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

Thursday, 14. May 2009 4:08

Jesse Cool in her organic garden in Palo Alto. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Cool)

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.

Pasture-raised chutney chicken salad sandwich at the Cool Cafe.

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.

Balsamic beet salad with Pt. Reyes blue cheese.

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?

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Category:"Take Five'' Q&A, Chefs, General, Going Green and Sustainable, Google/Tech/Corporate Cafes, Health/Nutrition, Restaurants | Comments (11) | Author:

Charlie Ayers’ Calafia Cafe Opens

Tuesday, 20. January 2009 5:04

Inside Calafia Cafe & Market A Go Go. (Photo courtesy of Ben Mayorga)

The long-awaited debut restaurant by the former executive chef of Google has opened for business at Palo Alto’s Town & Country Village.

Calafia Cafe & Market A Go Go is the brainchild of Charlie Ayers, one-time private chef to the Grateful Dead. Although the cafe is open, the market  — with its planned salad bar, rotisserie chicken, and pre-cooked meals to reheat at home — won’t open its doors until February.

The eclectic, global menu of the casual eatery emphasizes fresh, healthy, local, and sustainable. You’ll find everything from brown rice sushi ($9) to Crouching Chicken Pizza (Five-spice chicken, tiger sauce, mushrooms, white sesame seeds, and greens; $9), Chinese Chicken Salad ($7.50), Lacquered Beef Short Ribs ($16), and Vegan Sticky Buns with Maple Syrup ($7).

Carafes of house-filtered still or carbonated water are set on the tables. Lumber from a 1910 Pennsylvania barn was reclaimed for the ceiling. A chandelier of 66 recycled milk bottles graces the front dining area. Other custom table lamps are constructed from a found gas can and dairy can; and counters are made from recycled paper put under immense pressure to create a hard, dense surface.

Pizza -- Charlie Ayers' way. (Photo courtesy of Chris Schmauch)

The cafe and bar are open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Happy Hour, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily, will feature select wines, beers, and appetizers at a discount.

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Category:Chefs, Enticing Events, General, Going Green and Sustainable, Google/Tech/Corporate Cafes, Health/Nutrition, Pizza, Restaurants | Comments (5) | Author:

Google’s Culinary Star Power

Sunday, 30. November 2008 12:22

Google's first executive chef. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Ayers)

If you ever had any doubts about the caliber of food those lucky Googlers get to nosh on for free, check out my story in the new December issue of San Francisco Magazine.

Charlie Ayers got the ball rolling in 1999 when he became the first executive chef at the Mountain View headquarters of that search engine giant. The delicious foundation he established helped nurture and lure a host of culinary stars. Now, Ayers is set to open his first restaurant, Calafia Cafe and Market A Go-Go in Palo Alto’s Town & Country Village. Although anticipated to open this month, due to construction delays, it will most likely open in January now.

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Category:Chefs, General, Going Green and Sustainable, Google/Tech/Corporate Cafes, More Food Gal -- In Other Publications, Restaurants | Comment (0) | Author:

Read What Former Google Chef Charlie Ayers Is Up To

Wednesday, 13. August 2008 5:50

Former Google Chef Charlie Ayers. Photo courtesy of Mr. Ayers.

It wasn’t always easy to please his big bosses at Google in Mountain View, says Chef Charlie Ayers, who was hired as employee #53.

After all, back in 1999-2004, those guys working there weren’t exactly big-time foodies. Google co-founder Larry Page had a thing for Subway sandwiches, and for some reason, a vehement dislike of jerky. Even free-range, artisan-made, bison jerky, which Ayers learned about the hard way. 

Ayers once put some out in the free-snacks area, and the engineers gorged themselves on it. But the next day, Ayers found the remainder of the jerky on his desk. “Larry didn’t want me to serve it,” Ayers says. “The only thing he said was, ‘I don’t like it.’ I thought, ‘Okayyyyy….I’ll just figure that one out on my own.”

Then there was the time he thought his bonus check had a mistake in it. He thought there were too many zeroes in it. Ayers’ bonus was tied directly to the number of employees who stayed on campus to eat. So Ayers asked his boss, who looked over the check and said, “This is correct. And if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, there will be plenty more where that came from.”

Ayers wasn’t the only one who was incredulous. His sous chef also thought the bonus check he had received must be wrong. He showed it to Ayers who deadpanned, “No, this is correct. And if you keep doing what you’ve been doing, there will be plenty more where that came from.”

Enjoy more fun with Ayers in my column, “A Girl’s Gotta Eat” in today’s Metro. Read all about his newest project, the eco-friendly Calafia Cafe and Market A Go Go in the Palo Alto Town & Country Village, which is expected to open in November.

(Note: Because the Metro is late in posting the column on its online site, the column also appears at the end of this FoodGal posting, right after the recipe.)

For those who want to turn up the heat while reading, here’s a fiery recipe from Ayers’ new cookbook,
“Food 2.0, Secrets From the Chef Who Fed Google” (DK Publishing).

Google Hot Sauce

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Category:Chefs, General, Going Green and Sustainable, Google/Tech/Corporate Cafes, More Food Gal -- In Other Publications, Recipes (Savory), Restaurants | Comments (10) | Author:

Another Former Google Chef Defecting to Apple

Tuesday, 5. August 2008 14:00

Two months ago, Food Gal reported that Nate Keller, former executive chef at Google’s Mountain View headquarters, had moved to Google’s Bridges cafe near San Francisco’s Embarcadero. But that gig didn’t last long, as he up and quit before he’d even gotten his chef jacket buttoned.

Now, the word is out on his new whereabouts. Keller is heading to Apple in Cupertino, according to sources. He will be joining his former compatriot, John Dickman, who left as global food services director for Google in March to join Apple.

Mmm, me thinks Apple must be sweetening the deal with plenty of stock certificates, and a lifetime supply of iPhones and iPods to lure so much corporate culinary talent. One thing’s for sure, Google’s now going to have to work harder to hold on to its claim of having the gourmet cafeteria with the mostest.

Category:Chefs, General, Google/Tech/Corporate Cafes | Comments (7) | Author: