Chef Charlie Ayers is my featured Changemaker this month. Ayers is often known as the “Google Chef”. Yes, he was the mastermind behind the incredible, innovative, earth-friendly food originally served on Google’s Mountain View campus (which everyone in NorCal who does not work for Google has heard about for years). Google’s food offerings became the standard to which other tech companies have aspired and rightfully so.
Ayers is still a local in my community, owner of both “a healthy fast-food restaurant” Calafia Cafe, and also the market attached to it, Market A Go Go, both in Palo Alto. Ayers is also an accomplished cookbook author.
Ayers began his culinary career working for Hilton Hotels in New Jersey. He then attended culinary school and cooked at several well-known New England restaurants. Then he pushed West. Food and music came together for Ayers in California after he befriended Chez Ray, the chef for The Grateful Dead. Ayers struck up the perfect arrangement, working for free in exchange for admission to the Dead’s shows. Eventually, Ayers took over Ray’s coveted post.
Google scooped up Ayers in 1999 after he won a cook-off, which was judged by the company’s then 40-person workforce. Placed in the Executive Chef position, Ayers was initially intimidated by needing to “feed great brains that drive Silicon Valley”. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin hired Ayers to give employees fast access to “clean, healthy, delicious foods with the goal of nourishing the bodies and brains and spirits that would propel their fast-growing company forward”. Ayers did not disappoint.
Ayers’ motto is simple: he wants to help people eat better. By the time Ayers left Google in 2005, he and his team of five sous chefs and 150 employees were preparing food for 10 cafes across the company’s Mountain View, California campus, and serving 4,000 lunches and dinners daily in the Google canteen. Ayers had a following and was given a hero’s farewell that included 5,000 T-shirts with Ayers’ face on them for Googlers. As an early Google stockholder, Ayers was able to leave Google and pursue his personal dreams.
A culinary Changemaker, Ayres has not stopped striving for food choice change in the world. Ayers continues to consult with tech companies and makes himself available for what he calls “innovative corporate well-being”, focusing on consulting and restructuring corporate food service programs. Ayers is also involved with a number of charities, such as Chefs For Humanity which is dedicated to fighting both hunger and obesity worldwide. And when time allows, Ayers can still be found doing private catering in the green room of a famous bands, staying close to his other love, music
Ayers is a fascinating guy, kind and forthcoming. Despite his 17-hour work days, Ayers found time to talk to me about his wild ride: from landing his position at Google to his backstage catering gigs with legendary bands like The Grateful Dead. Below are excerpts from my conversation with Ayers.
Simmer + Sauce: You landed your Google Chef job winning a cook-off for the company. What did you make in the competition?
Simmer + Sauce: Many people believe a chef’s life is glamorous. You are still very hands-on in your restaurant and market. Can you tell us how much time in a day you spend in the kitchen cooking?
Charlie Ayers: Well, right now all of my time is spent in both the bakery and kitchen, as I have no pastry cooks, or sous chefs. I start my day in the bakery at 6 am, working on the pastry table stocking the bakery and pastry case in the market. After I finish the morning bake-off, I shift over to the savory kitchen and work with the prep cooks and dishwashers. All the while I am getting the specials ready for the day. Working on the lunch line is like triage in the emergency room sometimes, the F bomb in a couple different languages is heard in my kitchen on a busy lunch. From there it’s back to the prep kitchen to catch up on what needs to be done for dinner or happy hour, and still make time for my managers’ meeting and placing orders with vendors, delegating which line cook at dinner will do what extra task for chef that night before they go home, or face a grueling prep list the next day. Office work is mostly done from my home office where I can concentrate. If dinner service is slow enough, I’ll go back to the bakery and do my pastry work or make more soups or catch up on making different sauces or marinades. My kitchen is very quiet, very little talking and no music. I’m firm but very fair. Yes that’s the 17-hour day I’m currently working. Six days a week. I cook a lot!
Simmer + Sauce: You’ve said your motto is “wanting to get people to eat better”, can you explain what you mean by this?
Charlie Ayers: Eating better has a different meaning to each person. Not eating so much fast foods, cooking more at home. Eating foods that are better for you rather than settling on junk food as your choice of what to eat when you’re hungry. Smaller portions is what really helped me eat better. Eating five small meals a day.
Simmer + Sauce: Many of my readers have children and are juggling busy schedules. Putting a “quick meal” on the table can be challenging. What do you recommend for is a good, quick family meal option?
