At Flea St. Cafe in Menlo Park, the customer always comes last.
It sounds counterintuitive — even unappealing — but when longtime owner Jesse Ziff Cool explains it, it makes sense. Since she first opened Flea St. Cafe more than 30 years ago, her first allegiance has been to the people serving the customers and by extension, the people growing and raising the food on their plates.
"If you take care of the soil and the environment and the water and the way the farmers, the fishermen and the ranchers are treated and then you take care of the dishwashers and you take care of all the people all the way through, then the customer will get taken care of," she said in a recent interview at the restaurant.
The philosophy embodies what Cool has always been about: high-quality food made from clean (chemical-free), organic ingredients, with a touch of political activism and social justice on the side. The longtime local chef and restaurant owner was championing farm-to-table cuisine and the slow-food movement on the Peninsula before those terms even existed.
Arguably, it's in Cool's blood. She grew up in a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania, where her father, an Orthodox Jew, owned a grocery store. He used local ingredients at a bakery he opened, to make ice cream from scratch and to cook for the family (as well as his staff). Her uncle owned a local meat-processing plant, which Cool said exposed her to whole-animal eating -- cutting down on food waste by using every part of an animal.
Food carried her through raising her child as a single mother on welfare (she cooked natural foods for lunch for a private Quaker preschool in Pennsylvania in exchange for her son's tuition). And when she arrived in Palo Alto in the 1970s in a Volkswagen bus she painted with rainbows, she became one of the first waitresses at the health-conscious Good Earth restaurant on University Avenue.
In 1976, when she opened Late for the Train in Menlo Park with her then-husband Bob Cool, the premise was "food that had no artificial anything in it that was made by hand and (with) love," she said. The restaurant became a community fixture until its closure in 2003.
Cool went on to open four more restaurants under the same belief: Flea St. (on Alameda de las Pulgas, which translate to Avenue of the Fleas) in 1980, the now-shuttered jZ Cool in downtown Menlo Park in 1999, Cool Cafe at Stanford University's Cantor Art Center in 2000 and a second cafe at the Menlo Business Park seven years ago.
At Flea St., the kitchen staff draw inspiration from local farms, ranchers, fisherman, Cool's own gardens and a row of unlikely planting beds in the restaurant's back parking lot, brimming this spring with herbs like Thai basil, cilantro and peppermint celery. They follow a menu but are constantly adjusting dishes based on what produce, meats or seafood are available.
"We don't look for the perfect beauty; we look for the perfect taste and the way it's grown," Cool said. "We keep food simple."
Over the years, Cool has worked to spread her dogma beyond the kitchen. For 11 years, she has taught a cooking curriculum class for the Stanford Teaching Education Program (STEP) and nine years ago spearheaded an effort to revamp the food Stanford Hospital serves its employees (goodbye, mystery meat; hello grass-fed burgers and steamed local beets). She's taught young children at the Boys & Girls Club in East Palo Alto how to make her signature biscuits and hosted local farms for special dinners at the restaurant. She's been a prolific writer, with newspaper columns, magazines articles and seven cookbooks -- including one solely about tomatoes -- under her belt.
Today, Cool is still unapologetically political, with a penchant for social justice. She recently designated Flea St. Cafe as a sanctuary restaurant in support of her immigrant employees. A sign posted outside the restaurant's front door, next to the menu of the day, reads: "We welcome everyone at our tables and in our kitchen." She's also taking a newly hired young female chef to a conference this year, demonstrating how seriously she takes her role as a female mentor in a male-dominated industry.
Flea St. is also entering a new chapter, with a new executive chef heading the kitchen: Charlie Parker, a 30-something Menlo Park native who grew up blocks from the restaurant, often dining there with his parents. He went on to cook at esteemed restaurants like Manresa in Los Gatos, the Village Pub in Woodside, the now-closed Ubuntu in Napa and famed Noma in Copenhagen before ending up at Flea St. six months ago.
Read on for excerpts from an interview with Jesse Ziff Cool.
How novel was the concept of clean, organic food when you opened Late for the Train?
It was so not trendy. It was so not heard of. People called us 'lunatic fringe.' People still smoked in restaurants then. I was 27 years old, a hippie in a long dress with hair to here, embroidering all the chefs' hats. The vendors would come in and say, 'Can I talk to the owner?' ... I would sit these guys down (and) say, 'I need to know the ingredients in your food.' They would just stare at me. I'd say, 'It's OK; go find out and come back.' And I was cooking seasonally because I knew that food that wasn't seasonal had preservatives and chemicals in it. It was the opposite of trendy. I couldn't even put organic on the menu. We would be ridiculed.
Was that concept something you had to educate diners about?
Because the food was good, people came. Because Palo Alto has always been, in my opinion, a think tank, a place of thoughtfulness, of resilience and resource and energy, a lot of people got it. They started liking it because it was alternative and real and genuine. But we were the opposite of mainstream. Everyone else was going in another direction; I was following the farmers. Because that's what I was taught.
When I realized I was going to start using food as a medium to survive, to make a living, for me, the respectful, responsible thing to do was what I was taught, which was no artificial anything. How could I possibly have a dishwasher or a cook washing a lot of potatoes that might have pesticides in them and (would) get hurt later? How could I possibly feed someone something that maybe later they would find was harmful?
Now it's pretty normal for restaurants to source many of their ingredients from local farms. How hard was it to do it at that time?
