“Changemaker” Series: Chef And Restauranteur Jesse Ziff Cool And Her Fava Bean Orzo Salad

Jesse Ziff Cool is my featured Changemaker this month. For my non-local readers, Cool is a well-known Silicon Valley chef who has been dedicated to sustainable agriculture and cuisine for more than four decades–long before “farm-to-table” was a catchphrase. To be clear, despite many comparisons, she is not Alice Waters. Nor is she trying to be. Cool is simply driven by doing “the right thing“. She is feisty, intuitive, and completely self-taught. Cool is one of the original trailblazers in the area of chemical-free foods. Cool believes, contrary to what you will hear many chefs say, that the customer comes last. At her wildly successful Menlo Park eatery, Flea Street Cafe (a favorite of mine), Cool’s allegiance has been to (1) those serving the customers and (2) the people who grow the food that she serves.
Jesse Ziff Cool

Cool describes herself as a former “hippy-chick”, who stumbled into the culinary world without any formal culinary or business training. Not surprisingly, she’s had to fight sexism and discrimination every step of the way. Cool’s philosophy is for “high-quality food made from clean (chemical-free) organic ingredients with a touch of political activism and social justice on the side.” Cool says it was often challenging to get men in the business to respect her even as a successful restaurant owner. Cool said respect and acknowledgment were often hard to come by, but she persevered.

Cool has worn many hats: she has penned 7 cookbooks geared toward seasonal cooking including my favorite, which came out in 2008 just when the farm-to-table movement began. Much more than just a cookbook, Simply Organic seeks to help home cooks in converting their home to be completely organic. This concept is still relevant today. Cool believes “the soulful satisfaction we get from cooking at home should be made easier”—Simply Organic shows one how. Cool, a true go-getter, has also run a successful catering business, taught cooking classes, and founded 5 local Silicon Valley restaurants. If that weren’t enough, she has also served as a food consultant, most significantly to Stanford University Hospital, where she has helped shift the hospital toward making better, organic food choices available for patients.

Cool, was raised in a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania. Her father, an Orthodox Jew, owned a grocery store and a bakery where Cool saw first-hand how he made everything from scratch. Cool learned from him to use local ingredients. Her uncle owned a local meat-processing plant, which is where she learned about reducing waste through whole-animal eating. As a child, Cool was always surrounded by farm fresh, homemade food. Looking back, Cool would say “food awareness was in her from the get-go“. Cool was taught what she called “Old World European methods of cooking and eating seasonally”. Those traditions made her food conscious and made her care about how food is farmed, handled, and processed. This focus, which she has carried through her professional life, is what drew me to feature Cool as a Changemaker.

Cool came to the Palo Alto area in the early 1970s. Her first job was waitressing at Good Earth, a much-loved health-conscious eatery. In 1976, she and her then-husband, Bob Cool, opened Late For the Train, her first restaurant. The concept was simple, delicious “food that had no artificial anything in it that was made by hand” a unique concept at the time. Late for the Train became a local favorite until it officially closed its doors in 2003. Cool went on to open four more successful restaurants all with the same premise. In 1980, Cool opened the still-thriving Flea Street Cafe, and JZ Cool Eatery And Wine Bar (now closed).

Cool has been committed to only using food and wine that are produced sustainably and regionally. If you ask Cool, buying locally provides great quality, helps your economy, protects valuable farmland, enhances local food systems, and ultimately keeps us and our whole environment healthy.  I happen to agree. For Cool, it isn’t about labels like organic for their own sake—it is about supporting a community and consuming foods that are free of pesticides, preservatives, and chemicals.

Jesse Ziff Cool

Cool’s parents, June and Eddie Ziff were and continue to have a huge impact on her beliefs and the food she serves. When you first enter Flea Street, you will see their portraits up front, a homage to her roots. Cool’s Jewish and Italian backgrounds at times caused conflict but intertwined magically when it came to cuisine. Cool believes that sustainable cuisine “links together from beginning to end, people, ingredients, respect for the environment, and culinary traditions”.
At 69, Cool is reflective but shows no signs of slowing down. She is at Flea Street daily and actively involved in all aspects of its operations alongside her talented and devoted staff. She is a devoted mother, and grandmother of 2, and in recent years Cool has become an avid cyclist in her free time.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Cool recently.  Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Simmer + Sauce: What do you typically eat in a day?

