Flea Street Cafe

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

{ Be the first to comment }

Spotted: Jesse Cool celebrating Flea Street’s 40th anniversary

Flea Street Cafe owner Jesse Cool celebrated the restaurant’s 40th anniversary last night with her two sons. She’d planned to have a Zoom party, but out of respect for those affected by the wildfires, rescheduled the party for Friday, September 4 from 6:00 to 7:00 pm. You can RSVP by email: [email protected] To mark the […]

Click to read more →

Meal of Gratitude will be delivered to fire crews and evacuees starting tomorrow

Jesse Cool of Flea Street Cafe let us know that beginning tomorrow (Aug. 22), Meals of Gratitude will be joining forces with the World Central Kitchen to prepare and deliver 200 Meals of Gratitude lunches each day for emergency fire crews and evacuees. “We sent out an email explaining to donors that we are shifting for […]

Click to read more →

Updates on area’s restaurants, businesses and non-profits post heading into June

From Jasper Ridge Farm: Farm Academy is a new program we created for children in order to bring the barn to them. Our goal is to provide fun and interactive sessions for kids to learn about farm animals and virtually interact with our support animals. These 20-30 minute sessions are on a variety of topics and […]

Click to read more →

Latest updates and re-openings plus some Mother’s Day suggestions

Here’s an update about new offerings, re-openings and some Mother’s Day suggestions. From Praveen Madan of Kepler’s Books: “We are super excited to announce the launch of a new Community Reads @ Home program in partnership with our fellow book nerds at the Menlo Park Library. We invite you to join us in reading one […]

Click to read more →

New effort to feed delicious meals to front line healthcare workers

Posted Jesse Cool of Flea Street Cafe (which is offering To Go dinners, fyi) on Facebook: “Holly K. Tabor called two days ago and shared her idea of providing front line caretakers a meal they felt was special. Four employees are coming back to work on Sunday to prepare the first 50 meals for drop off […]

Click to read more →

An appreciation of Jesse Cool and Flea Street Cafe on its 39th anniversary

I’m a long time fan of Flea Street Cafe, which owner Jesse Cool has shepherded through good times and bad before celebrating its 39th anniversary yesterday. “I really don’t know how I did it,” is how she succinctly summed up the accomplishment. I first dined there in the early ’80s when visiting my Menlo Park […]

Click to read more →

Jesse Cool brings in a new partner with a familiar face at Flea Street Cafe

Jesse Cool has a new partner at Flea Street Cafe — and the face is very familiar. Michael Biesemeyer worked for long periods of time over the past decade at the Menlo Park restaurant. “I’ve been hoping to find a partner for a few years,” explained Jesse. “I made a few attempts with chefs, but that […]

Click to read more →

Spotted: Leo Wurtz shucking oysters at Oysterette

The Oysterette at Flea Street Cafe has re-opened, sporting a new roof and added heaters for those sometimes chilly summer evenings. Leo Wurtz is once again on hand to shuck oysters and prepare seasonal small plates designed by Chef Charlie Parker that are different from the Cafe’s menu. The night we stopped by we enjoyed, in […]

Click to read more →

Charlie Parker returns to his hometown as new chef at Flea Street Cafe

Growing up in Menlo Park, Charlie Parker would walk with his parents and siblings to Flea Street Cafe. “I remember some of [owner] Jesse’s signature dishes from the time I was 12,” he said. “Like ‘which came first the chicken or the egg’ and the sardines. There was always a good salad and a warm dining room.” After […]

Click to read more →

Jesse Cool and Mitchell Johnson share art, food and admiration for each other

Think of them as bookending the stretch of the Alameda in Menlo Park between Sharon and Walsh roads. One a restaurateur feeding the body. The other a painter feeding the soul. Jesse Cool, owner of Flea Street Cafe, and artist Mitchell Johnson are joined together in what has been a mutually beneficial partnership for about five years with the […]

Click to read more →