Before there was farm-to-table, before there was non-GMO, before there was organic, and long before any of the current consciousness about food became fashionable, there was Jesse Ziff Cool. Although many people are just starting to wake up to the idea of asking where their food comes from or what’s in it, Jesse’s been advocating for clean, chemical-free eating and asking the tough questions of farmers, restaurant suppliers and food companies for nearly 40 years. It’s just taken the rest of the industry that long to catch up with her.
The owner of Palo Alto’s CoolEatz, Jesse has owned numerous healthy and clean eating establishments in the mid-Peninsula area since 1976, including Flea Street in Menlo Park and the Cool Café at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. A former food columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, she has penned seven cookbooks geared toward seasonal cooking, including, Simply Organic, which came out in 2008 just as the farm-to-table movement began to emerge. Jesse has also been a caterer and taught cooking classes for Draeger’s Market for nearly 30 years. In her latest incarnation, she’s been serving as a food consultant for the Stanford University Hospital, where she has succeeded in getting the hospital to shift toward a more natural menu, including non-GMO meats.
How did this petite, blond mother and grandmother in her 60s come to be a one-woman force and voice for sustainability? She was a “hippie” and early healthy food activist, that’s how.
Jesse grew up in an Italian/Jewish family in Greensburg, Penn., a small coal mining town southeast of Pittsburgh. The daughter of a community minded local grocer, Jesse was surrounded by farm fresh, homemade food as a child. Her father owned both a bakery, where he made all his own baked goods, and King Edward’s Supermarket, an independent grocery store. One of her uncles owned a local slaughterhouse. Every summer Jesse’s father would make homemade ice cream with local peaches and strawberries. In Jesse’s family, food was about nourishing themselves and serving others through community.
“Food was this common medium, and that medium was about love and sharing and stories and connecting and community,” she said.
And despite her family’s divergent religious traditions—Judaism and Catholicism—both cultures overlapped when it came to food.
“Being Jewish and Italian, I was brought up on real food,” she said
As a young adult, Jesse says she tried to get away from some of those traditions when she moved away from home and went to college. Then during her sophomore year, she got pregnant despite having been told she would never have children. A few years later, she found herself in the middle of a difficult divorce, a single mother at 22.
A determined woman even then, Jesse wasn’t about to let seemingly tough circumstances get in the way of what she wanted. And she wanted an education. “All I wanted to do was get a college degree,” she said.
So she moved to Philadelphia, went on welfare and put herself through school. Having grown up in a family of great cooks, she says she “cooked her way through everything”—even cooking food to pay for her son’s daycare while she was in school. Even as a student and young mother, she had a preference for natural foods. “I was a hippie,” she said.
After college, Jesse hitchhiked her way across Canada from Philadelphia to Vancouver. Along the way, she met a guy who ended up giving her a ride back to Philly in his 1967 Volkswagen van. When he fell for her and asked her to come to California with him, she was more than up for the adventure, she said.
“It was hippie time. Sure, I’ll get in a van and go to California,” she said.
For three months, they traveled across the country, with Jesse cooking—in the van—along the way.
“I put my kid and a bike and an extra engine in this van and came to California because he was a computer programmer from Palo Alto, California. That’s how I got here,” she said.
After coming to California, Jesse took at job at the Good Earth as a waitress. Although her relationship with the programmer didn’t last, she soon met a guy named Bob Cool who was planning to open a steak and French fry house. She told him she was interested in cooking for him, but she would only cook organic foods. The two fell in love and later opened Late for the Train, one of the first organic restaurants on the Peninsula, in Menlo Park. “We just thought, ‘We’ll make everybody late for the train.’ It was breakfast and lunch,” she said.
Jesse says when she and Bob opened their first restaurant in 1976, they started with nothing. Most of the decorations and utensils for the restaurant were things that she’d gotten from a thrift store.
“We had nothing—but the food was amazing,” she said. “Amazing, beautiful, food.”
Jesse says that at that time the approach to food that she was taking wasn’t about organic because nobody back then really even talked about organic or knew what it was. Instead, it was about not having chemicals in the food. Nobody knew what food-borne chemicals would do in the body, and she didn’t want them in her food.
“It was not farm-to-table—it was lunatic fringe,” she said. “It was very unfashionable.”
Although there were some natural food co-ops and vegetarian restaurants around at the time, Jesse’s philosophy was way ahead of its time. In the 1970s—the golden era of processed food—what she was doing was not just unpopular. Most people thought she was nuts.
“They scoffed at me all the time—it was really hard. Imagine—in 1976…” she said.
Jesse says her approach to food has always been more about politics and doing what’s right for the community than about diet, per se. Although she was a vegetarian for a while, her focus is on eating foods that she knows are free of chemicals and preservatives, that are grown locally and sustainably.
“For me, it was about politics. It was a way of being in community. I had to know where all the food came from. It wasn’t about organic—it was more about food that had no pesticides, chemicals, preservatives,” she said.
