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The faces behind our food

Jesse Cool hosts special series designed to give new meaning to fresh and local

What do you know about the origin of the chicken you ate for dinner? Can you name the farmer who grew your salad? Can you relay the history of your favorite summer fruit?

Longtime Midpeninsula Chef Jesse Cool believes knowing the people and the stories behind a meal can lead to a richer, deeper appreciation of food. Her belief is the motivation for a series of monthly dinners at Flea St. Café in Menlo Park.

Cool, the founder and overseeing chef of Flea St. Café, jZcool Eatery & Catering and the Cool Cafe at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, has been a leader in the march toward organic, sustainable practices for 33 years.

Together with her staff she has crafted pairings of wine, food and people to introduce diners to some of the region's most distinctive food producers.

"Stories are part of the meal," said David Mas Masumoto, who with his wife, Marcy, and daughter, Nikiko, were the featured guests for the inaugural dinner, Feb. 24. The series of special dinners runs monthly through July.

Besides growing peaches and raisin grapes on the family farm near Fresno, Masumoto has written four books. His mid-1990s book, "Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons on My Family Farm," provided a basis for February's dinner. Each of five courses paid homage to a special Matsumoto-farmed peach.

"Why peaches in winter?" queried Cool, raising what seemed like an obvious question as she introduced the evening's menu.

"I want to give a new definition to what it means to be fresh and local. Fresh food really means you use each fruit or vegetable at its peak. You must think like your grandmother! She would dry, can, freeze or make preserves with local things in season. They taste much better than anything shipped from afar and can have the benefit of providing the farmer with year-round income.

"That's organic eating!" Cool declared — provided the fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables one starts with are grown naturally, without pesticides, chemical fertilizers or other artificial enhancements. Zip-lock bags of frozen peaches, dried peaches and homemade chutney that would find their way into the evening's meal were to Cool "way better than roses."

The thread of her remarks was easily spun forward by the Masumotos. Marcy spoke about their switch to organic methods.

"We live on our farm," she said. "We were raising our children there. We wanted a safe environment for all of us. We couldn't risk sending our toddlers outside to play among trees dusted with pesticides or puddles laced with chemical residue." It was a message from the heart.

Both David and Marcy grew up on farms; both went to college and could easily have chosen a different life. But together they decided to bring what they had learned elsewhere back to the farm.

Besides being a livelihood, for them the farm is a place to experience the seasons, awaken the senses. David and Nikiko alternated reading from a poem about the subtle breezes that enliven even a Fresno summer. The reading was framed by their ringing tiny bells, called furin in Japanese, that catch the breeze with paper tails, so one can "see the wind."

Not a single clink of silverware could be heard as Nikiko and her father read from letters they had exchanged while she was a student at University of California, Berkeley. Their voices made guests feel the emotional weight of her debate (which had once been his debate) about whether to choose the farming life in a small, rural town outside Fresno (what the Masumotos call "the other California") or any of the other lives an educated person might choose. Ultimately Nikiko will be taking over the farm.

Since the evening's menu was built around peaches, David read the following from Epitaph for a Peach:

"Sun Crest is one of the last remaining truly juicy peaches. When you wash that treasure under a stream of cooling water, your fingertips instinctively search for the gushy side of the fruit. Your mouth waters in anticipation.

"You lean over the sink to make sure you don't drip on yourself. Then you sink your teeth into the flesh, and the juice trickles down your cheeks and dangles on your chin.

"This is a real bite, a primal act, a magical sensory celebration announcing that summer has arrived."

A winter storm blew around the outside corners of the dining room, but with this introduction, the 60 diners in attendance at Flea St. Café were primed for a taste of summer, and summer lusciousness peeked through each of the evening's courses.

A detailed description of the courses gives both the flavor and the essence of what the "food movement" is about:

Appetizers began with Boccolone salumi, Nikiko's dried Sun Crest peaches (sliced paper-thin yet still rosy) and radishes.

