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He Fed The Dead, and Google, Too.

Review of “Food 2.0, Secrets from the Chef Who Fed Google”

Review of Food 2.0: Secrets from the Chef Who Fed Google, by Charlie Ayers with Karen Alexander and Carolyn Humphries, DK Books, 2008.

Charlie Ayers, the chef who fed Google, the Grateful Dead, Bill Clinton, Bono, and all “The Other Ones,” has written his first cookbook. But, as he told The Food Channel, “'Food 2.0’ is much more than a cookbook.”

Charlie Ayers helped keep Google and the Grateful Dead well fed.

When we hooked up with Charlie he said he was helping to plan an event for Al Franken’s campaign for the U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota. So he’s obviously still hob-nobbing with the rich and famous, the funny and political. To think he got his start as a dishwasher.

Ayers has been in the cooking business all his life, he said. He worked for Hilton Hotels in New Jersey, learning by doing, and began working his way up the ladder. But he finally got stuck a rung or two below where he thought he should be. “I was getting passed over for promotions by people who were always asking me how to do things,” he says. “Finally I figured out I needed to go to school.” He enrolled at Johnson & Wales University. He then worked in several well-known restaurants in New England, before heading to the West Coast.

Cooking for The Dead

After arriving in California, Ayers became friends with Chez Ray, who was chef for the Grateful Dead at the time. Ayers helped Ray to feed the San Francisco-based jam band, mostly on a barter basis, trading out his culinary skills for concert tickets and backstage passes. “We called it Grateful Dead Welfare,” Ayers says with a laugh. We asked if the Dead had any special requests. “Jerry (Garcia) always had to have his hot dogs,” Ayers says. “And he insisted on dill pickle relish, not the sweet pickle variety. Ayers says Ray eventually got fired because he showed up one too many times without the requisite hot dogs. After Garcia’s untimely death, Ayers continued his relationship with remaining band members, catering for the group known as The Other Ones, and then simply, The Dead.

Ayers got the gig with Google in 1999 when he heard from a friend about this little company with the funky name that was auditioning chefs to cook for their staff of 40 or so employees. After doing some research with his friend to see what foods those employees liked best, he tried out and got the job. His mission, he says, was to serve “healthful food.” He adds, “I started out serving primarily lighter seafood and poultry dishes. One day an engineer approached me and said, 'Don’t take offense to this, but, do you know how to cook beef’?’ So, I started putting a bit more beef on the menu.”

Keeping Them on Campus

The amount of money Ayers earned at Google was directly affected by the productivity of the company, he says. “The idea was to keep the staff on the Google campus, rather than heading out to restaurants for lunch and dinner,” Ayers explains. “Keeping them on site had a direct impact on company productivity and profits. My bonuses were totally based on that.” By the time Ayers left Google in 2005, he and his staff were serving “fine food for the fast crowd” to the tune of more than 4,000 meals a day.

In his book, “Food 2.0,” Ayers devotes the first half to his philosophy on food garnished with savvy tips and techniques—how to shop for food, where to buy it, which tools you need, and how to be kind to the earth. The page layouts are colorful to the extreme with bright primary and pastel colors, splashed with big bold type revealing Ayers’ opinions on everything food-related. There’s plenty of colorful food photography as well, often bigger than life. It’s a fun, breezy read, loaded with practical ideas, and smart food advice.

A sampling of some of his bites of wisdom:

Spices. “Buy them whole in small quantities. Store them in a cool space, out of the light. Toast and grind them yourself.”

Eat it raw! “Sometimes the best way to cook food is not to cook it at all.”

Keep it local. “If you buy food that has been grown or raised locally it will be fresher, cheaper, and more delicious.

Be nosy. “In restaurants, I stick my head in the kitchen to see what’s going on.”

The four best herbs to grow at home: chives, basil, parsley, mint.

Ayers said he wrote the book to reach a wider audience. “I saw how people responded to my food and recipes at Google, but relatively speaking it was such a small group. I wanted to teach people that there’s a right way to eat, as far as doing as little harm to the planet as possible,” Ayers explains. “I wanted the book to be more of a 'food user’s guide,’ that’s why we called it Food 2.0.”

Smart, Contemporary Recipes

The recipes are just as smart, creative and contemporary as the front half of the book—which is to say, very. Ayers has fun with recipe names (“Quick Apple-Oaty Thing,” “Dragon Breath Noodles”). Some of the recipes may be a bit challenging. If you’re looking for a simple mac-and-cheese recipe, you’ll not find it in these pages. But if you’re looking for new recipe ideas, and new ways to prepare good food in a natural and healthful way, this user’s guide will steer you right. And you’ll have some fun, trying to cook like Charlie.

He was generous enough to give us permission to publish three of his recipes from “2.0” here on The Food Channel: Lamb Burger with Tzatziki Sauce, Spinach Latkes (which Ayers says he came up with for Hanukkah, the first holiday they celebrated during his time at Google), and his grab-and-go Cranberry-Orange Bread recipe.

I’ve not seen our Food Editor this excited about a cookbook in quite some time. But again, it is indeed more than a cookbook. She said she absolutely “loved it,” and described it as “a wonderful guide for the way we should eat today.” She said she looks forward to spending more time with “Food 2.0.” Me, too.

Chef Charlie Ayers’ latest venture is Calafia CafĂ© & Market a Go Go, a combination restaurant and hot-food-ready-to-go market, scheduled to open in Palo Alto, California, in November.