Jesse says she came to her philosophy in part because she’s “old fashioned.” Having grown up in a family where no part of an animal was wasted, where overripe peaches went into ice cream and food was canned for the winter, fresh food always just made sense to her. Her family’s Jewish and Italian roots taught her Old World European methods of cooking and eating seasonally. Growing up in those traditions also made her aware of how food was handled, processed and farmed–and the prospect of what chemically laded foods might do in the body frightened her.
“I was driven. I think once you know, once you sense it—there’s no turning back because then you’re lying. And even if the science doesn’t prove it—c’mon really? They’re going to put stuff in our food, plastic? I don’t mind dying or aging, but I kind of want to do it on my own, consistently. And I don’t want to be in the food business and be a part of dumping all this shit in the environment.”
So from the beginning at Late for the Train, Jesse insisted on knowing what was in the food she was sourcing. Of course asking those kinds of questions did not always endear her to everyone, nor did being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Jesse says it was difficult to get men in the business to respect or even acknowledge her, despite being the restaurant owner. Without classical training and as a woman, she had to fight extra hard to get what she wanted. There were times when she couldn’t even put the word “organic” on her menu because people would think it was too hippy-dippy.
“I had to know what was in everything. I was a pain in the ass. I was this little hippy chick with hair to here, I wore long lady dresses and no bras. They would come into Late to the Train and I was 27 years old and these purveyors would come in and I would say ‘I have to know what’s in the can, what are the ingredients in the can?’ And they’d say ‘What do you mean, can I talk to the owner?’ and I’d say, ‘I am the owner and I need to know what the ingredients are the ketchup, the soda, the flour, everything.’ And they had no idea. And they would go find out, but I could barely buy anything. I had to go to natural food stores,” she said. “We bought from where all the natural food stores bought.”
Acting ethically and responsibly across the food chain was Jesse’s primary goal in promoting chemical-free, local and sustainable food.
“In my business, I felt, how could I possibly do something with people’s food that could hurt them someday? And that spilled over to organic; that spilled over to my understanding of local. I was always very ingredient driven and very ingredient direct. My kids will say, ‘Mom, you just were ingredient driven from the beginning. It was all about where it came from, the pureness of the food.’ It was very much true. But that’s old fashioned—that’s European,” she said. “In a way, without knowing it, I was more European in style.”
But convincing others that pure, seasonal food was a good idea—whether suppliers, consumers or even chefs—was never easy for Jesse. “I was a fanatic—I’m crazy about no chemicals in food,” she said. “It was so hard.” Until just a few years ago, she said, it was difficult to even get chefs to understand the benefits of seasonal food. “They do now,” she said.
Sourcing both seasonal and sustainable food was always a challenge though. Whether produce or the meat and wine served at Flea Street, finding kindred spirits who believed in the same things she did and who made the effort to grow or raise clean food took a lot of research, asking of questions and relationship building. But as a pioneer of the movement, Jesse’s developed strong relationships with many of the pioneers of the sustainable food movement along the way, from Bill Niman of Niman Ranch to a 32-year relationship with Full Belly Farms. Because her method of cooking has always been about ingredients first, she says her food heroes are farmers, not chefs or famous people.
“They’re the ones that taught me, like my past, about real connection to community, ethics around what I believe is what nurtures us and keeps us healthy. I’m not a perfectionist – I believe in the 85/15 rule—I mean, I’ll junk out, I’ll eat a hot dog at the ballpark,” she says.
Jesse says she thought she was being cool and cutting edge at the time for talking about seasonality but most people thought she was ridiculous. “It wasn’t the way it was. Gourmet food was, at that time, defined by what amazing import you could bring in from Italy—the best sun dried tomatoes from Italy. We didn’t have local food – we didn’t have local meat, we didn’t have local cheese. There was Laura Chenel—that was it—she was the only person producing local cheese.”
Much of the time Jesse had to either rely on farmers markets for ingredients or drive long distances to get them. Sometimes she was able to get produce from a small organic company called 3:30 am Produce. By working directly with farmers, she was able to get produce that—at the time—most people thought was strange or unusual. Things that were different, like purple potatoes, would either get strange reactions from people or be pushed to the side of the plate and left uneaten, she says.
“I would say, ‘Try it—these beets are soooo good. Don’t push the frisee to the side of the plate,’” she said.
But on the flip side, she says her customers thought her food was amazing and would wonder why the mashed potatoes were so good and why their potatoes at home didn’t taste that good. She says she would tell them it was no secret, she was just using good potatoes in season, prepared as mashed potatoes normally would be but also using quality butter and cream.
“I just wouldn’t put it on the menu unless I knew where it was from,” she said. “That is a whole different mindset, a different political slant. Sitting here now it’s easy to define, but then it was never easy to define.”