Jesse Ziff Cool: I start the day with a few cups of really black dark coffee. I tend to like savory in the mornings so I often begin my mornings with soups, which for me are warming and easy to digest. Sometimes I’ll want yogurt and fruit…but I would much rather have a big bowl of puréed carrot ginger soup with a little bit of yogurt or goat cheese and a sprinkle of chives in my garden.

Simmer + Sauce:Clean food” is a popular term today. This is something you’ve been preaching about for years. What is “clean food” to you?

Jesse Ziff Cool: That’s an interesting question because when people ask what the beginnings of my career in the food industry were in 1976, it was not organic, it was not local, but it was a very important ethic for me which was “clean food”. And we couldn’t use the (term) “clean food” and no one was talking about sustainable or farm-to-table food. For me, clean food remains the most important core value of my business and the way I feed my family, myself, and my community. What it means is just real food, meaning you’re taking out the artificial chemicals you’re taking off the stabilizers, you’re taking out the coloring, you’re taking out whatever it is to make it thicker, it’s just real food that is grown in the right way. I could keep going into what I believe clean food is from a social justice perspective. That clean food means that you’re not just making sure you wash it at the end but that you have a real sensibility, intuition, and acknowledgment that from the very beginning which is soil, water, and air there is as little happening as you can control. And that makes it a much bigger thought than just “artificial”, it goes deeper into production and people.

Simmer + Sauce: Many people in the food community compare you and Alice Water as you are both very ingredient-driven. What do you make of the comparison?

Jesse Ziff Cool: I respect Alice (Waters) and we have been doing the same thing for almost the same amount of time.  I am terrible at marketing, I am not a publicist person and I live in Menlo Park and Palo Alto. Being in Menlo Park and being in the South Bay was like living in Idaho, the food stopped in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Sonoma. For me to go to the community that Alice surrounded herself with would’ve been impossible, especially with two children as a single parent with restaurants. So we just lived in very different worlds. Our values I believe and our connections to all the elements of food are similar.  I think neither of us is classically trained, she was much more French than me I was much more hippy-organic. We started in different places and ended up the same.

Simmer + Sauce: In speaking about organic foods, you have said “food is finally connected to personal, long-term being”, can you elaborate on what you mean by this.

Jesse Ziff Cool:  For me when communities got lost from where food came from, I began to feel like an outcast. People always say ‘you’re a pioneer’. My response to that is, I’m not a pioneer I’m just an old-fashioned person. A pioneer invents something, I don’t invent anything. For me, there needs to be a connection to what it means to have full well-being, which is not just eating right and exercising. Looking at the big picture we have gotten lost in cooking and are not happy. People are lost for what it means to sit down and eat without looking at their phones. They can’t figure out why so many people are not experiencing well-being when it’s a big result of what the food is that they are eating and where it comes from. I suppose, going back to my hippie roots, that I believe that there is something about this fuel that we eat that is bigger. Is it just food but if it was grown by people who care and cooked by someone who cares (which is very Zen), then there is love and passion in that food. We are organisms that are a part of a bigger well-being. Seeing this idea finally get into the hospital system, seeing nutrition being addressed rather than a quick fix of medication, is positive. Hospitals need to go back to feeding you sensible, delicious, clean food rather than that scary stuff.

Simmer + Sauce: There is lots of information out there about eating organic foods, when you absolutely should and when it’s not necessary. Do you have a cheat list of things that you approve of for consumption that are not organic?

Jesse Ziff Cool: I believe in the 85-15 rule, anybody who is a fanatic or an extremist is probably not happy. There are things I will not eat unless they are organic: strawberries, potatoes and artichokes, cabbage, or anything with leaves because they spray those heavily for bugs. If it happens to be there, I know I take care of myself well enough so I don’t worry about it. I shop well, I am conscious and careful most of the time. I would tell people if they’re willing to spend a little more on real food and to be careful when they shop when they are out at In-and-Out Burger or when they are traveling or they are eating delicious Cheetos every once in a while: just enjoy it. Just go for it and don’t give yourself a hard time. If you are doing it all the time, then you’ve got a problem. But living in the real world, poisons have existed since the beginning of time. And I feel people who choose poisons occasionally are much more interesting and exciting than those that don’t!

