Jesse Z. Cool's grandson with just-pulled carrots
It's the crack of dawn, and pajama-clad Jesse Z. Cool is out tending her babies - baby carrots, that is, along with beans,eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and other thriving youngsters. As chef and owner of the Flea St. Cafe and JZcool Eatery & Catering in Menlo Park, California, she's developed her garden as a laboratory for fresh, seasonal cooking - and it's become one of her greatest joys. "The garden is therapy," Cool says. "It connects me to nature and brings out my creativity in the kitchen."
When she began her backyard adventure a year ago, Cool knew little about gardening or growing edibles. But she learned fast, thanks to a team of experts who brought the project to fruition. Master Gardener Drew Harwell taught Cool many important concepts, including how to nurture the soil and space plants. She also discovered that a garden constantly goes through stages, so her kitchen philosophy adapts with them. "I'm out there almost every day taking stock of what's available," she says. "My cooking style changes with every stage of harvest."
Cool uses an unorthodox ("I call it old-fashioned") definition of "fresh." "People think the term 'fresh' means a vegetable or fruit that's just been picked off of the plant," she says. "But I think of it as produce that's harvested at its prime and prepared immediately, whether eaten fresh, pickled, roasted, or dried. It doesn't apply to a vegetable flown in from another country."
Given her passion for her new endeavor, Cool now invites local elementary school kids to plant, harvest, and cook with her in her outdoor kitchen. "I want kids to learn the connection," she says, "and understand where food comes from."
DESIGN: Doniach Design and Landscaping, Palo Alto, CA (650/218-8024); Bogie's Landscaping, Palo Alto (650/533-5835)