For a long time, Jesse says, she wouldn’t buy meat because she didn’t know what was in it. Her menu was primarily vegetarian. It wasn’t until Diestel started raising hormone free turkeys that she finally put some meat on her menu, she said. When Bill Niman began producing hormone free meat in the late 70s and 80s, Jesse started using his products, which they had to drive all the way to San Francisco or Berkeley to get. If she could get local fish, she would get fish.
When it came to sourcing wine, Jesse was a stickler yet again. “Wine was very, very hard,” she said. Jesse was particularly worried about how pesticides would stay on the grape skins, which are not removed during the wine making process.
“It’s about everything going on the grapes—I was thinking, OK, hold on a minute, they’re not even cooking this—they’re just taking these grapes and mashing them up—and we’re drinking this stuff?”
“I would just ask questions,” she said. “We were a pain in the ass.”
Another one of Jesse’s unconventional approaches to business is that she also goes against the grain of Customer Service 101. In her book, the customer does not come first. The customer actually comes last.
So how does this end up translating to a workable business model? It works, Jesse says, because her approach is to take care of every part of the chain that leads to the customer first. Starting with honoring the soil and the environment, to those that grow it, to making sure her staff is well fed and taken care of—that, she says, ends up trickling down to how the customer is eventually treated.
“My philosophy—from the beginning and remains—is that the customer comes last. But if we feed our staff well and make sure they’re safe and we take care of the farmers and the soil—if we go all the way through, the customer will get the benefit.”
Taking care of her staff, Jesse says, also means less turnover in an industry notorious for high turnover. For instance, since many of her staff bike to work, she recently bought rain gear for them. She also provides bonuses for staff.
Jesse never received any formal training in either business or cooking outside of what she learned from her family or from The Joy of Cooking, she said. Everything she’s done, she’s learned along the way or through hard work, dedication or sometimes through very hard life lessons. “I learned from all my mistakes,” she said. But she’s always cooked because she loved doing it.
“I loved it – I’m happiest when I’m in the kitchen—I love it,” she said.
Jesse describes her cooking style as simple, homey food. Although she may not employ French techniques or kowtow to food fads, the ingredients speak for themselves.
“Our style is very basic,” she said. “I learned from other people how they did it—when you watch people make mistakes, then you figure it out.”
Most everything—with the exception of some condiments—served at Jesse’s restaurants is entirely homemade, They even can and dry foods for the winter and make their own jam.
“If we can’t can or dry in the winter, we buy Muir Glen—that’s what I did in 1976—I would ship in Muir Glen canned tomatoes in the winter because I knew they were preserved in their prime, the old fashioned way. I couldn’t can that many tomatoes. In the winter, even in California if you’re local, there’s not much food. In January, we have brassicas and lettuces and carrots, but to run a restaurant, oh my god, where are the onions. We didn’t ship in much but lemons and onions were harder to do without. We couldn’t be without potatoes.”
Finding chefs to work for her was another challenge because most chefs had yet to embrace a seasonal philosophy.
“It wasn’t about classic cooking or technique to me, it was about ingredients. Imagine! They just thought I was ridiculous—but they wanted to work with me because the food was good and we were successful, but it was very hard finding people who got it until about—honestly—six or seven years ago. And still, even though they say they get it, they don’t,” she said.
“It was really hard to get people to embrace it—a lot of people came from Chez Panisse, but I’m in the suburbs. It’s like being in Iowa—none of the food came down here—it stopped in San Francisco,” she said.
Even Jesse’s current chef and business partner at Flea Street, Carlos Canada, who had cooked at prominent restaurants in San Francisco, told Jesse he’d never seen a walk-in refrigerator as stocked with truly seasonal ingredients as the first time he walked into the Flea Street refrigerator.
“He’s absolutely wonderful—he gets it,” she said. “After 38 years, I found somebody who gets it,” she said.
Jesse believes much of the shift back toward seasonal, local, sustainable food has happened in part because of books like Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, films like Food Inc., and the fact that millennials have been taught these texts in college. As this awareness has seeped into the larger culture, she’s also seen a demographic shift at her restaurants. There are far more younger people coming to Flea Street these days, she says, than there used to be.
But she thinks there’s still quite a ways to go. For instance, she says that despite the fact that people say they want local meat, no one seems to want to have a slaughterhouse built in their backyard. There’s still a certain level of detachment from the food system today that was not there when she was growing up, particularly around meat production, even when human methods are applied. “That disconnect, even for the aware, is going to have to do away or it won’t happen,” she says. However, farmers markets have succeeded in reconnecting people with produce.
“We’re back to connecting,” she said.
Although Jesse says she’s not yet ready for retirement, she has decided to start slowing down after nearly 40 years in the business. These days she’s devoting more time to cycling—another passion—and to her grandchildren, in addition to her consulting at the Stanford Hospitals. “It’s a new exciting endeavor, it challenges me.”
“I’m not going to knit or paint in retirement, I’m going to cycle all of the world,” she jokes.
Photos courtesy of Jesse Ziff Cool.