There was nothing. People thought we were vegetarian, too, because I wouldn't serve meat because I couldn't find it without hormones until Niman Ranch started producing 15 years into it. I wouldn't buy fish unless I knew it wasn't treated with lye or unless we knew that people in Vietnam or other parts of the world were not being hurt by producing our food big and cheap. I would go to the farmers market. I've been going to the (downtown) Palo Alto farmers market since it was open. ... They are my teachers. Chefs have never been my teachers. Gardeners and farmers have taught me everything.
What has it been like to watch the evolution of the farm-to-table and slow food movements -- from when you were called "lunatic fringe" to now, when it's expected and even trendy?
There were no words like that. There was the word organic but ... there wasn't even the word sustainable. I find it really exciting and respectful that this next generation of cooks for quite a while now -- at the beginning, it was really hard. They would say they understood it when they came to our kitchens but they didn't. Now, these kids are light years ahead. They get it. The new definition of food is genuinely connected to where it comes from. I'm glad I'm still alive to see it.
Can you tell me about your relationship with Stanford University?
I have two. I've worked at Stanford Hospital for nine years and Stanford University for 11 years. (The Stanford Teaching Education Program class) — it's curriculum from the garden to the kitchen with 10 ingredients, no recipes. Four times a year, master's of education from the STEP program come to my house. They learn gardening and how to grow food and the connection of food to math, history, science, culture and wellbeing ... and then we harvest whatever's out there. Plus, we will make lunch. They come into the kitchen with me with whatever we can harvest and we use olive oil -- fat; vinegar -- acid; salt, pepper, sugar, herbs and spices. That's it.
They build curriculum for math, science, history, culture and wellbeing for elementary school kids. The only thing we buy at the store is cheese, onions — if they're not growing — and pasta. They bring everything in from the garden and they make one raw dish and one cooked dish with seven ingredients and no recipe.
And your work at the hospital?
It was ahead of its time -- connecting food and hospital food to wellbeing in 2008, 2009, it wasn't happening. It only started about four years ago, when they realized beds are always going to be full ... a lot of people in those beds are (there because of) food-related illnesses.
It's the same philosophy -- at the hospital, it's the patient comes last, which of course sends any CEO's face white. If you take care of the staff and they know that you care about them and they know they're getting a grass-fed burger or they're beginning to cook again, they're going to take care of people who aren't healthy. And it worked. We cut the waste, we started buying better ingredients, decreasing the amount of meat ... food costs went down 10 percent.
Recently you declared Flea St. Cafe a sanctuary restaurant. Why did you want to do that?
I think we've always stood for human rights. You don't poison people with food. That means, how dare we want cheap, big food ... and possibly have people breathing or touching or around something that hurts them so that we can have big, inexpensive plates of food? It's wrong.
When the sanctuary restaurant came up, it was -- these people are my family. They were scared. ... I just wanted them to know that this is a place that respected them and honored them, paid them better than anywhere else would. I need them and they need me. We talked about, what if some people didn't want to eat here anymore? I said, 'It's OK.'
One doesn't typically think of a chef or restaurant owner as an activist. What role should a restaurant play in the realms of politics, activism, social justice?
I think any human being in business who doesn't stand up for what they think is right is not really -- this makes me want to cry, quite truthfully -- honoring their place in the community. ... I know that if people don't speak their truth when they think there's injustice, then that's not OK. If it's that I'm not willing to do that because of money, it's just not who I am.
What has your experience been as a female chef in what is still a very male-dominated industry?
Being a woman was really hard. I was not respected. But a woman using organic food with no classic training ... (there was) a lot of disrespect. I had to learn how to be strong and not just a sweet little hippie chick. I had to learn how to be in charge and trust my values. It took me, I'd say, 35 years to do that. It's just settling in that it's OK, as a woman I can say 'my way, not your way.'
As far as being a mother, now that my children are grown and they're awesome, I feel like I did it but most of my career I did not feel like I was a good enough restaurant owner-chef or a good enough mother. ... Those of us who are like Joyce Goldstein (Bay Area chef and founder of the California Street Cooking School in San Francisco), Odessa Piper (founder of farm-to-table restaurant L'Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin) — there are some wonderful women who have come up through the ranks. I think all of us would say that because we were loving, good, strong people, we were able to do it.
What is your regular cooking routine at home?
I eat a lot of soup. I eat here (at Flea St.) one or two nights a week. I will do a lot of fresh vegetable soups with a little bit of meat. I have chickens, so I love having egg sandwiches or a piece of really good toast with a little bit of meat on it and an egg and avocado. ... I indulge. I'm somebody who loves chips. What are my downfalls? I love salt.
What's your guilty pleasure?
I love cheese. I call cheese my other boyfriend. ... I'm not an ice cream person. I'll take a piece of fresh ricotta, olallieberry jam from Pescadero and finishing salt on toast. To me, that's way better than ice cream.
Tell me about Flea St.'s new executive chef, Charlie Parker. Is he your successor?
I hope so. He's the right person. I say he started 20 years ago going on six months. He says, 'I remember your spinach salad.' He is one of the finest chefs, one of the best palates. He teaches me; he pushes my limits. He brings new but respects the old. He has a deep connection to where food comes from and he's a tough chef, but fabulously funny in the kitchen. He respects me and what's gone on here. That is a project, to figure out how to take a 36-year-old restaurant and keep it going.
Butter or olive oil? Olive oil.
Wine or cocktails? Cocktails.
Spring, summer, fall or winter? Fall.
Hard or soft boiled egg? Soft.
Coffee or tea? Coffee.
Julia Child or Alice Waters? Julia Child.
Windy Hill or the Dish? Windy Hill.
Describe your cooking philosophy in one word. Real.