To Life! Festival:My heroes are my farmers

“I get referred to all the time as the Alice Waters of Palo Alto. I hate it, because I’m me,” says Jesse Ziff Cool.

“I eat everything. I just want it to be clean and straightforward. It’s just food. My heroes are my farmers.”

That’s evident from her menus, some of which she’ll be sharing in the cooking pavilion at the “To Life!” fair on Sunday, Oct. 24, in Palo Alto.

The following items were recently on the menu at Flea Street Cafe in Menlo Park, one of three eateries she operates. (The others are JZCool Eatery and Catering Co. in Menlo Park and the Cool Cafe at Stanford’s Cantor Art Museum.) They included organic chicken breast crusted with cumin and chili, served with “my nana’s” stewed summer squash and Heirloom Farms butterball potatoes, grilled Niman Ranch leg of lamb with balsamic blackberry sauce, grilled local wild seafood on a large Caesar salad or a salad of Stone Free Farms sweet lettuces.

But don’t call Cool — yes, that really is her name — “organic” either. Although she has long been an advocate of natural foods, decades before they were fashionable, Cool, 55, is also beginning to veer away from the “organic” label. Instead, her focus is on fresh, sustainable and local.

“I will buy from a local farmer to save that farm. I want to make sure there’s still farms in this Valley of Heart’s Delight,” the pre-tech moniker of Silicon Valley. “I’m wanting to connect to where your food’s from.”

These days, some of her own fare is from her own garden. She recently put in a 12-bed vegetable garden “the size of a swimming pool” in her Palo Alto backyard, where she also has a chicken coop.

“You’re allowed six livestock in the city of Palo Alto, but no roosters. I tried.”

When a representative from the humane society knocked on her door after the neighbors complained and said, “Jesse, do you have a rooster?” Cool coolly let her know the fate of the rooster. No, she’s not a vegetarian.

Cool’s cuisine — she is also a popular caterer as well as the author of five cookbooks — is not only from her backyard and from California farms. It has roots in the family business — a grocery store owned by her Orthodox father in a small working-class town near Pittsburgh.

She will be sharing her tsimmes and her memories at 3 p.m. at the “To Life!” cooking pavilion, and her 84-year-old mother, June, will be on hand to “tell me what I’m doing right and wrong.”

Other food mavens on the schedule include Mat Schuster of Whole Foods; Barbara Gottesman, cooking instructor for Barb’s Bites, focusing on food for kids; Howard Bulka, head chef and owner of Marche restaurant in Palo Alto; and cooking teacher Joanne Donsky, a longtime New Bridges activist.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, Cool was raised Jewish, but her culinary traditions also came from her mother’s side, a blend of Italian and Croatian. “On the one side, I was making tsimmes. On the other, homemade ravioli and baccala,” salted cod.

“I was brought up Jewish, and we spent every holiday at temple, but maybe because my dad ran a store in the poorest neighborhood in a coal-mining town, we didn’t isolate ourselves,” says Cool, who helped out in the store from age 12 on.

“My mother … taught me nurturing, that love and food go hand in hand. She was part Jewish and was very active in the Jewish community and kept us connected. … My dad was with the people — blacks, Poles, an incredible melting pot.”

At first, Cool resisted going into the family business, in part because “I was terrified that food was going to lead me to be overweight.” Instead, she studied religion, and graduated as a speech and language major from Temple University.

But moving to California, she landed a job in 1974 as head waitress at The Good Earth in Palo Alto. Two years later, she and her former husband, Bob Cool, opened Late for the Train Restaurant in Menlo Park. Other eateries followed.

“I always surrounded myself somehow and used food as a vehicle to take care of people and to be in the community,” she said. “The Good Earth was just in many ways the beginning of stepping into the actual restaurant business. … I didn’t want [food] to be my livelihood. I finally threw in the towel when I met Bob Cool.”

She also discovered that food bonded her to her parents. “It was my way of getting close to my father,” Eddie Ziff. “My dad taught me what ever product I sold had to have integrity and I went into the food business like him.”

In later years, her parents moved to California, and Eddie Ziff sold produce at the Palo Alto and Menlo Park farmers’ markets, where he was known as a character, often with a sprig of parsley behind his ear. His wish was to die at the farmers’ market, and in a way, it came true. In 2002, Ziff had a massive stroke at the Menlo Park farmers’ market on the morning of his 85th birthday, in front of his daughter, who had planned a party for him at the market that day.

A week later, Cool had a party in her father’s memory at the market. She also had a semi-traditional shiva in her home, and began a return to Jewish spirituality after her father’s death, which she can’t talk about without choking up. Like food, Judaism connects her to her father, and what she particularly loves is that the religion “celebrates the harvest, peace, family, community — so many of the holidays are around that — it’s part of who I am and how I live my life.”

Cool has two grown sons and two grandsons, and her 5-year-old grandson is intrigued by the garden and the chicken coop — which her youngest son found an embarrassment while growing up, along with the sheets hung out to try. But the garden, the table and her connection to her grandsons also connect Cool to her roots.

Where does Cool see the future of California cuisine? “I see the direction of food, thank God finally, going back to where it was — people going to farmers’ markets, starting gardens, wanting to connect to where your food’s from.”

And, more personally, in her own life? “I’m still dating. They want me to go on the Internet … forget it! No, no, I’ve been married to my restaurant. That’s what I’ve done. [Now] I’m coming home.”


Chicken with prunes complements a Moroccan menu

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].