The Menlo Park Icon on the Role of Hippies; Knowing How the Grapes are Grown; What’s In a Name; and “Cooker People”
Have you ever heard of Jesse Cool?
I hadn’t, until I signed on to moderate a week of cooking demonstrations at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park back in 2012, and discovered that she was a beloved early proponent of organic cooking and a Bay Area legend. Her restaurant Flea Street Cafe has been an institution for more than forty years, and if you mention her name to any number of chefs in the Bay Area, they will positively light up.
Jesse and I became fast friends at the Ahwahnee. She’s one of those people–mostly former hippies–who occasionally come into my life and tap right into this other me that’s concealed beneath layers of angsty perfectionism and in-bred social conservatism, the dude who might’ve been unlocked had I been born ten years earlier and become a hippy myself. My late mother-in-law had the same gift, as did a few high school and college English teachers and theater gurus. So it’s abundantly clear what I get from her; what the hell she gets from our friendship remains a mystery.
Though she’s a chef and restaurateur, Jesse’s primary influence has been more on food than on chefdom (her CV doesn’t even ID her as a chef but as a “writer, restaurateur, spokesperson and consultant,” so the wonderful interview we conducted for my book in November 2013, at a San Francisco cafe, was mostly lost to the cutting room floor. But I’m thrilled to share it with you today. This is a fun one; enjoy:
[Note: We’re getting reports of some funkiness with embedded videos; if reading on your phone, and the following doesn’t play, trying turning the phone horizontal before hitting play. We’re working through the issue with our site manager:]
COOL: I’m going to tell you about my name. My dad had a bakery. I was brought up in a Jewish-Italian family.
FRIEDMAN: Where was this?
COOL: Small coal‑mining town west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Greensburg. My dad owned the grocery store and my uncle owned the slaughterhouse. We all worked in the grocery store. And the bakery was named after me. It was Suzie Q, but my name is Jesse now. That’s because in the late ’60s, I didn’t want to be Sue anymore. I wasn’t real fond of my first husband, who called me Sue.
So I decided, at an Allman Brothers concert, because the song Jessica is so awesome to dance to when you’re stoned and out there, that I would become Jessica. And my friends told me I couldn’t do it, so when I moved to California I became Jesse. I just kept using it and now I’m legally Jesse. At least I didn’t become Rainbow. So I’m Jesse Cool. I mean, what a name. Jesse Cool.
FRIEDMAN: Cool was your married name, right?
COOL: Cool was my married name. Everyone asks me, “Is that your real name?” And I know they mean Cool. If I know someone, I tell them the part that’s not real is Jessica.
FRIEDMAN: How did you first get interested in food, cooking, dining, whatever that first pinch was that drew you into the professional world that you ended up in?
COOL: As a little girl, the way I found love and showed love and gave love was—who knows why?—I would go to the refrigerator in my parents’ house and I would make a menu, like, cottage cheese, pineapple, bologna, salami.
FRIEDMAN: What do you mean ‘a menu’?
COOL: I would write down all these ingredients and I would go to my brothers, who thought this was a dream come true to have their sister wait on them, and bring food to them in the TV room. And I would ask them what they wanted. I would write it down. I would play restaurant. And I would go in and I would prepare it and serve it to them. And as a kid I would build little forts, like, under the lilac bushes. I set up a table and chairs and would bring food and all the kids would come.
COOL: [Eventually] I did everything I could to get away from it because I didn’t want anything to do with food. I was a language and religion major in college.
FRIEDMAN: What did you think you were going to do with that?
COOL: Then? What does anybody think when they’re 18 or 19? Who knows? I just didn’t want to be in the food business. My parents lost the store to the big grocery companies and went bankrupt, and then I left a marriage at the age of 23. I was married to a draft counselor; we had draft counselors in the ’60s.
FRIEDMAN: What do you mean a draft counselor?
COOL: When the draft was enacted, we would go to the church and give these kids advice who had number 10, 15, 12, which was basically go to Canada or burn something up. This was in Philadelphia. And then he did his in‑service in Maine. So we lived in Maine and I became a real hippy mom. Made my own clothes, baked my own bread, made everything from scratch.
FRIEDMAN: How did that come about?
COOL: I didn’t have a car. It was freezing cold. And I was left there at home so I’d listen to Judy Collins and had this little kid and was pretty isolated, alone, so I cooked.
FRIEDMAN: What year was this, roughly?