Simmer + Sauce: You have long held the position that “the customer comes last”. I’ve worked in the front and back of the house of restaurants. This is unconventional thinking. Can you explain your philosophy?

Jesse Ziff Cool: The customer coming last started when I worked at Late for the Train in the mid-70s when the words organic and clean food were not even used, or we were ridiculed and mocked as being extreme. I realized I had staff who were washing boxes of potatoes or lots of strawberries. So, this initially started without my knowing it, in my wanting to take care of the staff. Then I started thinking about people, my customers, being exposed to chemicals and preservatives. So I started writing about this concern with strawberries in the 80’s. I remember an article I wrote.  I started by stating I was so sad walking around the grocery store and watching a young mother take a basket of strawberries and give her baby a strawberry thinking she was giving her something ‘good’.  She didn’t realize it was sprayed with methyl bromide. And I know they say methyl bromide dissipates, but there is no proof of that. Of course, we now know that methyl bromide is harmful. But even before I heard any scientific proof, I didn’t want to risk it.  Intuition told me organic food was better than not, intuition said we cannot eat those foods even if they say the chemicals go away or evaporate. I didn’t want to hear 10 to 15 years down the road that my children, my staff, my community, or the people growing our food have been poisoned. And I have to say: I was right. 

Intuition told me not to hurt people just to make it cheap. And do not poison your staff so that the customers can get what they want. The core value of that is: if you take care of all of that if my staff are professionally trained and they feel nurtured, it will spill over to the guests automatically. Saying the customer comes first feels superficial to me.

Simmer + Sauce: You have two sons whom you successfully raised on limited junk food. Impressive. Many families aspire to this. Any advice for them on how to do this successfully?

Jesse Ziff Cool: I had a formula. For my first child, ‘the hippy child’, I was a nightmare mother because he was not allowed to have anything.  One day he came home in tears and said ‘You lied to me. A cracker is not a cookie. I went to school and a cookie is different from a cracker. And no one will trade lunch with me because it’s disgusting. And mom, sometimes I open the container and hope it’s yogurt (inside).”  So, he then snuck food. He cheated. One time we were sitting on the bed and he pulled out this big thing of candy he was hiding. So, I thought, ok this did not work. Of course, he balanced himself out (later on) and he’s a very healthy eater as an adult. So, with my second one, I thought ok, let’s try something different. My other son was allowed to go into the grocery store and choose 3 things every time we were there that I wouldn’t buy. And I would go through the grocery store and hope that no one would recognize me because you know, it would always be Fruit Loops or Lucky Charms and I have to bury that in my cart. We would go to the farmers market and I would give my son $5 to shop. I would tell him you are not allowed to buy more than one pastry. And this was a struggle for him…he would buy a $4 pasty and a single carrot.

So, what I would say is: teach your children from within rather than from the outside how to make their own decisions. Give them your values, walk the walk of choosing poisons sometimes; try not to over-eat or over-drink, but be honest with them. Teach them to balance. My kids are incredibly healthy and make good food and general choices about their lives and families as adults. You have a right to be a parent and to set the rules. My mom taught me to go to the edge of experience, but to trust my instincts from within and always know when to step back for safety. Indulge, and have fun, but realize what that 15% off the track can create and that it is up to them to figure out how to be aware, take care of themselves and others 85% or most of the time.

Simmer + Sauce: I interviewed Jacques Pepin earlier this year and he spoke about the importance of involving your children and grandchildren in the cooking process so they learn to become good eaters. This theory has worked with my two boys. What are your thoughts on cooking with kids?

Jesse Ziff Cool: When you think about how recipes get passed on it’s by the children sitting there and being included.  My children had core recipes that even if they were watching television, they had to come help make. This included some essentials, like pie crust, homemade noodles, chicken stock, eggs, steamed and roasted vegetables, and a simple vinaigrette They will make anyone happy with this.

