Forrest Gingold took another route. He went back to school. After 32 years in Silicon Valley restaurants, Gingold took over the kitchen at Castilleja School in Palo Alto in September 2010. It's been an adjustment.
"I had my first New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day in the house I've lived in for 21 years," Gingold says. "I'm turning into less of a Scrooge" — by which he means grouch — "at Christmastime." It isn't a season of marathon hours, no days off, sore back, cuts and burns. "I had two weeks off this year!"
Not that Gingold has any kind of "poor me" attitude about his restaurant years. He loved the adrenaline rush. But it was hard to commit to social occasions. He made it to his daughters' events, but other plans often got hijacked by crises in the kitchen. Now he is amazed at how a person can put something on a calendar and depend on it being correct.
The day he spoke to a reporter, Gingold consulted the calendar to see why there were no kids at school. "Ah, it's some kind of teacher in-service day."
Most weekdays, he and his staff of six serve 550 meals. Weekly menus are posted online, including soup, grill, entree and dessert items. A recent menu featured celery-root bisque with thyme, baked Mediterranean ziti, barbecued chicken with scalloped potatoes, and cookies.
Castilleja students may not see exact replicas of the chef's signature penne con cavolfiore (pasta quills with cauliflower) or ossobuco di agnello (braised lamb shank), but he has brought much of his restaurant repertoire. And, he says, "Being outside the constraints of an ethnic restaurant has allowed me to branch out quite a lot." One day he served falafel, the next day, turkey meatloaf.
He may have schmoozed with business bigwigs and visiting celebrities in his time, but now "It's about fitting into a school culture. There are a lot more of them than me." Castilleja's being a girls' school doesn't faze Gingold, who has two teenage daughters.
Gingold entered restaurant work at 15-and-a-half, when he lied about his age to get a job as a dishwasher at a downtown Los Gatos institution called the Broken Egg. The cook was only too happy to show Gingold and his friend how to make omelets, and pretty soon the teenagers were the A-team, cooking at the restaurant's peak times: Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Gingold met his wife, Mari, when both worked at the Original Crab House in San Jose. She was the hostess and he was cooking, while slogging through community college. That was when he started to think seriously about making food his life.
He dropped college and went to the California Culinary Academy, worked a couple of years at Scott's in San Jose, and then spent most of his career at La Pastaia. In the early 1990s, the restaurant moved to downtown San Jose's newly restored De Anza Hotel. At one time, La Pastaia also had outlets in Palo Alto and Campbell.
Gingold does miss the intensity: "I miss the line on a busy night, working as part of a well-oiled machine under pressure." La Pastaia got slammed during Sharks season, by visiting hockey teams as well as fans. His Castilleja team gets glimpses of that adrenaline rush at events and parties. "But it's a controlled environment. I know exactly how many people are coming, and they're the same people every day."
Gingold has gone in the opposite direction from Charlie Ayers, who went from being personal chef for the Grateful Dead to feeding Google employees, to opening his own restaurant and market, Calafia, in Palo Alto. But whether the cooking is done for the public or a private audience, Gingold concludes, "A lot is the same whether you're cooking in a convent or a greasy spoon."