Jesse Cool: A Local Pioneer in Sustainable Food
By Carolyn Jung
Jesse Cool has often been labeled the “Alice Waters of the South Bay’’ for her tireless commitment over the past four decades to local, organic and sustainable food that mirrors the efforts of her more prominent Berkeley counterpart who started landmark Chez Panisse restaurant.
But in many ways, it would be just as apt to brand Waters the “Jesse Cool of the East Bay,’’ as the two pioneering women started their crusades simultaneously in the 1970s. They wanted to change the way we cook, eat and raise our food at a time when those notions had barely taken root in our collective consciousness.
These days, it’s practically impossible to turn around without spying a new farm-to-table restaurant opening up or yet another celebrated chef making headlines for foraging wild edibles off the beaten path. But it wasn’t always this way. It may be hard to remember that organic vegetables once were nonexistent in supermarkets, and diners once turned up their noses at such ingredients, thinking them unclean and uncouth.
But Cool remembers. The chef-proprietor of Flea Street in Menlo Park, and two Cool Cafés in Menlo Park and the Cantor Art Center at Stanford University, didn’t set out to help spur a culinary revolution. She grew up in a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, where her mother grew organic vegetables at home; her father was a baker, butcher and grocery store owner; and her uncle owned a slaughterhouse. Cool just wanted to eat the way she had grown up: fresh food that had no additives, and was raised by neighboring family farmers and ranchers. She thought everyone else deserved that, as well.
“I was a hippie chick,’’ Cool says. “I didn’t start out touting ‘organic and local.’ What was more important was that there was nothing artificial in any ingredients used in our cooking because the body doesn’t know what to do with artificial anything—like growth hormones, chemical coloring and antibiotics. If you’re eating real food that has nothing added to it, that is the true definition of organic and local. It’s as simple as that.’’
A mother of two grown sons and grandmother of two, Cool continues to fight the fight and walk the talk with that same flower-power spirit, including the trademark fuchsia streak she’s sported in her hair for more than 30 years.
Her First Restaurant
Her idealism about food as a powerful agent of change is not happenstance. She’s lived it. As a single mom on welfare attending college in Philadelphia, Cool traded home-cooked meals for child-care services. After moving out to the Bay Area with a friend she met while hitchhiking, Cool tried unsuccessfully to make a living by embroidering quilts and jean jackets, only to finally take a job as a waitress at the Good Earth natural foods restaurant in Palo Alto to make ends meet.
It was there that she met Bob Cool, whom she would later marry and then divorce, but not before the two of them opened the cozy Late for the Train in Menlo Park in 1976, which became known far and wide for its signature biscuits and commitment to local produce. Six years later, she opened Flea Street, turning away purveyors who tried to sell her jarred goods that had a litany of unnecessary ingredients, and vowing to buy only traditionally raised meat even if she had to drive to the ranches to pick it up, herself. These days, Flea Street still packs in the crowds for fresh-caught sardines from Half Moon Bay, meltingly tender short ribs from grass-fed cattle raised in Marin and house-made charcuterie that makes use of locally raised animals, from head to tail.
“Feeding others is the way to comfort, love and surviving,’’ Cool says. “When times got tough, I always fell back on cooking for others. When my sons were growing up, I would tell them that if the world was falling apart, that if they just found a chicken and some seeds, they would be all right.’’
It’s hard to argue that point, especially when you visit the wonderland that’s the garden at her Palo Alto home. Fruit trees abound, including Mission fig, Blenheim apricot, Gravenstein apple and Meyer lemon. In 12 raised beds are nestled beets, turnips, carrots, radishes, celery root, snap peas, Romanesco broccoli, fingerling potatoes, Purple Peruvian potatoes, Butternut squash, and Pineapple sage. It’s all organic, of course. All of it grown from seed, too.
Oftentimes, the harvest from her garden provides the “Taste of the Season’’ amuse bouche (hors d’oeuvre) that welcomes diners at Flea Street. The tiny green beans, Icicle radishes and Yellow Fin potatoes are presented simply and unadorned so that diners can better appreciate the true taste of food grown locally and organically.
Three beehives in Cool’s yard provide honey used in the restaurant’s sauces and ice creams, as well as the honeycomb that adorns the restaurant’s cheese plate. Hens lay eggs with pert, deep orange yolks that get poached gently and served at the restaurant.
The Stanford Connection
It was those lively chickens that led her to forge a deeper relationship with nearby Stanford University, whose land abuts her property. Fifteen years ago, a neighbor complained about all the clucking, prompting Stanford to send its assistant to the president to investigate. Rather than being alarmed by what he found, he was amazed. As a result, Stanford granted Cool the right to cultivate a swath of its open space that ended up practically doubling the size of her backyard, as long as no permanent structure is ever built on it. The university also invited her to be a visiting scholar. In return, she hired Drew Harwell, former manager of the Stanford Community Farm, where faculty and students manage organic plots, to help with her garden.
Her yard is more than just a place of lush beauty. It’s also one of learning. For the past eight years, it has served as a living classroom for the Stanford Teacher Education Program. Student teachers regularly spend the day there to gain insight about how gardening and cooking fit into an elementary school curriculum to teach the cycle of life—from seed to table and back again.
Three years ago, Cool also worked with Stanford Hospital to launch an innovative, all-organic, local, sustainable menu option for inpatients. Centered around scratch-made gourmet soups, the “Farm Fresh’’ menu was available for about a year to patients before unforeseen logistics put the program on hold for the time being.
Ken Dickerson, executive director of the Ecological Farming Association in Soquel, which advocates for farms and the environment, counts Cool as one of his heroes. He still remembers his first meal at Late for the Train, before he even met Cool, who now serves on his organization’s board. It was the first time he had seen a menu that listed where its eggs and vegetables came from.
“Jesse has a flair for educating people in a very seductive way with their palate,’’ he says. “It’s not just information. It’s a sensory experience. She’s been a real agent of change for awareness.’’
Cool couldn’t be more thrilled that the farm-to-table philosophy has grown so prevalent nationwide. She never imagined the day that organics would become industrialized to the point of being sold in Walmart stores. She doesn’t necessarily consider that development a negative, either, because it has prompted consumers to weigh their food-buying decisions more carefully.
Now, Cool is turning her attention to the rest of the world. Last year, she journeyed to Rwanda with Women for Women, an international organization that helps women in war-torn countries become more economically self-sufficient. In February 2013, she’ll head to Congo with 11th Hour Project, which provides healthcare and socioeconomic support to needy countries. On each such trip, she totes along hundreds of seed packets and a suitcase full of tongs, her favorite utensil, to give to women she meets and cooks with along the way.
“I hope to give back and witness other women finding the help and direction I found when I had little,’’ she says. “I want to share the inspiration that through cooking, you can survive.’’
Carolyn Jung is a James Beard Award–winning food writer based in Silicon Valley. Her work appears in local and national publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Food Arts, Wine Spectator and Via magazine. She is also the creator of the popular, award-winning blog, www.FoodGal.com.