Next came a mini Dungeness crab cocktail, with avocado and spiced Elberta peaches. The avocado overshadowed the peach in this combination, but a melt-in-your-mouth, bite-sized turnover with Grande nectarine and Harley Farms goat cheese tucked inside was a perfect melding of flavors and textures. Each course was paired with wine. Appetizers were served with a Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare 2006.

The first course featured Sun Crest peach soup, a subtle mix of frozen peaches whirled with organic coconut milk, slow-cooked onions and thyme — the most original use of peaches on the evening's menu. The soup came with a dollop of "Ring of Fire" paprika cream and a baguette slice spread with Point Reyes blue cheese. Since fruit soups are typically served cold, this presentation — served warm — surprised the senses in the subtle blend of flavors as well as temperature. Wine chosen for the first course was a Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2006: a crisp companion to the soup.

The second course consisted of chicory salad with tiny Elberta peach fritters and matching mounds of braised, pasture-raised pork. Peach fritters were an original winter salad choice, nicely sized. The braised pork stole the show just a little. Navarro Pinot Noir "Methode a' L'Ancienne" 2005 was the fragrant, full-bodied wine pairing for this course.

The evening's entree featured Marin Sun Farm organic grass-fed filet of beef glazed almost imperceptibly with rosemary, garlic, olive oil and served with a spoonful of Marcy's home-made peach chutney. The chutney was like a little puddle of gold on the plate and on the palate. (Marcy's canned peaches, preserves and chutney are not sold commercially, but made at home at the height of peach season. Her gift was one more way of putting a person's face behind the food.)

Rounding out the plate were smoky scalloped potatoes and a medley of lightly steamed vegetables. With the exception of the chutney, the other elements of this plate were not complicated. The beauty of the presentation was in a light touch applied to high quality, flavorful meat and potatoes — spice on the beef, but not too much; cheese and butter but not to the point of masking thin slices of potato. A Kathryn Kennedy "Lateral" 2004 Bordeaux blend was lush and not over-powering.

For vegetarians there were creative substitutions: crispy tempeh for crab, smoked tofu for Boccolone salumi and seitan for beef.

Dessert plates were a combination of small, memorable bites: Meyer lemon tartlets with a miniature square of spiced Alberta peach on top; chocolate pudding topped with peach whipped cream, Grande nectarine profiteroles and an ambrosial chocolate truffle with a smidgen of Sun Crest peach at its center. Served with Roshambo, Zinfandel Late Harvest "Drink Me 2" 2005, the meal could not have concluded more sweetly.

As the evening drew to a close, Cool introduced the kitchen staff of 15 — also important faces behind the food. These are the people who will help prepare the next five Meet the Faces Behind the Food dinners.

The Masumotos lingered, going from table to table, talking with diners, exchanging stories. As David said early in the evening, "I want to know the faces of the people who eat the peaches."

MORE FACES, MORE FOOD . . .

Jesse Cool's monthly series continues on March 23, with special guests Dru Rivers and Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm. The evening's theme: A Taste of Springtime.

On April 27, Paul Willis of Niman Ranch will be the guest of honor, talking on: "Local or national: supporting the best products and politics of small family ranches."

On May 25, Flea St. Café welcomes David Evans of Marin Sun Farm, for an evening devoted to "Local Production from a farm that has it all."

Monterey Bay Aquarium, representatives and a local fisherman will attend the June 29 dinner: "How we choose our seafood — wild, local, farm-raised."

The series concludes July 27 with Mark Pastore and friends for an evening of Boccalone: the traditional production of fine salumi, a marriage of pork, salt, spice and time.

Each dinner begins at 5:30 p.m. with a reception and presentation by the featured guest. Event dinners are $75 per person, with an optional wine pairing for $30, plus tax and service charge. Reservations are required. Call Gary Smith at 650-854-1226 or e-mail: fleastcafe@cooleatz.com.

Flea St. Café

3607 Alameda de las Pulgas

Menlo Park, CA 94025

650-854-1226

More information available on the Web at: http://www.cooleatz.com/flea-st-cafe .

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