I was lost somewhere in the labyrinthine corridors of a sprawling Whole Foods supermarket, looking for foods I'd never known existed--Tamarind paste? Daikon sprouts? Pomegranate molasses? It was a humbling reminder that you can't Google everything.
Let me explain: I recently procured a copy of Food 2.0: Secrets From the Chef Who Fed Google, a compendium of food tips and recipes from Charlie Ayers, the ex-Grateful Dead caterer who was hired by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1999. And I was eager to put it to the test. Google has made it easier for me to find anything I want on the Web, share documents, e-mail, read the news, and plan my schedule--basically, Google's made it possible for me to pretend I'm organized. But could the teachings of its former executive chef make it easier for me to pretend I know how to cook?
According to Food 2.0, cooking and eating has more to do with Google's vision of organizing all the world's information than you might think. The young Mountain View entrepreneurs wanted a chef, Ayers explains in a foreword, because they wanted to boost productivity and innovation. "At Google, Sergey and Larry believed that if everyone were eating healthy and eating well, they were going to have healthy, productive, happy, and efficient engineers working for them," wrote Ayers, who left Google in 2005 and is currently in the process of opening a restaurant. "It made sense for them as a business investment, even if there were cheaper alternatives available."
What Ayers brought to the Google table ultimately made the company's free-food offerings legendary, and in the process, more or less destroyed the common wisdom that engineers and software developers restrict their diets to pizza and ramen noodles.
So, Food 2.0 is a ridiculously healthy cookbook in the most Northern California sense possible. There's a page where Ayers describes his devotion to the hippie juice known as wheatgrass, the entire "breakfast" chapter is essentially a catalog of smoothie and granola recipes, and just about everything involves fresh fruits and vegetables. The utter hippie-ness of it all was summed up by the distressed expression on one of my friends' faces as he flipped through Food 2.0 and said, "There's like, no butter in any of these recipes."
That's both good and bad. I'll touch upon the "bad" first. The heavy reliance on fresh produce means that, in light of rising food prices, this might not be the most cost-effective cookbook you'll find. It also means that you'll be working with a lot of perishable foods, which you often have to figure out how to budget throughout the next few days so that leftover fruits and vegetables don't go to waste. Chopping up lettuce and onions additionally takes up counter space, which I don't have a lot of in my apartment, so I bribed a friend with a nicer kitchen to let me hijack it for the day ("You can have all the food you want!").
Plus, if you're not near a massive gourmet supermarket like Whole Foods, you might have some issues: While most of the ingredients in Food 2.0 are pretty standard, the Latin and Asian overtones of many of the recipes mean that there may be a handful of weird items on your shopping list. Then there's the eco factor. Ayers extols the virtues of buying organic and buying local--the foodie's version of Google's "don't be evil" mantra--but the recipe for "Google Hot Sauce," which I absolutely had to try, involved a few ingredients that I'm pretty sure they don't grow in the States. I'm not sure how to calculate the carbon footprint of tamarind paste from India and pomegranate molasses from Lebanon, but I'm pretty sure Al Gore would frown upon it.
And finally, if you never got over your childhood fear of vegetables, do not buy this book.
Now for the good stuff. The concoctions in Food 2.0 frankly rock. I enlisted a few hungry friends to test out five recipes: the signature hot sauce, two varieties of smoothie, a Vietnamese chicken-and-shrimp dish, and some spring rolls. The recipes, for the most part, are no-brainers as long as you have a few basic kitchen skills; they took me significantly longer to prepare than the book said they would, but nothing blew up, and no one was poisoned.
And the stuff's good: healthy and light but fulfilling, flavorful, and totally quirky. A few eyebrows were raised when I started dumping sliced cucumber, mint leaves, apple cider, and lemon sorbet into a blender for the Jade Smoothie recipe, but the end result was a deliciously summery mix that had one member of the group speculating that it'd make a great afternoon cocktail if you put a shot of rum in it. It was quite the ego trip when my friends, upon tasting the spring rolls, couldn't believe I hadn't turned on a stove in months.
One more thing. That Google hot sauce was really, really spicy. "I have friends from cooking school who make some crazy hot sauces that you have to sign a waiver just to buy," Ayers wrote in a section of Food 2.0 about spicy food. "At Google, hot food--like a lot of other things--became a kind of geeky macho thing. It was their rite of passage, so they just sucked up my hot sauce. It's so hot you wouldn't want to eat it straight."
Regardless, I'm sure that there are plenty of people who would chug the stuff like water if they were told it'd help them on their way to becoming Silicon Valley legends.