Chef Jesse 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. Cool is also the author of seven cookbooks, a guest lecturer and teacher of teachers at Stanford University, and is spearheading a major movement to bring healthy organic food to hospitals.
With a love of food and cooking that carried through from her upbringing, Cool opened her first restaurant with locally sourced clean food in the seventies, which in those times was quite challenging. "People often think the challenge was about cost," she says. "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.
"From 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."
Her mission and philosophy have worked and are finally paying off.
After years of financial ups and downs in the natural foods business, stability is finally here for Cool. "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. I've had my busiest 4 years ever. Some of this has to do with management and learning how to be more of a businessperson, although a lot of it has to do with not being trendy but being part of the trend.
"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 Cool'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.
Healthy Hospital Food
A few years back, her restaurants' renown brought Cool into a whole new arena. A conversation with the doctors from nearby Stanford Hospital who ate at her Flea Street restaurant in Menlo Park turned to hospital food. "I told them, please do simple food for people who are sick and scared: a simple purÃ©e 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?"
The conversation led to an introduction to the CEO of Stanford Hospital, which led to the attempted launch of a program Cool 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," she remarks. "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."
Cool has now dug in for the long haul of bringing healthy and wholesome change to hospital food—and has actually seen what it will involve. "I think it's going to take some outside support," she says. "The good news is Stanford Hospital is really starting to take a look at what it means to use truly local fresh food, and how to obtain it in volume, and how food is connected to healing and well-being."
Teaching the Teachers
Teaching is also a major aspect of Cool's mission. Through the Stanford Teacher Education Program, she 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," Cool explains. "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."
Through her cookbook Simply Organic (Chronicle Books, 2008), Cool is also educating the public at large. This unique work seeks to assist anyone, in converting his or her home kitchen, to be completely organic. "One of the new trends is that the young are starting to cook at home," Cool says. "I believe that the soulful satisfaction we get from cooking at home should be made easier."