People: Jesse Cool: falling in love with food

Publication Date: Wednesday Aug 12, 1998

People: Jesse Cool: falling in love with food

Jesse Cool sits in her restaurant, Flea Street Cafe, talking of tomatoes and other wonders of the garden. She explains the nuances of why tomatoes just now are good enough to serve to guests, even though tomato season started in June. "Food is not an intellectual thing," she says. "It's a passion. It's the colors; it's the aromas; it's the unusual produce."

Cool is so passionate about food, she has been able to devote two of her three cookbooks to single subjects: onions and tomatoes.

In "Tomatoes," she writes how when she was growing up in a small Pennsylvania town, a summer highlight was sitting on her backyard fence, saltshaker in hand, while her father, a prolific gardener who swore off pesticides and chemical fertilizers, picked the first ripe red tomato.

Passions for cooking and food, she says, are not genetic but learned. Her teachers were her father--who not only gardened but owned a grocery store--her Italian mother and her grandmother, all accomplished cooks. "I watched (my father) pull things together from different parts of the store, and he would always make it taste good."

Her father's shunning of anything chemical is where she traces her passion for what she calls "pure" food.

A self-described hippie, Cool in her early 20s was a single mother. She persuaded a welfare office to support her while she earned a degree in speech and language from Temple University in Philadelphia.

In 1968, she hitchhiked across the country with her 4-year-old son, Josh, and caught a ride with a man in a Volkswagen van. They arrived in Palo Alto, and she went to work as an embroiderer at the Artifactory (an artists' cooperative, which recently closed on Hamilton Avenue).

She waited tables at The Good Earth restaurant, where she met her future husband, Bob Cool. The couple, with a third partner, opened their Late for the Train restaurant in 1976, across from Menlo Park's Caltrain station. It moved to its present location on Middlefield Road near Willow Road in 1987.

"We feel a responsibility, through the restaurant, to just work with the purest food. I don't trust artificial chemicals," she said. "Some people could say it's fanatic. I think it's protective."

At first, they had a hard time finding organic produce. "It used to be the only way I could get organics was to go to the Palo Alto farmers' market," she said. The farmers would often let her come early to pick out the choicest produce.

In 1982, the Cools, who are now divorced, opened Flea Street Cafe on Alameda de las Pulgas in Menlo Park. Jesse now owns Flea Street and Bob owns Late for the Train.

At times, especially in the slow summer months, she has thought her restaurant wouldn't make it. Several years ago, sure she was on the verge of bankruptcy, she drafted a goodbye letter to the community only to pull through once again. Today, business is brisk and Flea Street is a destination restaurant.

She proudly points out that, unlike trendy restaurants, which often lose chefs and staffs as trends change, Flea Street has kept many of its waiters and other staff for more than a decade.

Cool, 49, is in the Flea Street kitchen every evening. "I'm picky," she admits. "I plan the menus with (the chef), I taste everything every night."

For the menus, she looks to the seasons, serving fruits and vegetables when they are most fresh.

She often looks to an old standby for recipe ideas. "I love the old 'Joy of Cooking.' It's my bible."

From this she culls recipes for Sunday brunch delights like strudels, fritters and pancakes. You'll see old-fashioned items like these on the menu, but "we'll twist it," she said. For example, to a traditional scalloped potato recipe she'll add the surprising flavor of a smoked cheese.

She traces her old-fashioned tastes back to her youth.

"I learned to love food as part of community, celebration and conversation," she said.

The restaurant, from its pink-and-green floral wallpaper to the whimsical china plates with vegetable patterns, is a direct expression of Cool's down-home personality.

Cool is devoted to her family--sons Josh, now 28, and Jonah, 16--and her restaurant "family." She is active in the community, taking part in fund-raisers and teaching cooking classes to families through Second Harvest Food Bank.

She finds refuge in her College Terrace cottage, where she has six hens that produce fresh eggs and a soon-to-be-planted garden.

It's a relatively modest lifestyle, not what one might expect of a nationally known chef, organic food expert and author of three books (with a fourth, on organic kitchens, on the way). At cooking demonstrations for Bon Appetit and other national magazines, she often shares the spotlight with celebrity chefs like Chez Panisse's Alice Waters. Cool also writes for more than a half dozen fitness and health magazines.

She sums up her motivation for all of these activities simply, with a glint of humor. "I actually believe I can change the world."

--Elizabeth Lorenz 

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