COOL: 1970. Maybe ’69. Somewhere around there. I don’t remember time very well.
I also didn’t want anything to do with food because living in a farming community, all the boys smelled like sheep. I thought, there’s no fucking way.
I left the marriage, went back to Philadelphia, lived with a bunch of people in, you know, communities. I was on welfare until I got my college degree. Got my first job as an art director, in between thinking I don’t want anything to do with food. But basically food was what helped me sustain. I would trade cooking for childcare. Actually, I traded food stamps for acid in California because I figured it was an edible thing, at a campground.
On one of my hitchhiking adventures the guy I was with wouldn’t share his food so I dumped him in Vancouver, woke up two guys who were sleeping in the youth hostel because I needed to get back in the country. They said, “Okay, we’ll take you.” Got into a ’67 Volkswagen van with two guys I didn’t know from California. Spent two weeks with them. I swear to God, I did not sleep with anybody. But they took me to REI and outfitted me. I cooked for them, of course.
FRIEDMAN: Cooked where?
COOL: In the van. There was a little stove in the van. It was a ’67 Volkswagen van that eventually I painted rainbows and suns and everything on. So I was with them for two weeks. We hiked around Mt. Rainier. They took me to REI because they could not believe I had gone through Canada in a sweatshirt and workboots. Bought me a down jacket and Red Wing boots. Flew me home.
So I get a phone call from this guy, one of them, who said, “Actually, I’m in love with you. I’m going to come get you.” So he drove his ’67 Volkswagen van across the United States. I gave away everything, put my five-year‑old kid, his bicycle, and my weaving loom, whatever else, and my pots, in this van and we traveled the United States for three and a half months, and I cooked through every region. If if I was in North Carolina, it was Southern; I would find out what North Carolina food was. This is in 1974, ’75.
Three and a half months later we ended up in Palo Alto because he was from there. And at that time I was earning my living as an artist. I was an embroiderer and a weaver; not very good, but I was. And I realized I couldn’t make a living so I went to the Good Earth, became a Good Earth waitress.
I met Bob Cool, who was opening a steakhouse with a friend, in 1975. I said, “I cook, but I belong to the food co‑op, Briar Patch, and I use organic food.” I definitely was what would be called a hippy. I owned two Danskins, two skirts, tights, and nothing. I lived in a community with people. But I went to the co‑op and bought bulk food.
So I cooked for them. He said, “Oh, my God, you can cook!” I said, “I can cook, but if we do this restaurant, if you want me to be a part of it, then we’re going to make everything from scratch. Everything. I’ll go to the thrift store, I’ll gather forks and knives, spoons, salt and pepper shakers, I’ll help you paint. But the food is going to be real. We’re going to make our own biscuits. And none of the food can have any chemicals in it.” Hippy.
FRIEDMAN: Where did this come from?
COOL: I was a hippy. Everything had to be pure and good. I was taught that as a kid. My father‑‑I knew where the meat came from; we ate every part. All the food we ate was pure and clean. And being a part of the late ’60s and early ’70s, it was the beginning of thinking that food had to be pure and good. I belonged to the food co‑op. We bought everything in bulk. It had no chemicals in it. I mean, did I understand it then? No. Was it organic? No. Was it local? No. The beginning of my career in the food world was no artificial anything.
And the philosophy of my company from the beginning has been the customer comes last. I was mortified that someday I would find out that some Methyl Bromide on the strawberries or some ingredient on the cans would hurt my staff because they’re around it too much.
So Bob agreed. We opened the restaurant. We didn’t use any meat because there was no meat without hormones that we could find until we got Niman Ranch. Everybody thought I was a vegetarian. I wasn’t. I ate everything, have always been a drinker. But I just wanted no chemicals in the food. That’s the way it started.
FRIEDMAN: Tell me about your first restaurant.
COOL: Late for the Train was 1976. It was by the train station. Oh, my God. We had the wildest parties. Oh, my God. Wild. Drunken crazy pot parties. Crazy. Invite the community. It was very alternative. We used to have dancers. It was artistic. In Palo Alto, it was the people on the fringe that were masseuses‑-is that a word?‑‑and dancers or students. So it was a very magical place.
FRIEDMAN: Who were these people?
COOL: They were people into healthy food. They were very healthy people. They kind of drank the Kool‑Aid of spreading the message that everything’s made from scratch, everything’s homemade. That we cooked slowly with love and care because we were doing everything from scratch. It was people who believed in this style of taking care of the community.
