Restaurants

Four decades ago, before sundried tomatoes and kale were trendy, before chefs were celebrities, and before sustainability was a buzzword, there was Jesse Ziff Cool.

Cool, a self-described hippie chick and untrained cook, found her way to the Bay Area and founded one of the nation’s first organic restaurants, Menlo Park’s Late for the Train, in 1976. Her Flea Street Cafe (one of five restaurants in total) followed in 1982 and is a favorite of Silicon Valley’s tech set. She authored seven cookbooks; became a lecturer at Stanford’s education department; created Farm Fresh (an organic, local menu) for patients at Stanford Hospital; pivoted to takeout after the pandemic hit; and with the Meals of Gratitude nonprofit began providing food to frontline workers and wildfire responders and evacuees in recent months. She also has 19 awards to her credit for efforts to promote organic food, local farming and women in the male-dominated food industry.

To foodies, she’s something of a saint, like Alice Waters and Nora Pouillon. Which is why, yesterday evening (September 4), five dozen family and friends gathered for a brief, but heartfelt Zoom chat to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Flea Street Cafe, a milestone. The event was delayed a week from the actual anniversary out of respect for people affected by the wildfires.

If the get-together was virtual, the emotions were real, starting with Cool, who’s known to speak frankly. “Here I was,” she said of her beginnings, “a braless hippie chick, hair in purple, extremely committed to food that would not poison anyone in the community or the water or the soil.”

She said neither she nor her then-husband, Bob Cool, knew what they were doing when they founded Late for the Train, which operated for 13 years. She was a member of the Briar Patch Co-op, a waitress at the Good Earth in Palo Alto and dedicated to organic food. At the time, organic was considered so far outside the mainstream they had to be cautious using the word. She didn’t consider herself a pioneer; it was just intuitive to her that clean ingredients would have positive impacts on the environment and wellbeing, all are now borne out by science.

Late for the Train served breakfast and lunch. After it closed in 1989, the pair began working on Flea Street Cafe. Bob didn’t think they’d be real restaurateurs unless they served dinner. Despite their experience, opening night was a mess, Cool recalled in the Zoom chat, with a line to get in that stretched down the street. Among those waiting was Kirk Cunningham, who recalled he didn’t actually get dinner that night. “Jesse came out, and said, ‘Kirk, we’re out of food,’” he told the Zoom gathering. “I thought that was so funny. It’s like going to the Nike outlet on their grand opening and saying, ‘We’re out of shoes, folks.’”

In the history of Flea Street, there were quieter near-disasters, too. In a pre-Zoom interview, Cool recalled the time she was sitting at the restaurant during a break in her son’s soccer game and answered a phone call. “Where are you?” a woman asked. “Here at Flea Street in flip flops,” Cool replied. “You are catering our wedding for 100 in four hours,” the woman reminded her. “We made it happen,” Cool recalled. “Need I say more?”

Cool was not a classically trained chef, but someone whose favorite recipes came from the Joy of Cooking and were made better with local ingredients at their seasonal best.

“We love you, we love Flea Street,” toasted Nikiko Masumoto of Masumoto Family Farms, a peach and grape operation near Fresno. “To the all the crew at Flea Street, you embody the type of champion we as farmers need.”

Vintners applauded Cool, too. When customers asked for French and Italian wines, Cool irked them by serving labels produced in the Santa Cruz Mountains — and trained them to appreciate local bounty in the process. “You did a wonderful job supporting the local wineries with your belief in organic and clean,” said winemaker Michael Martella of Fogarty Vineyards and Martella Wines fame. “They came along with you.”

Environmental activist Wendy Schmidt said she became a regular at Flea Street after moving to Atherton in 1990. Sensing a shared environmental ethos, she walked into the restaurant with an under-counter composter and gave it to Cool as a gift in 1996. “I’ve always thought of you as someone way ahead of your time,” Schmidt told her. “You’ve been able to pivot and pull on your network of farmers and ranchers to create a gift of food for the caretakers in our community. I’m proud to be your friend and so happy this restaurant has survived and will go forward because you are the future.”

Amid the plaudits, there was self-recrimination. Cool apologized to her sons for being a busy and imperfect mother for four decades. Brushing it aside, Joshua Danovitz characterized his mother as the ultimate entrepreneur, someone who “could take a swift kick in the nuts one day and come back the next day with more power and focus and move the rails forward.” Jonah Cool said he and his brother were “brought up by the restaurant, with the restaurant,” and that it is “without a doubt the coolest sibling — everything Josh and I ever did was through fun things the restaurant introduced us to or to people we didn’t know.”

As the chat wound down, Cool tipped her hat to her understanding landlord, and to Bob Cool because “he talked me into opening a dinner house and I didn’t want to,” and to anyone who had ever worked for her because “they are who made Flea Street what it is right now.”

What form the restaurant will take when the pandemic lifts is unclear. But when it does, said Cool, “Here’s my promise: I will have a f*’ing big party. The food will all be on biscuits. Plenty of drinks. It will be in the parking lot of Flea Street. And we will celebrate community.”

Menlo Park resident Carolyne Zinko’s journalism career includes stints at the Peninsula Times Tribune, San Jose Mercury and San Francisco Chronicle and most recently as editor-in-chief at Modern Luxury Silicon Valley

Photos: Jesse through the years: top with Managing Partner Michael Biesemeyer by Scott R. Kline (c) 2018; Jesse with artist Mitchell Johnson whose paintings hang on Flea Street walls by Irene Searles (c) 2015; in backyard garden by Scott R. Kline (c) 2012; at Flea Street by Chris Gulker (c) 2010

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