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?…