FRIEDMAN: Was this their primary source of income or was this just something they did?
COOL: Sometimes. Sometimes not. Some of them would be students. Some of them it was primarily what they did. It wasn’t about money. It was never about money. Back then we were buying local, organic. We were buying organic produce from a small company called 3:30 a.m. Two women, in 1976.
FRIEDMAN: The company was called 3:30 a.m.?
COOL: Because that’s when they got up. They had to bring us the food. So they would bring us clean food; they brought us what was growing nearby and we created menus from their harvest … at the time I was shipping in UPS Muir Glen canned tomatoes. I was the spokesperson for all those guys in the beginning of the organic movement because I was using it all.
FRIEDMAN: Unofficial spokesperson.
COOL: No, I was hired. 25, 30 years ago. I would go to the shows and cook. I was the spokesperson for Odwalla, Muir Glen, Cascadian Farms. I forget who else. I was their “star chef.”
FRIEDMAN: Did you ever get up around Berkeley at this time? Were you aware of what was going on up there?
COOL: A little bit but not as much.
FRIEDMAN: What were you aware of?
COOL: I was aware of Chez Panisse. But I was so busy. I knew we were buying from the same farmers.
FRIEDMAN: Is that right?
COOL: Oh, yeah. We still buy from the same people.
FRIEDMAN: So what would you hear about it?
COOL: I heard it was kind of crazy there.
FRIEDMAN: How do you mean?
COOL: That it was much more free‑form than I was, than we were. Different people cooking more what they wanted, getting whatever came in. And though they were a team it was—I always thought it was just more unusual. People coming in and out. But very creative, very inventive. Same kind of thing, ingredient‑driven. We were all ingredient‑driven. It was more French than I was. I was more American style.
FRIEDMAN: What did that mean to you?
COOL: I was pretty basic, you know? The turkey had to be good. If the turkey was good then I’d just put avocado and mayonnaise and Swiss cheese from Clover on it. Mine was more about not-perfect ingredients. I didn’t care if it wasn’t perfect, as long as I knew the farmer and there were no chemicals in it. That was my question. “How are your grapes grown? Are they using Roundup?” For 33 years, I’ve known how the grapes are grown.
FRIEDMAN: How did you balance work and family?
COOL: I never felt like I was a good enough restaurant owner or a good enough mother. Ever. Even though my kids are great. Because how do you do both? How do you have two children and have restaurants?
FRIEDMAN: How long were you doing that?
COOL: Flea Street opened in 1980 and I was on the line for nine years there and Late for the Train was already five years old. I remember the moment where I was on the line, and we had a phone in the kitchen. By now we had two restaurants and I had gone through a divorce. I remember being on the line and not being able to control anything anymore because I was still trying to focus on expediting and running restaurants and writing books and writing for the Mercury News. I was completely out of control.
FRIEDMAN: We just jumped way ahead, though.
COOL: Okay. Sorry. So we opened Late for the Train 1976. 1980, Bob Cool, my former husband, came to me and said we need a dinner house because we’re not real restaurateurs. I said no. Biggest fight in our marriage.
FRIEDMAN: What do you mean, you need a dinner house?
COOL: We aren’t real restaurateurs with a breakfast and lunch place. You have to have a dinner house. I said no. I had one child at the time. I had a kid. I’m hand‑printing the menus. I’m cooking. We can’t do this. But we did. We opened Flea Street.
The first night we opened, we didn’t know what we were doing. We never knew what we were doing. We weren’t classically trained. I remember opening the door and I thought I hadn’t told anybody and there were, like, 160 people in line. And we were avant‑garde back then. We had goat cheese on the menu. There was no goat cheese in 1970.
FRIEDMAN: How did you know about it?
COOL: I was always looking for what was real and local. My dad did. I was looking for the farmers.You asked what I knew about Berkeley. They weren’t as important to me. I didn’t care about the cooks. I cared about the farmers. You’ll hear that about me, I think. I’m a farmer groupie.
FRIEDMAN: A farmer groupie?
COOL: Oh, yeah. I remember once being at a conference. “I’ve only slept with two! Only two! I know you guys think I slept with everybody because I partied hard and I danced with all of you, but only two!” So I learned from them. I’m jumping around …
So, 1980, we opened Flea Street. I was behind the line. I remember people were piling in. We were making, like, pasta with béchamel. We had no clue what we were doing. Appetizers were going out after entrees. And somebody remembers hearing me scream from the line, “Shut the fucking door!”
