For years I have heard people wax poetic about the food at Google. The rumors seemed unbelievable: fresh organic, sustainable and locally grown foods prepared under the tutelage of a five-star chef. Oh, and did I mention it's all free? Well, free if you work there. As if those stock options weren't sufficient. It's enough to make a freelance editor and writer cry.
So when a friend of mine who works for Google asked me join him for lunch one day, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to see for myself how the food operation at Google worked, and, more than that, if the hype lived up to the reality.
I had my own employee on-site dining experience years ago, when I was just out of college and worked as an assistant in the script development department at Walt Disney Studios. I quit after a year as I wasn't up to swimming with sharks, but while I was there, I was able to benefit from a fairly good company commissary. It was run by Marriott Foods and although it wasn't a five-star restaurant, it had a decent burger, a nice daily fish entrée, a solid deli, and breakfast at reasonable prices. Yet while I and the other underlings were dining at picnic tables outside, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the directors, agents and stars were all on the upper floors of the Team Disney building. In a circular dining room with views of, as Johnny Carson used to say, beautiful downtown Burbank, the mucky mucks would eat food prepared by a noted chef on china plates that had little Mickey Mouse ears around the edges. So as I walked onto the Google campus, I couldn't help but wonder if there was downstairs-picnic-table dining for the masses and Mickey-Mouse-china dining for the brass? Just how good is the food for the everyday workaday engineer at Google?
Through my Google friend Dan, I set up an appointment with Scott Giambastiani, one of seven Executive Chefs at Google, and we arranged a time to meet. When I googled Scott from my home computer, I realized that if he was any indication of this company's seriousness about food, I was in for a nice lunch. Scott was trained at the California Culinary Academy and then interned at The Lark Creek Inn (a restaurant I have loved for years). He has worked with Gary Danko at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, and then spent 9 years at Viognier in San Mateo. He left in 2006 to go to Google and seems quite happy with his choice. I had a great conversation with Scott. He was very welcoming and happy to share with me the ins and outs of Google dining, give me the skinny on some Google food legends, and detail how the dining operations are run.
Once I was on the Google campus, I was happy to see that dining at Google isn't like dining at Disney. Google offers 18 cafés for their employees, which includes one at the San Francisco campus and one in San Bruno. There is no upstairs dining for the elite and outside dining for regular employees. It all seemed pretty egalitarian.
The many cafés at Google are run by individual vendors who report to Google. Chefs like Scott act as ambassadors for Google and make sure all the cafés offer equivalent quality and value. As in many dining establishments, the menus are created daily and are dependent on what foods are available that day from the many farms and vendors they use. Local farms, such as Happy Boy, drop off food daily and the meals are then prepared on site. Other items, such as rolls and pastries, are purchased from local vendors and quality-checked by Google's chefs.
In addition to its many cafés, Google has set up micro-kitchens throughout their offices. These are stocked with fresh coffee and often espresso machines, sandwiches, Naked Juice, cashews, dried fruit, It's It cookies, and a variety of sodas and chips. As with the cafés, each kitchen is different. Although they all offer the same basic items, 20% of each kitchen's offerings are unique to that kitchen and are chosen to meet the demographics of a specific office area, which are determined through surveys. So, as you might guess, the kitchens on floors with sales and marketing people have more raw nuts and the engineers want more chips.
When I walked through a few buildings, there seemed to be a kitchen around every corner. When I asked Dan about this, he said that according to Google lore, there is food within 150 feet of every office. Scott then confirmed the rumor as true. It seems that Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google's founders, believed no one should ever be more than 150 feet from food (a philosophy I can get behind). They therefore had their offices built with numerous kitchens so workers could easily pop over for a quick bite while never needing to leave the near vicinity. I have to say that although this seems pretty convenient to the workers, I'm sure Google is getting a nice return on the fact that employees don't ever stray far from their desks. Sort of like supplying pollen at the bee hive.
