Black mission figs with Serrano ham. Tiny beef meatballs with pine nuts and sweet yellow peaches. Tender braised rabbit with moscatel, cinnamon, and fresh cherries. And rich chocolate roulade cake shot through with rum.
That was only a small portion of my incredible Spanish lunch last week at the Palo Alto headquarters of Facebook. After all, social networking — and creating the tools to do it — sure does work up a hefty appetite. No one knows that better than Josef Desimone, Facebook’s “culinary overlord.” And yes, that is his real title.
The energetic, fast-talking, 40-year-old chef invited me to come for lunch to see how his kitchen staff of 50 turns out 2,300 meals a day for more than 800 Facebook employees. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks are provided to this hungry crew — all of it for free. Make friends with someone at Facebook, and you, too, can partake of the scrumptious offerings that change daily, as employees are allowed to bring guests to dine.
The food, by this former chef of Cafe de la Presse in San Francisco, is so delicious and of such high-quality, it rivals that of restaurants where you’d have to pay a pretty penny to eat. Kathleen Loughlin, a Facebook communications person, jokes that the food is so irresistible that she’s had to frequent the gym more since Desimone came on board a year ago. Job applicants are always invited to come interview near lunch time, too, Loughlin says, because Facebook is well aware that its cafe is a monster recruiting tool.
If Google set the bar for gourmet cafeterias on Silicon Valley high-tech corporate campuses, then Facebook is aiming to push it even higher. Desimone has the cred to do it, too. Back in the day, he was the second sous chef hired at Google by the search engine giant’s famous original executive chef, Charlie Ayers. It was Desimone who designed the layout for the kitchens at Google in Mountain View, and who did the same for Facebook, when it moved into its S. California Avenue building three months ago after outgrowing its 10 buildings scattered around downtown Palo Alto.
“I’d do the Pepsi Challenge with them any day,” Desimone says about Google’s culinary program. “Google was good, but all the original chefs are gone now. And I got my pick of the litter. Eighty percent of my staff came from Google. We work our asses off here. But we have fun doing it.”
Indeed, they do.
One of Hawaii’s most well known chefs, Sam Choy, has cooked here. Charles Phan of the Slanted Door in San Francisco, is scheduled to drop by later this year to do the same. So is New Orleans legend, Paul Prudhomme. They don’t get paid to do so. They just want to do it, because they’re friends with Desimone.
Meals are structured around cultural or global themes, which change not only daily, but between lunch and dinner. For instance, lunch might be a southern barbecue, while dinner might center around Cuban food. Desimone mixes it all up, never repeating the exact same menu again. He’s so organized that he can tell you what is on the menu for June of next year and which chef is in charge of it.
Employees can make requests. Someone once asked for an all-chocolate menu. Desimone complied with a “Willy Wonka Menu” of chocolate ravioli with pepper ricotta, lamb with a chocolate rub, and mole, of course. Then there was the tribute to “The Simpsons” TV show, which featured deep-fried pork chop in honor of Homer Simpson, and brown rice in an homage to his straight-laced daughter, Lisa.
“We’ll take on any challenge,” Desimone says. “If someone asks me to do their mom’s chicken and dumplings recipe, I’ll do it.”
Friday afternoons feature a happy hour with real wine and beer. There are “Nacho Thursdays,” a tradition started long-ago by one of Facebook’s original employees, only then it was just plain chips smothered with cheese. Nowadays, Desimone does it up with different meats or meat-substitutes, plus freshly made salsas and guacamole.
Then there are the “reward dinners.” Periodically, Desimone will offer a free dinner for 10 people to the 50,000th or 100,000th or other significant numbered person in line at the cafe since the chef started there. That person gets pulled aside, is presented with a huge reward card and balloons. The winner and the chef talk food likes and dislikes. Later, a grand meal is prepared for them, complete with linens, proper stemware, table service, and even fancy amuse bouches.
With all this eating, it’s a wonder any work gets done at this place, isn’t it?
“If you starve here, ” Desimone says with a laugh, “Something is wrong!”
Favorite dishes served include Chinese honey walnut prawns, Indian butter chicken, crawfish beignets, burritos rolled to order, and sushi, when you’ll find lines stretched out the door for nigiri and maki rolls. Compared to Googlers, Desimone says, Facebookers are more adventurous eaters. At Google, employees would just snub something if they didn’t find it to their liking, but here, Desimone says he’s been able to entice employees into sampling a lot of new things, including alligator, elk, and wild boar guanciale.
Turns out that Facebookers also are neatniks. They bus their own tables after eating, and keep the snack areas spic-and-span on their own. If someone dared to leave a dirty napkin on a counter or toss a plastic wrapper on the floor, co-workers would no doubt call them out on it, Loughlin says.
You won’t find paper plates here. Instead, there are reusable melamine bowls and plates, and real coffee mugs. Self-serve areas are stocked with fresh fruit, and healthful snacks, as well as gotta-have-them M&Ms, and potato chips. Cookies are baked daily in both low-fat and full fat versions. Food containers feature allergen labels disclosing if they contain seafood, nuts, wheat, dairy or eggs. Many ingredients are organic and sustainable.
You also won’t lunch and dinner offerings served out of huge stainless steel hotel pans. Instead, everything is served from colorful Le Creuset pots or plated in individual ceramic ramekins because it’s more visually appealing. Frankly, I’ve never seen so many Le Creuset pots stacked up in one place outside of Sur La Table.
An extensive salad bar features a changing rotation of edamame, baked tofu, tuna salad made with olive oil, toybox tomatoes, and roasted portabellas. Two soups are available each day, such as chicken tortilla, or mushroom and spinach orzo. There is always one vegetarian entree, and a choice of two different pizzas. Soft-serve, made from a Straus Family Creamery organic base, is offered in various flavors daily.
Outside, there is a huge grill and smoker, where Desimone has smoked bacon-wrapped meatloaf, 300 pounds of brisket, and a whole pig.
With so many changing dishes, the diversity of cooking involved is staggering. It’s a huge change from when Desimone was a restaurant chef, but one he relishes, especially since he now gets holidays and weekends off.
“Corporate food has a stigma to it,” Desimone says. “I turned down the Google job for a year. It wasn’t until I toured the place and ate the food that I was sold on it. Other chefs tell me now that I have the best gig in the world. I tell them, ‘Damn right!’ Call Thomas Keller and see if he has two days off in a row this week. I don’t think so.”