Googles first executive chef and lots of free samples on tap at Hazon food fest in Palo Alto

Will chef Charlie Ayers be using words like “sustainable,” “organic” and “local” when he speaks at Hazon’s Farm to Table Food Festival next week? Of course. Those are the meat and potatoes of his career, as well as of the Jewish food movement.

But hopefully he also will regale attendees with a few stories from 1999 through 2005, when he rose to fame — and ended up with a small fortune — as the first executive chef at Google.

One good story would be how he cooked for Google’s first Passover seder, now a tradition on the Mountain View campus.

Charlie Ayers

“In the early days of Google — and I was there when there were 55 employees, before it was a publicly traded company — they always had a menorah at the front desk around the holidays, and no Christmas tree or anything like that. So a seder seemed like a natural for the company’s demographics at the time,” Ayers said.

Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are both Jewish, as is Craig Silverstein, Google’s first employee. Ayers was employee No. 53, and when he left in 2005, he reportedly departed with $26 million in stock options.

Ayers isn’t Jewish, but he grew up in a pair of Jewish communities back East: Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York, and Parsippany, New Jersey. “A lot of things I learned to cook as a young man came out of that environment,” he said.

By the time he left Google, Ayers was overseeing 10 cafés at the company’s headquarters, with a team of five sous chefs and 150 employees. Since 2009, he has run Calafia Café in Palo Alto.

At Google, Ayers’ first foray into Jewish cooking came when he served borscht, latkes and brisket around Hanukkah time in 1999. “Over the years, it became ‘Latke Wars,’ ” he said. “There were never enough latkes for the employees.”

A pair of attendees chow down at 2014 festival photo/hazon

The Google seder was born two years later, in 2001. “Back then Google was still fairly small and it was a more collaborative environment, so engineers and other non-cook team members were in on the planning. Craig Silverstein handled the gefilte fish, and I handled all the [food] preparation and production.”

One crowd-pleaser that Ayers still makes to this day is a chocolate-topped matzah torte, with orange marmalade and chocolate between layers of matzah. “And I got it off the back of a Manischewitz box,” he said with pride.

Ayers is slated to give a 50-minute cooking demonstration and tasting that will wrap up the festival, scheduled for 2 to 5 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

A partnership between Hazon and the JCC, this year’s event will be different from the all-day Hazon Jewish Food Festivals held in the Bay Area in years past: It’s shorter, it’s renamed and it’s free.

“We wanted it to be more accessible and to feel more like a festival,” said S.F.-based Hazon fellow Nia Taylor, who helped plan the event. “In the past, maybe it felt more like an all-day conference. Also, calling it a ‘Jewish food’ festival made people think of bagels, kugel and knishes. But this is more about Jewish food values and the Jewish food movement.”

Packed into three hours will be six adult workshops (subjects include challah-braiding, beekeeping and cheesemaking) and nine activities/classes designed to be kid-friendly (kale smoothies, butter, peas and the lifecycle of ladybugs).

More than 15 food-oriented tables on-site will showcase items such as sunflower seed snacks, honey, almond milk, baked goods, tea and kosher kefir. “We have more vendors and more complimentary samples than ever before,” Taylor said, noting that one vendor is a beer store offering free tastings.

Available for purchase will be items from L’chaim Sushi, Pop Nation popsicles, and lox-and-sour-cream crepes (and other varieties) from native Frenchman Antoine Kaufman, who ran Les Crepes d’Antoine at farmers markets from 1999 to 2011.

Because New York-based Hazon has decided to close its San Francisco office next month, there’s a chance this event will be the final Hazon food festival in the Bay Area.

“There is that possibility,” Taylor said, “but hopefully somebody — maybe the JCC in Palo Alto — will take on this festival and continue it.”

Hazon’s Farm to Table Food Festival, 2-5 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. Free.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.