The food choices at Google are very research-driven. Googlers (this is what Google calls its employees) can fill out online and paper questionnaires about the food they're served; polls are taken; and they even have a Lego voting system in the dining areas where employees can vote through building a Lego structure using different colored blocks. The color you use says what you thought of your meal (i.e., red means "better luck next time," yellow means "keep trying," while green means "very good"). I couldn't figure out how this actually worked as each dining area offers an abundance of food and the Legos didn't seem to actually pinpoint a specific entrée, but it was interesting nonetheless.
The data Google gets from all those polls and surveys is crunched and then used to shape their food program. To satisfy the needs of their diverse population, they offer a variety of different dining venues. No Name offers a healthy vegetable-focused menu that includes raw food, while Pintxo has Spanish tapas and paella. 150 offers only local food grown within a 150-mile radius from the Google campus. There's also a Mexican taqueria, a deli, and numerous all-purpose dining areas, like Big Table where I ate. These offer a variety of choices, including Indian food stations, pizza zones, sushi bars, and anything else you could really think of. Before leaving, my friend Carol (Dan's wife) and I stopped off at the smoothie bar, named Slice, which was full of funky red and blue chairs and stools: quite a hip place to set up your laptop and work while drinking a free wheat grass shot.
So how was the actual food? Read Part 2 Next Thursday where I continue my review by covering the café Big Table along with the smoothie bar. In the meantime, here's a Google recipe for Heirloom Tomato and Summer Berry Gazpacho with Goat Cheese Ice Cream that Scott gave me.
Heirloom Tomato and Summer Berry Gazpacho
Makes: 8 servings
3 lbs. red heirloom tomatoes, washed, stemmed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 ea. red bell pepper, washed, seeded and chopped into 1-inch pieces
2 ribs celery, washed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 ea. English cucumber, washed and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1-pint each fresh strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries, rinsed and picked over.
4 tbsp red verjus or red wine vinegar
2 cups club soda or cold water
2 tbsp brown sugar
8 sprigs cilantro, chopped (reserve two sprigs for garnish)
10 ea basil leaves, chopped (reserve two leaves for garnish)
12 sprigs parsley leaves, chopped (reserve two sprigs for garnish)
1 each lime, juiced
Salt to taste
cayenne pepper to taste
1 recipe Goat Cheese Ice Cream, prepared (below)
1. To begin this easy and delicious soup, start by making certain that all the fruits and vegetables are rinsed clean under cool running water.
2. Rough chop the first four ingredients as stated above.
3. Place the chopped vegetables, berries, verjus, club soda and brown sugar into a blender.
4. Cover and puree until smooth.
5. Adjust the seasoning with salt and cayenne to taste.
6. Next, pour the soup into a mixing bowl and stir in the chopped herbs.
7. Allow the herbs to sit in the soup refrigerated for 15-20 minutes.
8. Finally, strain the soup mixture through a fine strainer, pressing firmly with a spatula or ladle to force the pulp through the strainer.
9. Discard any pulp that remains in the strainer.
10. Add the juice of one lime to the soup.
11. Serve at once. Garnish soup with fresh berries, diced cucumber, fresh herbs and Goat Cheese Ice Cream.
Goat Cheese Ice Cream
Makes: 4 cups
2 cups Heavy whipping cream
½ cup Whole milk
4 egg yolks
¼ cup sugar
3 Tbsp corn syrup
6 oz goat cheese, Laura Chenel brand if possible
Pinch of salt
1. In a heavy-bottomed saucepot, bring the cream and milk to a scald.
2. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar and slowly pour in some of the hot cream to temper the eggs. This keeps the eggs from scrambling.
3. Pour the eggs into the cream and continue to cook for 2 to 3 minutes over medium-low heat, while constantly stirring the gently scraping the bottom of the pot with a rubber spatula.
4. Continue cooking until the mixture coats the back of a spoon and steam rises from the top.
5. In a separate mixing bowl, whisk together the corn syrup and goat cheese and then whisk this mixture into the cream mixture until smooth.
6. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer and chill this mixture in an ice bath.
7. Once chilled, place the ice cream base into a single serving ice cream machine and follow your manufacturer’s instructions for spinning.