Jesse Cool – Menlo Park’s food matriarch
Can it be true? Jesse Cool’s Flea Street Cafe – founded on the principles of local and organic – has been around since 1981, a very long life in restaurant terms.
“It’s fabulously busy,” Cool exclaimed on a recent Saturday night. “We’re very, very lucky.”
The almost 30 years haven’t always been easy for the innovative chef/restauranteur. Cool, who opened her first restaurant in Menlo Park, Late for the Train, in 1976, said there have been many ups and downs. “I nearly lost everything in 2001,” she said, “but I refused to go under and hired a business adviser who taught me how to do more than just cook.”
Cool’s restaurants, which now include Cool Cafe at the Menlo Business Park as well as at the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford campus, have always been focused on local – long before that became the fashionable way to do business. “I still get grief about not offering Oregon Pinots,” she said, “but we live here in California and have good wines.”
If Cool has embraced her local community, the community has, in turn, embraced her. “This community has kept me alive,” she said. “It’s supported a belief system since the day Bob Cool and I opened Late for the Train. It was hard. Today I feel humbled to be in the mainstream.”
Cool grew up in western Pennsylvania watching her father grow produce in the backyard. The first thing she did when she arrived in the Bay Area was to sign up for the Briar Patch. At the time, it was hippie thing to do.
Business at Flea Street is up 20%, and Cool thinks the “secret” is tried-and-true over trendy. “Our food has always been simple,” she said. “Because there’s more acknowledgment about local and organic, more people want to work here. And I’ve been able to upgrade a bit. The staff is phenomenal. [Flea Street’s chef is Carlos Canada, pictured with Cool; the restaurant is managed by Julianna Forneris.] They are now the champions – I’m now the matriarch. It’s really cool.”
Photo by Chris Gulker