Chef Jesse Cool: Tireless Organic Pioneer
01 Sep, 2012
Those of us involved in the emerging organic and sustainable food movement owe a debt of gratitude to culinary pioneers like Alice Waters, Nora Pouillon and Jesse Cool.
Chef Cool opened the first organic restaurant in Menlo Park, California, long before it was, well, cool, and also long before the majority of people had even heard the word organic. Today, a tireless sixty-something, she owns and operates three top-rated restaurants and a catering business that source only organic and sustainable ingredients. Jesse is also the author of seven cookbooks, a guest lecturer and teacher of teachers at Stanford University, has made numerous television appearances including on The Today Show and Food Network, and is spearheading a major movement to bring healthy organic food to hospitals.
The values that Jesse has promulgated for nearly four decades trace back to childhood. “I have an old-world background,” Jesse told Organic Connections, “where my father and grandfather grew vegetables in manure, with no pesticides.” As a youngster, growing up in a rural town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jesse helped her parents and grandparents tend their small backyard gardens. They taught her about living heirlooms—seeds brought from the old country to plant in American soil. Additionally they raised their own chickens, and her uncle even owned a slaughterhouse where naturally grazed cattle were processed and beef aged properly.
With a love of food and cooking that carried through from this upbringing, Jesse opened a locally sourced clean-food restaurant in the seventies, which in those times was quite challenging. “People often think the challenge was about cost,” she said. “It was more about being a young long-haired hippy chick, dressed in lace dresses, who was confronting people about where food came from and what kind of chemicals or preservatives or hormones were added. I guess I should say that I didn’t begin with ‘organic’—that was not what my cooking was about. It was about no ‘artificial’ in the food. That very quickly spilled over to organic, but it was more about, ‘How do I protect the people who work with me, my family and my community from these artificial things that they’re putting in the food, which someday down the road might hurt them?’
“With that, my company’s philosophy was born, and it remains to this day: ‘The customer comes last.’ We try really hard to take care of where our food comes from, and build relationships with those people like we did in the Old World when we lived in a village and knew one another. We knew the bread baker; we knew the butcher; we knew the farmer. If we keep that connection and then make sure to take care of the people working with us as well as we can, they will take care of the customer.”
Though conditions got tough, Jesse stayed the course. “I nearly went bankrupt more times than I would like to admit,” she said. “It’s often been difficult for my family and friends to figure out why in the world I stayed in it. But coming from a background of not having a lot, I had the ability to shrink down to whatever it took to make it work; and during those lean times—as those who do survive are tenacious—I found a way to do that.
“I was also helped by other people. There were people who worked with me and purveyors who trusted that I would never betray them or leave them high and dry. The worst near-bankruptcy was after 9-11 when Silicon Valley fell apart. According to what everyone in the financial world said, I should have gone bankrupt, but I refused. I couldn’t screw my farmers, so I didn’t and I had to dig my way out. Now I’m completely debt-free.”
Today, it is a whole different scene. “Everything shifted about four or five years ago,” Jesse related. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma was written and movies like Food, Inc. came out. Now there are so many films and so many amazing books written by both pioneers and the new generation of innovators. The young are finding ways in everything they do to connect food and its production, where it comes from, and cost to just about every element of life.
“I’ve had restaurants for 37 years, and 4 years ago was the first time I had to pay taxes—because prior to that all I did was lose money. The first year I had to pay taxes I got really angry; then someone looked at me and said, ‘It’s okay, Jesse. That means things are shifting.’ And I’ve had my busiest 4 years ever. Some of this has to do with management and learning how to be more of a business person, although a lot of it has to do with not being trendy but being part of the trend. I also hired an amazing chef, Carlos Cañada, who embraced the ethics of it all and fell in love with our long-established friendships with farmers, ranchers and fishermen. I trust him, and we work together with care and respect for every element that goes on every dish for our customers.
“The young people who eat in the restaurants get it. They understand that the food is a little more expensive but there’s a reason for it. I’m not just charging because we’re foodies who are trying to impress them; they understand it’s because we know where the salt, the coffee, the butter, the oil, the meat—everything—comes from and they’re willing to pay for that.”
Of course, the popularity of Jesse’s restaurants is due in no small part to the way those curated ingredients are utilized. She is a chef, after all, and specializes in making her dishes flavorful and fun, in addition to being sustainable. Her cuisine includes superb salads, elegant entrées, sandwiches, signature comfort foods and luscious desserts.
Healthy Hospital Food
A few years back, the popularity of Jesse’s restaurants brought her into a whole new arena. “For years, the doctors from Stanford Hospital have eaten at my restaurant in Menlo Park called Flea Street, and they would often say, ‘What are you doing that’s new, Jesse?’ A couple of years ago the head of cardiology, a doctor named Bobby Robins, asked the same question. I replied, ‘Do you really want to know?’ and he said, ‘I do.’ So I asked, ‘When are you going to give me your food?’ And he asked back, ‘Well, what do you have in mind?’ I told him, ‘Please do simple food for people who are sick and scared: a simple purée of organic vegetable soup if they’re on a diet where they can’t eat solid foods. Or what about old-fashioned chicken soup, but made from real organic chicken so it actually nourishes people? Or how about a baked apple for dessert?”
