Charlie Ayers thought his bosses—Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin—were crazy when they hired him as their 53rd employee in 1999. A Silicon Valley tech start-up hiring a full-time chef? "Some of the best restaurants in Palo Alto are all around you. Go there [for lunch]," the now famous corporate chef remembers telling Page and Brin.
But the founders had a plan: provide their employees with a fast, healthy midday meal to power their minds throughout the afternoon and cut down on time spent in packed lunch lines at neighboring restaurants. Ayers, a chef who had gained a reputation in the San Francisco Bay area by catering for the Grateful Dead and other local bands, hopped on board and not only turned out delicious meal after delicious meal but turned the Google cafeteria into the hottest eatery in the valley.
By the time Ayers left Google in 2005, he was serving more than 4,000 lunches and dinners to Google employees on a daily basis. In addition to engineers and programmers, his meals were eaten by Mikhail Gorbachev, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and Bono.
Now Ayers is revealing the inner workings of his kitchen in his first cookbook: "Food 2.0: Secrets of the Chef Who Fed Google." In addition to lists of his favorite spices, oils, and pantry must-haves—which include beer and chocolate—Ayers lays out step-by-step instructions for nearly 150 recipes, including some Googleplex favorites like "Charlie's Mystical Granola" and "Google Hot Sauce." Ayers took a moment from celebrating his April 21 book launch to speak with NEWSWEEK's Miyoko Ohtake. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Why did you want to write a cookbook?
Charlie Ayers: I'm a restaurateur—and I'm certainly not advocating that people don't go to restaurants—but we rely on restaurants way too much as a society. In other places in the world that's the way it works, because there's no space in a house for a kitchen and people work longer and harder than we do, but here in the U.S. people are lazy and don't cook. And then when they do cook, their pantries have enough chemicals in them to create a bomb. We need to learn to be more self-sufficient and sustainable and less reliant on restaurants.
How did you come up with the title for your book, "Food 2.0"?
It's a play on words because of my association with technology companies in Silicon Valley. Last year one of the tech publications in the Bay Area dubbed me the "Silicon Chef," so we thought "Food 2.0" would be funny.
What's your favorite recipe?
I just made the breakfast tacos [shredded roast beef, shallots, chili, rice, eggs, hot sauce, napa cabbage, and cheese rolled up in a yellow corn tortilla] this morning, even though I wasn't hung over—it's a great hangover meal. I also really like the wild salmon and warm beet salad, because it has three of my favorite ingredients: salmon, bacon, and beets.
In the cookbook you stress the importance of eating raw and fermented food. Are you worried people are going to shrug that off as another hippie idea to come from the Bay Area?
I think to a certain degree that the raw food platform is a fad, but incorporating raw foods into your regular diet is not going to be a fad. It's as simple as eating fruit, lettuce or a simple salad with an olive oil vinaigrette. There's no heat in any of that, so none of the nutrients are depleted. And if you look back at cultures that embraced fermented food, they all had great records of longevity: the Asian, Eastern European and Mediterranean cultures. Fermented foods, like yogurts, are the custodians of your insides.
You also emphasize eating locally. Are people going to be able to afford to eat locally grown food as the economy continues on this downhill slide and food prices continue to rise?
We're blessed here in the Bay Area because we have such a bountiful selection of foods made within a 150-mile radius. Someone in Minnesota may have a more difficult time doing that in the wintertime, but if you go back in history, people didn't have these supermarkets and they still ate. You have to do a little digging; you have to be smart about it and do some work on Google to find out where you can source your foods locally. Ultimately it becomes about what it means to you. You have to make a socially conscious decision about your food.
Besides writing "Food 2.0," what have you been doing since you left Google in May 2005?
I have a lease on a restaurant we're planning on opening in August in Palo Alto: Calafia Café and Market a Go Go. It's two businesses under one roof. Half of it is an Internet cybercafe. It's not fast food by any means; it's slow food in a fast environment. The other half is a high-end grab-and-go market like something you'd see in a Whole Foods. It's controlled by the seasons, so it's always fresher.
What type of food will you be serving up?
I love to play with the Latin, Asian, and East Asian flavors—what I call the foods we eat here in California. It could be called Latin-Asian fusion, but I don't like to be pigeonholed into a certain type of menu. I specialize in making people happy.
Your book is sprinkled with phrases connecting food to contentment, such as when you advocate eating chilies by highlighting that "the brain responds to the burning taste by releasing endorphins that make you feel happy!" and even labeling beer a "happiness item" and chocolate as a "non-negotiable" part of your life. What is your cooking philosophy?
My whole thing is seeking the path of least resistance and getting the best without killing yourself doing it.
What's your advice for making that happen?
Plan out your week. Find that one day of the week you'd normally plop down in front of the television and map what you're going to eat and when you're going to cook it. I have a board next to my fridge to mark what I'm going to eat and how I can use the leftovers from that meal to bring to work for lunch the next day—since we don't all work at Google and have our lunches made for us.