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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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Category:Chefs, General, Going Green and Sustainable, Google/Tech/Corporate Cafes, Restaurants | Comments (20) | Author:

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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Category:Chefs, General, Going Green and Sustainable, Google/Tech/Corporate Cafes, Restaurants | Comments (63) | Author:

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: