Nature AND Nurture - Flea St Cafe at 36
36 years ago today, August 28, 1980, in an unlikely neighborhood just outside of the city of Menlo Park, in the county of San Mateo, on an unlikely street Alameda de las Pulgas aka., “Avenue of the Fleas” we signed a lease and brought to life, Flea St. Cafe.
As anyone who has grown anything that has survived for over 36 years knows, growth and change are a process. Sometimes that change is incremental and barely noticeable, other times it's convulsive, dramatic…essential. There is also a delicate dance that happens, between running a restaurant with its everyday back-of-the-house grind, and being a place where people gather daily, weekly and over the course of decades. In science they would call this the “Nature or Nurture” debate; the push and pull between what was (and is) in my DNA when I opened Flea St all those years ago, and how Flea St has evolved and been shaped by the community where it resides.
Back when Flea St opened every room was covered with flowered wallpaper that I hung myself, along with sewing the lace curtains. Nothing matched and because we had no opening budget, mirrors, antique plates and all those knickknacks (if you recall from those days) came from local antique stores and thrift shops.
Flea Street has changed since the 80’s. She’s grown up, become more contemporary and I love it now as I did when we opened. Back then, each table had a crystal bedroom lamp, lace doily and mismatched salt and pepper shaker. In honor of this birthday, those elegant antique lamps are back on a few tables giving an old fashion loving warmth. But, fear not, the lace and mismatched everything are forever gone.
Of course, this is Flea St and the food has always been the real star. From the beginning and to now we’ve always been ingredient driven. We knew then, and still know many of the people(friends) are who grow, fish or raise our food. Back then, when the organics and sustainable movements were still in their infancy, I needed to know that there were no artificial additives, preservatives, growth hormones or antibiotics in anything we purchased. In those days, it was not easy to find locally sourced clean ingredients. We had no meat on the menu but I did find organic chicken and locally caught seafood. Many thought I was vegetarian (I’m not), because we could not get hormone free beef or pastured pork until the mid-80's. Menu ideas came from what was in season at the local markets, and cookbooks like The Joy of Cooking were inspiration to traditional recipe ideas with seasonal twists.
The food was always simple. Guests had to be persuaded to eat unusual foods like purple potatoes, fresh golden beets, frisee, goat cheese, bumpy real shaped heirloom tomatoes and carrots. We used whole chickens and had to convince people that the thigh was as delicious and valuable as white meat. What were we to do with the rest of the chicken? I remember going to tables and one day a woman asked: Why are these mashed potatoes so delicious?” My response was the potatoes were just harvested from one of our farmer friends, the butter is local and we don’t use too much cream. You are tasting the potato. And so it remains to this day and why I think our food is well received.
We were challenged on many issues in those days. But farmers remain my heroes and my best teachers and they are where I continue to take my lead. It was not and never has been, famous chefs, flighty trends, nor even opinionated patrons. I shopped every week at the Palo Alto Farmers market and the farmers inspired me what I needed to know about local extraordinary flavors in real food.
It is humbling and rewarding to experience the resounding contemporary connection of where and how our food is grown. I have learned from my own family to respect those who grow food in the right way. Flea Street is frequently referred to as pioneering this food movement. For me, it is more realistic to be labeled old-fashioned or old world, remembering respect for community and the ethics for local and global environment and people.
This underlying sensibility embraces simple cooking with real ingredient remains. And, I still love what I do. What makes it exciting, decades later is to witness what the young cooks bring to the table. They honor the ageless philosophy of Flea Street and give deserved respect those who grow our food.
The 36-year journey with Flea St. has absolutely been a marriage of Nature AND Nurture, as she has been a part of so many Silicon Valley moments and has matured and evolved along with this dynamic community. Through it all and into the future Flea St will stay true to its fundamental core of bringing local, seasonal and ingredient-driven food to our community.
Thank you to this community, my loving family and those who have worked with me over the years. We carry on through everyone’s support of those who are deeply committed to keeping our food supply, air, soil and waters as healthy as possible.