Jesse Cool opened her first eatery, Late For The Train, 25 years ago, but she has been committed to organic and sustainable agriculture and healthy cuisine for longer than that. While most restaurateurs operate under the motto that the customer is always right, Cool answers to a different set of principles. Her menus are strictly seasonal, taking advantage of California's bounty during harvest months, and boast at least 85 percent organic ingredients. But she's realistic when it comes to organic options in the future, and in her words, she's simply a chef, mother and businesswoman trying to do the best she can.
In honor of Organic Harvest Month, Cool sat down with NFM to answer a few questions about organic foods, cooking for customers and the future, as she sees it.
NFM: What makes a recipe organic and why? Can't you just take any recipe, whether from Betty Crocker or George Foreman, and use organic ingredients where conventional might be called for and have it be organic?
Cool: In a word, yes. When I wrote my last book, Your Organic Kitchen [Rodale, 2000], I wondered how in the world I was going to pull this off. All organic cooking means is to cook as you always do and just use organic ingredients. But therein lies the problem: finding ingredients that are organic. Because of that, I divided my book into eight seasonal chapters. By cooking seasonally, and beginning with produce first, one has a better chance of finding that organic ingredient.
NFM: Flea St. Café in Menlo Park, Calif., is 85 percent organic; why? Are there values along with, or above and beyond, organic that influence your cooking and your business?
Cool: The restaurant is the way it is because I am a realist. I try to buy as much organic as I can, but I do not want to deceive the public. In truth, as the industry grows, I have to carefully consider all aspects of how an ingredient is grown and produced. With large corporations buying out small companies, sometimes the product is certified organic, but not necessarily handled in a totally sustainable way.
Of course, I choose organic first. It unquestionably has a kinder impact on the environment, and in my opinion, is best because it is free of artificial and possibly harmful pesticides, chemicals, growth hormones and ripening agents. But I feel it's also important to know the people who produce my ingredients. For example, all of my meat comes from Niman Ranch, where the animals are sustainably raised and butchered. The ranch uses no growth hormones or antibiotics but is not certified organic. The same goes for wines and some cheeses.
I am looking for food that is simply produced; that is grown with care; and if processed, like with meat, fish or dry goods, is done with care and consciousness of the many sustainable issues.
NFM: When Flea St. first opened, what was the customer reaction to the seasonal menus?
Cool: For years, it was not accepted. I got criticized once by a magazine food critic for not having any tomatoes on my menu. It was January, and I thought, "what an idiot."
But that said, seasonal menus do mean a big shift in cooking for and pleasing people. We use root vegetables, brassicas, greens, and organic canned, dried and frozen foods. We follow very old-fashioned ways of cooking in cold months—like our forefathers and mothers used to; we preserve food at its prime and use it during times of shortage. When you work like this, the ingredients are more nutritious and sustainable, and it supports local farms during peak season, when they have too much to sell. I wish more small organic farmers knew that there was a market for their crops during the off-season months; that they could take the plentiful and abundant harvest and sell to the fresh market, but also dry, freeze and can the remainder.
Fresh is not always the answer. Using top-quality, great-tasting organic tomatoes, canned, dried or frozen, means not shipping them from far distances. It means the price of cooking with organic ingredients in your own kitchen goes down because you are not paying a fortune for out-of-season foods shipped from around the world.
Of course if you live in locations with extreme weather, you do what you must do. But most people don't even know how to eat seasonally and locally first: fresh in season and then preserved when out of season.
NFM: How did you, and do you, respond to people who question the fact that their favorite thing in the world is not on the menu during a certain season?
Cool: We try to give them something even better and help them understand that flavors are best and food is healthier when using seasonal ingredients. Plus, there is magic to waiting until something is in season. My kitchens get really excited when tomatoes are finally available or when asparagus season begins. It makes food real and connects the planet and us.
NFM: What's the biggest challenge of running an organic restaurant?
Cool: Image was tough. People used to make fun of us a lot, but it happens less and less as time goes on. For years, people thought we were vegetarian, too. And though we are a plant-based menu, we are not "health food." We are just real food that is top quality, and for us that means organic when possible.
One of the biggest challenges has been to have a chef really embrace our whole philosophy, to believe that we have a responsibility to use organic because it is a bigger issue than just serving food in a restaurant. The idea of seasonal menus was really hard on the chefs. They just did not get it, and I drove them crazy, but there is no reason to cook with out-of-season foods here in northern California.
NFM: What drives your organic philosophy? In your cookbook, you mentioned a familial respect for food, and there are environmental, taste and health reasons, as well. So what puts the O in organic for you?
Cool: Responsibility first. My product is food, and for me, the integrity behind it has always been different. The word gourmet means nothing to me. I respect vegetarians, but I do eat meat. What has grown with my entire staff and me is a strong connection between organic foods, personal health and the environment.
NFM: How do organic foods fit into the "real world"? Do you see America and its food production system finding a middle ground between the corporate need to make a lot of food in a hurry and food made with love, either grown organically or sustainably, or made from scratch?
Cool: I am in a quandary these days. The whole organic scene is growing beyond my small way of relating to it. Before, we knew where our food came from, whether it was produce—even canned or preserved—meat, poultry and, as much as possible, fish. Now, with the big corporations taking over, I feel lost. We still buy from as many local people as we can. I know Bill Niman, and we only buy meat through him. And we buy fish from a company that has promised to sell us only sustainably raised or caught fish. I guess I hope that men like Gene Kahn at Small Planet Foods, who is now vice president of General Mills, are the kind that take the organic foods business into the future.
I am glad that more acreage is going to be organic for obvious reasons. But, I am a realist, and I know that the world's population is growing faster than how we deal with natural resources. I don't want to support GMOs. I don't trust them and fear what they will do long term, in exchange for fixing the food situation short term.
I see the planet growing smaller and organic cannot be an elitist experience. That is why I opened jZcool eatery and catering company, to make organic foods available at a more moderate price. But personally, I see my business as more sustainable.
NFM: In your latest cookbook, you mention that your son turned into a junk food junkie for a time. Now, natural foods stores are stocked with organic junk food; what do you think about the possibility of an organic Twinkie?
Cool: My eldest did despise organic foods for awhile, and he hated fake, hippie-dippy health food packaged as junk food, too. The younger one is getting into the organic thing. But, they are good judges of balance and know there's a time for junk and a time for taking care of themselves. They are both very healthy and eat well, 85 percent of the time. They live in the real world, and they indulge consciously when they do.
As for the organic Twinkie, that's pushing the envelope, but I must stay open-minded, and I need to see what happens first and then make opinions. In the meantime, I just do my own work in my own community. Organic is the best I can do. Knowing where my food comes from is a challenge, and with my staff, we do the best we can.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 9/p. 24, 30-31