That conversation led to an introduction to the CEO of Stanford Hospital, which led to the attempted launch of a program Jesse developed for them called Farm Fresh. But the program stalled. “It didn’t quite make it because it was a little bit ahead of its time,” Jesse said. “It’s a very challenging system that’s not wrong; they’ve always wanted to take care of people. They just have been doing it a little differently. It’s more institutional—they feed hundreds and hundreds of people a day. For one thing, they have to learn how to cook food again. When I first started Farm Fresh and put chicken noodle soup on the menu, they had the equipment but nobody knew how to make chicken stock.”
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Jesse has now dug in for the long haul of bringing healthy and wholesome change to hospital food—and has truly seen what it will involve. “I think it’s going to take some outside support,” she said. “It’s going to take a revisiting of what dietitians and nutritionists see as necessary when someone is healing in a hospital. I also think it’s going to take some outside funding and support to help adjust the whole cost issue, since it might be a little more expensive to offer really healthy food. And they might have to adjust their expenditures in order to make that part of a healthy system because they realize food is a path to well-being. I think that is probably the biggest association the medical world is starting to see—the association between taking care of oneself and the high cost of medical services.”
Jesse is hard at work on the campaign to get this accomplished and is dealing with numerous entities to bring it about. “The good news is Stanford Hospital is really starting to take a look at what it actually means to use truly local fresh food, and how to obtain it in volume, and how food is connected to healing and well-being,” Jesse reported.
“There are other significant issues to address,” she continued. “For example, the large food service management companies, from which the hospitals get their food, themselves purchase from large purveyors that have to carry a certain insurance minimum. But I’ve been talking to the large food service companies—Sodexo, Aramark, Bon Appétit, Morrison Group and others. I’ve been a keynote speaker with their teams. It’s very complex, but they actually do want it to happen, and they’re trying to figure out how to do it.
“Even ‘institutional cooking’ is now doing what most trends or cycles do: go back to a different way of looking at it. Using frozen processed foods was the best they could do when people started eating that way or the economy changed. Now they’re reexamining it and figuring out how to feed people just very simple basic nutritional food again.”
Teaching the Teachers
Teaching is also a major aspect of Jesse’s mission. Through the Stanford Teacher Education Program, Jesse has been educating Stanford students who themselves will go out and teach. The program is instructive on incorporating other subjects—math and science, for instance—into gardening and cooking, and demonstrating the ease and joy with which both gardening and cooking can be done.
“We teach students who are going into classrooms all over the country,” Jesse explained. “We just had our graduation, and some were going to St. Louis, some were going to Connecticut, some were staying in California. We teach four classes a year from the garden into the kitchen, including lessons about obesity and diabetes.
“By the third class, I’ve taught them how to cook with seven basic ingredients: olive oil, vinegar (lemon), salt, pepper, sugar, herbs and spices. They learn that fat, sugar and salt can be a good part of making food delicious, and when used consciously, are not a bad part of life. Through these basic cooking elements, they learn to teach their kids to not be afraid of eating and how, with wise personal choices, they can control obesity and other results of unhealthy eating.”
Through her cookbook Simply Organic (Chronicle Books, 2008), Jesse is also educating the public at large. This unique work seeks to assist anyone, in converting their home kitchen, to be completely organic. “One of the new trends is that the young are starting to cook at home,” Jesse said. “I believe that the soulful satisfaction we get from cooking at home should be made easier. I set out to write a cookbook that is not over people’s heads or just a bunch of pretty pictures, but something that people can actually take home and, without using many ingredients, make something for themselves that is delicious. I actually think that’s what every cookbook should be about.”
Past Meeting the Future
Jesse continues to utilize the wealth of knowledge she has assimilated to bring us into an organic future. “I’ve had the great fortune of still being alive while this movement is really taking root,” Jesse concluded. “We’re seeing the result of those seeds that were planted many years ago about the connection of food to just about everything. I’m enjoying consulting, being a part of think tanks that are looking at how to take that further into the business world, and am also on some great advisory boards. I love hanging out with the young innovators who think outside the box and have found true passion and soulfulness in an entrepreneurial way with food. I’m now bridging history and the future, however that might land on my own plate.”
For more information on Chef Jesse Cool, visit her website at www.cooleatz.com. Jesse Cool’s book Simply Organic is available from the Organic Connections bookstore. Food pictures from Simply Organic © Jesse Ziff Cool. Used with permission of Chronicle Books LLC, San Francisco. Visit ChronicleBooks.com.