FRIEDMAN: On day one?
COOL: On day one because we were just packed. “Shut the fucking door!” I looked at Bob, I said, “Who the fuck do you think you are? Big‑time restaurateurs? We’re clueless. We have no idea what we’re doing.” What a learning process.
So we opened this other restaurant clueless. It’s been through more ups and downs. I had crazy artistic people still working with me, female impersonators. Crazy.
But I had to keep learning and I never felt like I was good enough, ever, because I was doing too many things at once. And I had no clue what I was doing. I mean, I think one of the only reasons I survived as long as I did was because, number one, I’m a waste-manager junkie. Way back when I believed in no waste, which is besides the chemicals; I thought it was sinful to waste anything. So I would count everything. I mean, even pieces of fruit on a plate for breakfast. I counted everything always.
I didn’t know how to hire people back then. That took a lot to learn. And I think it’s because the community really knew I was a part of them and trying to take care of them. I think that had a lot to do with it.
FRIEDMAN: So as you start to get into the ’80s, again, how much of what’s starting to happen are you aware of, in terms of more mainstream American restaurants?
COOL: Not much. I didn’t know much. I was going to farming conferences. I’ve been going to Eco Farm for almost 40 years. I’m on the board. I remember when I wrote my first book. HarperCollins said, “So what organizations are you in?” I said, “Ecological Farming Association, Organic Farming Research.” He said, “How about Food & Wine? How about, the James Beard Foundation?” I didn’t even know who they were.
FRIEDMAN: You didn’t know who James Beard was?
COOL: It’s pathetic, isn’t it?
FRIEDMAN: No. It’s alright.
COOL: Please say “refreshing.”
FRIEDMAN: I don’t think anything of it.
COOL: I was isolated. I might have known that it wasn’t my interest. I was more into cooking and getting it on the table and making sure it was surviving, taking care of my staff and my children. I didn’t go out. I just worked.
FRIEDMAN: How did you define yourself? Did you define yourself as a chef? A restaurateur?
COOL: I didn’t like the word chef because I thought chefs were assholes.
COOL: Because they were arrogant and egotistical and they were rude to women. I cooked at the Ahwahnee 26 or 27 years ago. They would stick me in the corner by the dumpster. I had to bring every ingredient. I had to bring my own tools. They didn’t want anything to do with me because I was a woman, untrained and had purple hair. [Editor’s Note: Jesse’s relationship with the Ahwahnee/Majestic is very different today; she’s a regular visiting chef and celebrated a brithday there not long ago.]
And so I didn’t like the word chef because I thought chefs from other countries were not … I didn’t feel like they were fair about who was really cooking good food. When they walked in the kitchen they were very disrespectful to everybody. And I didn’t like that.
They weren’t kind to everybody. I mean, the work was already brutal enough and dangerous enough and low‑paid enough. Why would you be mean to other people?
FRIEDMAN: Are you talking specifically after the whole celebrity thing started or you mean before that?
COOL: No, it was like that before … they’d be brutal to people. I didn’t feel like that with cooking. I thought we were feeding people, we were caring for them. We had to be professional. We had to know the basics. We had to know what French food was about, what German food was about, because I read about it. But to translate it into arrogance …?
I didn’t know any other women were doing this. But I hired women cooks and they were some of the best. So what would I call myself back then? A cook. We used to struggle with what to put on my card. Cooker person? They said, “You can’t use the word cooker person.” How about head cooker person? Lead cooker person? How about kitchen manager? “No, they’re going to think you’re a kitchen manager.”
FRIEDMAN: Cooker person?
FRIEDMAN: You actually wanted to put that?
COOL: Yes. Cooker person.
COOL: What else do you want to know?
FRIEDMAN: I don’t know.
COOL: What have you heard about me? That’s a good one.
COOL: Nothing. I’m under the radar.
FRIEDMAN: Honestly, yeah. Is that awful?
COOL: Oh, no.
FRIEDMAN: That doesn’t hurt your feelings?
COOL: Not at all, no.
FRIEDMAN: People have told me to talk to you. But you’re kind of on the edge of what the book is about.
COOL: I think that with what’s happening currently with food, my career is busting out. Everybody’s after me. They realize that there was a real beginning somewhere …