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Take Five with Mia Messier, Head Chef for Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem” Show

Thursday, 22. March 2012 5:38

Crew members touch up the stage for Cirque du Soleil's "Totem'' in San Jose.

Mia Messier was a hotel and restaurant chef in Montreal when she decided to run away with the circus.

Not just any circus, but the worldwide phenomenon known as Cirque du Soleil.

Who can blame her?

Now a veteran of nine years with the Montreal-based entertainment company, Messier has traveled with various Cirque shows through more than 25 countries for anywhere from six weeks to a year and a half at a time.

It’s her job to feed the hungry troupe of 52 performers from 20 countries, along with 68 other crew members, while they’re on the road.

Recently, I had a chance to visit her cafe at Cirque’s “Totem” show, now playing in San Jose through April 15.

The fanciful costumes are all hand-made.

Would you believe this got its start as a piece of white fabric?

Light-weight and stretchy.

A mold is made of each performer's head to create these intricate head-pieces.

I also got a quick peek backstage that afternoon with Cirque publicist Francis Jalbert, as crews were touching up the 2,700-pound turtle carapace that is the centerpiece of this particular show. Behind it, a hydraulic stage is flanked by what look like soaring, solid wood reeds. But would you believe they’re actually inflatable, so as to make transporting easier?

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Chowing Down at the 49ers Training Camp Cafe

Wednesday, 31. August 2011 5:25

This big guy marks the spot for the 49ers training camp facility.

In Santa Clara, there is a special café that’s open 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Seven days a week. Year-round. And it feeds a rather burly crowd with extremely voracious appetites.

Welcome to the café at the San Francisco 49ers training camp, located appropriately enough at 4949 Centennial Blvd.

The nearly two-year-old café, operated by Bon Appetit Management Company, serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night snacks for free to the football players, staff and sports media. It is not open to the public. But recently, I was invited by team management to take a tour and to enjoy lunch here.

Talk about a hungry crowd; it’s not uncommon for Chef Chad McWilliams to go through 30 pounds of egg whites and 200 pounds of chicken a day here, as he serves up to 250 people at a time.

Bacon-wrapped filet with Burgundy wine balsamic reduction. Oh, and a few crunchy tater tots.

That includes having at the ready 75 protein smoothies (a frothy blend of egg whites, Greek yogurt, honey and fresh berries) when the players come huffing and puffing off the training field. Or stocking the café late at night with plenty of chicken skewers, cold cuts, quesadillas and trail mix when there are evening meetings or workouts.

Practicing after lunch.

The players usually get two hours to eat, then digest, before hitting the field again.

Unlike his previous stint as a chef at eBay, where he cooked a lot of Thai and Indian cuisine, McWilliams’ sticks to more basic meat-and-potatoes fare here, along with plenty of Chinese and Mexican favorites.

“They like comfort food,’’ he says with a smile. “I remember trying out Cornish game hens here once, and that didn’t go over so well. The guys much prefer chicken breasts.’’

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Category:Chefs, Enticing Events, General, Google/Tech/Corporate Cafes, Health/Nutrition, Restaurants | Comments (14) | Author:

Lunch at Lucasfilm in San Francisco

Tuesday, 28. September 2010 5:28

In the immortal words of Yoda, "Eat we must, first.''

Last week, I dined with Yoda, ET and a Storm Trooper.

They and other iconic characters from mega-director George Lucas’ films were on hand in the form of models, statues and bobble heads when I was lucky enough to step foot inside the Lucasfilm Letterman Digital Arts Center in the magnificent Presidio in San Francisco to enjoy an al fresco lunch.

I say, fortunate, because the sprawling center — home to the special effects powerhouse, Industrial Light & Magic, and the video game producer, LucasArts — is not open for public tours.

Oh, sure, you can snap photos of the Yoda fountain at the entrance, and walk inside the lobby to see a life-size Darth Vader. But that’s as far as you can get unless you get an invitation to the Friday “Friends & Family” day each week. Yup, you have to know someone who works there to get an “in.”

That’s how I managed to get a peek inside last Friday, thanks to my friend Tami of the stylish blog, Fête à Fête, and her fiance, Gio, who is a model builder for Lucasfilm. How cool a job is that? Gio took time out from his busy schedule to show me around.

A model used in the immortal scene in "ET.''

Like many Silicon Valley tech campuses, Lucasfilm has a gourmet cafe on site. But hands down, this one has got to have the most breathtaking view around. Replete with heavy-duty wood chairs and tables on open-air terraces, the Lucasfilm cafe is surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows. On one side looms the landmark Golden Gate Bridge; on the other, the grand ornate dome of the Palace of Fine Arts that looks so enormous and near, you’d swear it must be a painting. Oh, but it’s not.

Serving up fresh baked pizzas at Lucasfilms cafe.

The roaring pizza oven.

A stir-fry made to order.

While Silicon Valley tech employees often get the perk of subsidized or free meals (Yes, Google, I’m talkin’ about you), at Lucasfilm, employees pay full price. But the quality is so high, not many seem to mind.

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A Taste of Jia — Google’s Chinese Cafe

Tuesday, 1. June 2010 5:25

It’s some of the best tasting Chinese food around, made with organic vegetables, organic soy sauce and sustainable seafood. It’s available in unlimited quantities. And it’s all free.

But you can’t eat it — unless you work at Google’s Mountain View campus or know someone there who will invite you in as their guest.

That’s how the Food Gal got into Jia, the authentic Chinese cafe at Google, run by Executive Chef Olivia Wu.

Olivia and I go way back, to the days when she was a food writer at the San Francisco Chronicle and I was one at the San Jose Mercury News.

Two and a half years ago, with the newspaper industry already in dire straits, Olivia chucked her pen and notepad to put on a gleaming white chef’s coat instead at one of Google’s 16 campus cafes.

It wasn’t so far-fetched. After all, she’d already been a caterer and private chef, as well as mom to a son who is a cook at the well-regarded Publican in Chicago.

If you know anything about Olivia, you know she’s a stickler for authenticity and a perfectionist. I knew not to come to Jia, which means “family” and “home,” expecting chow mein and egg rolls.

Instead, what you’ll get is not Americanized, oily, gloppy Chinese food, but traditional dishes done up with primo ingredients, including an 11-grain rice blend made to her specification by Koda Farms. Sure, there’s a half dozen standard American dishes and sandwiches available at her cafe, but that’s not why employees trek from other campus buildings to take the time to eat here. It’s for Chinese food served the Chinese way.

A three-wok station complete with cascading water was installed in the kitchen. The dining room was recently redone with a motif of colorful brush-stroke carps and decorative paper lanterns.  It also was reconfigured with more electrical outlets so that each table can accommodate an induction burner on days when Olivia offers the popular “hot pot” dining, where diners cook their food together in a bubbling pot of broth in the center of the table.

It’s one of her favorite ways to eat because it naturally brings people together to get to know one another better — not always an easy task in a large corporation.

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Inside the Cafe at Facebook Headquarters

Thursday, 27. August 2009 5:15

Employees of Facebook eat THIS for lunch.

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.

Facebook's ''culinary overlord.''

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.

A tapa of rustic bread drizzled with dark chocolate, olive oil, and sea salt.

Marinated Idiazabal cheese with rosemary.

Squash blossoms for Castilian-style zucchini with eggplant and tomatoes.

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.”

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