Simmer + Sauce: Mom, chef, restaurateur, businesswoman, author, lecturer, consultant, bike enthusiast–you have worn many hats over the years, is there something you still wish to tackle?

Jesse Ziff Cool: I don’t feel like I have ever been good at any of those because I was all over the place. The joke used to be I wish I could have been a backup dancer for Stevie Wonder or Earth Wind and Fire because I love to dance. Now, I just want to go back to where I began and I’m sorting through this. I’m so grateful to this community for helping the business grow. But I honestly want to go back and be that sweet girl who was comfortable and satisfied with simplicity; someone who enjoys cooking too much food and then calling everyone and saying ‘eat with me.’ I would like to put less pressure on myself about business and get back to the simple elements of living in my local community and taking care of the people who take care of me right now, which is my staff. I’d like to get myself connected to that girl again—to my roots. Becoming a businesswoman was very hard and not natural for me at all.

Simmer + Sauce: Food-wise, do you have a secret guilty pleasure?

Jesse Ziff Cool: I love salt. I will indulge myself sometimes and eat popcorn and chips in bed. My grandchildren love this. I don’t think it’s indulgent, but I have a martini every night. Some call it indulgent. I like a martini lightly shaken, with British-style gins, no botanicals served up in a small glass with a sidecar, we serve at Flea Street. I don’t want a bucket and I want my drink cold. When I go back East, to Western Pennsylvania, I indulge in a chopped ham sandwich on Wonder Bread with Miracle Whip, maybe that’s how I am not like Alice!

Cool has shared a fantastic favorite seasonal recipe of hers: Fava Beans and Orzo Salad. I can’t rave about it enough, but my love of fave beans is no secret. This recipe comes from her well-known cookbook Simply Organic. Fitting to the title, this salad is simple, clean, easy but earthy, and just right for the warm summer months.

Fave Beans And Orzo Salad

I want to thank Cool for allowing me to feature her in my Changemaker series. It was a pleasure and honor being able to sit down with her and chat about her amazing career and dedication to real food. While Cool says away from the praise and spotlight, she is deserving of it all for the trailblazing role she has had in the area of clean, organic and sustainable food–making her a true Changemaker in my eyes. Cool is kind, humble, warm and incredibly compassionate. In the end, I think she has been spot on in her thoughts about food, and ahead of her time. I look up to Cool tremendously for her dedication and unwavering determination, and wish her peace and contentment in her next chapter.

About the Author

Andrea Potischman

I am a professionally trained NYC chef turned CA mom and food blogger. I post about real food, with doable ingredient lists that are family friendly.

4 thoughts on "“Changemaker” Series: Chef And Restauranteur Jesse Ziff Cool And Her Fava Bean Orzo Salad"

  1. Avatar photo Robin Whitney says:

    Thank you for this informative article. I recently was going through my old cookbooks and looked through one on “Tomatoes” written by Cool. My interest in learning more about the author brought me to your article. I found Jesse to be a kindred spirit as I have always been that parent and grandparent that wanted only the healthiest ingredients for her family. She is truly an inspiration, trying her best to educate the hospitals on better food choices. I am holding on to her cookbook which was published in 1994 and plan to cook from it soon. ❤️

    1. Hi Robin- Thank you for reaching out. I am so glad you found and enjoyed this post on Jesse, she is a remarkable human in every way. I admire her so very much and it has been a pleasure knowing her over the years. Her food is lovely, Flea Street is a true favorite of mind and is cherished in the area. I hope you try this recipe of hers (and others), they are also wonderful. Happy cooking.

  2. Avatar photo Amy Thornborrow says:

    As someone who has eaten at Flea Street more times than I can count. it was very interesting learning more about Jesse Ziff Cool, her approach to food and how she got where she is now. AS a parent, I found good reminders in the piece about explaining our choices, why we buy organic and why we strive to cook simple, whole foods as much as possible. A great post AP!

    1. Thanks for the lovely comment Amy! Cool is really an amazing woman and this whole feature was a great leaning experience for me.

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