A Taste of Jia — Google’s Chinese Cafe

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.

It’s why she also added four traditional round tables to the cafe’s dining room, complete with Lazy Susans. Every Thursday, she hosts a “Chef’s Table” in the dining room, where she sits down with nine Googlers to enjoy lunch and to educate them about Chinese food and culture. The lunch, complete with wine, is so popular that you often have to wait months to snag a seat at one.

“I get to meet a real diverse group of people,” she says. “And I get to sit down for a civilized meal once a week. It’s so rewarding because they get it.”

Each day at lunch, seven to eight different Asian dishes are offered, as well as a soup and rice porridge. They might include Thai dishes, as well as Shanghai-style cold, small-plate appetizers.

“We do a lot of braised dishes, ones you don’t normally see at restaurants or wouldn’t know to order if you didn’t speak Chinese,” Olivia says.

On the day I came to experience the “Chef’s Table,” a round table was adorned with chopsticks, real wine glasses and a Lazy-Susan artfully arranged with an array of family-style dishes.

Olivia, seven Google employees and I sat down to enjoy egg flower soup; beef celery soup; white and purple marble potatoes; spicy, crisp Sichuan green beans; steamed organic  bok choy; curry couscous with beans; sesame green bean and carrot salad; and shiitakes with kaofu, a brown, spongy Shanghainese soybean product with an almost meaty texture.

Among my favorite dishes were the tender, juicy Szechuan chicken; the smoky, fragrant duck flavored with five-spice; and a crunchy, sweet and spicy dish of softshell crab and shrimp.

As we turned the Lazy-Susan to fill our bowls and plates, Olivia explained that there is no main course per se, and that all of the dishes are designed to complement the rice.

“Most Asian cultures are bowl-cultures,” she explains. “Rice is the foundation of the meal. Bowls invite us to lift them up to rake the rice into our mouths. As the dishes go around, you choose to take whatever you like. Your experience is yours. When you eat this way, you create your own mouthful.”

As we finished our last sips of a very nice Riesling, along with desserts of mini chocolate coffee brulee tarts, cocoa nib panna cotta, almond cookies and fresh, whole tangerines, it was hard to believe I was eating at a corporate cafeteria. I felt like I was enjoying a stellar Chinese meal with friends at an intimate restaurant, where the rest of the on-the-go, always plugged-in world just faded away. Well, that is, until everyone else had to get up from their chairs to go back to their desks.

Still, they’re the lucky ones. They get to eat like this every single weekday.

More: My Lunch at Facebook Headquarters

More: A Peek at the Cafe at Lucasfilm

And: The Cafe at the 49ers Training Camp

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