the customer comes last. Always.

Q: Really?

A: I decided to do organics for my staff, so they wouldn’t have to wash this stuff off the produce. I didn’t want my staff or the farmers around chemicals. We figured if we took care of our staff and the farmers, that it would spill over to the customers.

Q: You faced some real challenges early on?

A: I’ve nearly gone bankrupt so many times. I was on welfare 35 years ago. The problem was I started in the food industry not to make money, but because I thought feeding people was a form of love.

In 2001, I nearly lost all my restaurants. I was losing so much money that I hired a restaurant advisor. He taught me how to run my business while maintaining my ethics.

With our full-time staff, we pay half the cost of medical and dental benefits. We also throw two staff parties for them a year. All of our cleaning products — even our oven cleaner — you can eat this stuff. We pay twice the price for them because we don’t want to use cleaners full of chemicals.

Q: Was there a particular event that triggered your interest in organic food?

A: I was the classic hippie. I belonged to a food co-op. My Dad owned a grocery store. We grew organic vegetables at home. My uncle was a butcher. I was brought up to eat tongue, and everything else. The word ‘organic’ wasn’t the key to my interest. It was the fact that the food had nothing in it that was harmful to us.

Q: You have two sons, Jonah, 27, and Josh, 39. Did they really grow up with no junk food allowed in the house?

A: That’s true. Nobody would trade lunch at school with my sons. They used to pray that when they opened a yogurt container at school that it actually contained yogurt in it. I would send them to school with thermoses of homemade soup, stews, and fried rice.

Q: Do you worry that in this recession people are cutting back on how much they spend on organics?

A: I hope people realize that food is a priority. I would hope they would pay more for food and less for some other things in their life. I can’t believe that so many people pay more for a Starbucks cappuccino than they spend on their kids’ lunches.

Q: You catered Chelsea Clinton’s party when she graduated from Stanford University. What other notable people have you cooked for over the years?

A: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had dinner in my home kitchen. They discussed the world malaria problem while they ate.

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, eats at Flea Street all the time. Michelle Pfeiffer eats there, too.

Q: What are you proudest of?

A: My children. I’m proud that they garden, cook, and care about solar energy. And that they party-hardy, love people, and respect life in an irreverent way.

Q: Speaking of irreverent, explain the fuchsia-purple streak you’ve had in your hair for ages.

A: My son Jonah has never seen me without it. I got it about 28 years ago. I was at a beauty salon. There were a bunch of lesbians in the salon, and here I was from the suburbs in Palo Alto. They asked me if I wanted to try a little purple in my hair. I said ‘Yes.’ And then it became a lot of purple. (laughs)

I’d be in Safeway — and mind you this was 28 years ago — and a little girl would point at me and yell, ‘Look, Mom! Look at her hair!’ The Mom would say, ‘Don’t talk to her!’ and they both would scurry away. Of course, now I’m hip. It’s become my trademark. A girl’s gotta have fun.

Q: If you were a fruit or vegetable, what would you be?

A: A beet. It’s the color, it’s the sugar. You can eat it raw or cook it. You don’t get tired of beets. They’re sexy in their own earthy way. They’re a little challenging for some. But once you’ve had one, you can’t live without them. (laughs)

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