Charlie Ayers: Buy the ready-to-go go rotisserie chicken from your nearby market. Make a huge salad and a bunch of veggie sides. You can even have Whole Foods Market vegan butcher cut you some vegetables, all you have to do is cook them. Have the kids help cook the vegetables and make the salad with you. Teach them how to use a knife so they can help you out. Roast some broccoli, cool it down, toss in your favorite Italian vinaigrette. Shredded carrots and beets tossed with wild arugula with olive oil and lemon juice, feta cheese and crushed raw walnuts. Peel, dice, and roast some beets, cool them down, toss with yogurt, cucumbers, red onions, dill, cumin and olive oil. Roast a couple whole heads of cauliflower rubbed with olive oil, kosher salt, smoked paprika, garlic powder, with a touch of yellow curry powder, ketchup and black pepper, you’ll have a cauliflower that eats like meatloaf.
Simmer + Sauce: What is your favorite food to both cook and eat?
Charlie Ayers: Seafood.
Simmer + Sauce: At one point in your career you were the personal chef of the Grateful Dead. What interesting food-related story can you share with us about cooking for famous musicians?
Charlie Ayers: Much of the good stuff I don’t share, it’s the whole thing of being the fly on the wall. I hear and see a lot only because they’re comfortable enough to talk in front of the caterer and know it doesn’t go anywhere. Bobby is the one that really knows good food, and was incredibly friendly. Bobby still loves to take home leftovers from rehearsal catering. Mickey is pretty hard to please. Billy eats anything, he’s easy to please and a real sweetheart. John Mayer is easy to please as well, once he warms up to you. Jeff Chimenti and Oteil Burbridge both are super nice and easy to feed as well.
Simmer + Sauce: You have started something you refer to as “innovative corporate well-being”. Can you tell us a bit about what this is?
Charlie Ayers: Well, after I left Google I realized I could see the formula to every pre IPO tech start-up out there. After I left Google, I helped Facebook do their culinary program, then helped out Linkedin while they were only 200 people. Then Zazzle, Palantir, Dropbox and Box. Each of these companies I sold the idea that your company is only as good as the food it feeds its people.
[This idea] later morphed into assisting with helping to develop company culture and interior design, even recruitment. I’m currently working with two companies; one is a robotics firm in Redwood City which builds culinary robots. They’re called Chowbotics. The other is a company in Guadalajara, Mexico (which has offices in Spain, Brazil, Vietnam, NY, SF) called Wizeline. The tech culture gets me and I understand what they’re looking for. Eventually, I’ll shift back to the tech world. Mexico sounds like a lot of fun, the several times I’ve been to Guadalajara it was amazing.
Ayers has shared a delicious recipe that he referred to as “Crazy Good Tuna Poke Potato Skins“. I can’t fully express what a fantastic recipe this is: you need to taste it to experience the flavor layering. This is a classic Ayers recipe. Fresh, flavorful and with varying tastes and textures. I had to adapt the original recipe as given to me because two ingredients, Alaskan salmon roe and flowering chives (or chive blossoms) were not available at the time I made this. If roe is not your thing, you will not lose too much flavor by omitting it. Or, as an alternative, try Tobiko caviar. It offers the salt and pop but in a subtler form. Instead of flowering chives, I used edible flower petals for color. These are typically available in the vegetable section of grocery stores.
Crazy Good Tuna Poke Potato Skins
- For the Potato Skins:
- 3 russet baking potatoes
- Extra Virgin olive oil
- kosher salt
- good quality cooking spray
- freshly ground black pepper
- For the Tuna:
- 1 pound Ahi tuna loin, small dice
- 1 tablespoon sesame seeds (back and toasted white)
- 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
- 1 tablespoons sake mirin
- 1/2 cup Tamari (wheat free)
- 1/4 cup pickled ginger, minced
- 3 tablespoons Sriracha sauce
- 2 bunches fresh chives, minced.
- For the Red Miso Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons red miso paste
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 cup good quality mayonnaise
- For the Wasabi Aioli:
- 1/4 cup wasabi powder
- 1/2 tablespoon sake mirin
- 1/2 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
- 1 cup good quality mayonnaise
- For the Garnish:
- wakame seaweed salad
- 1 English cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 Easter egg or watermelon radish, unpeeled and thinly sliced
- 1 small jar Alaskan salmon roe (optional)
- flowering chives, for garnish (optional)
- Step 1 For the potato Skins: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Step 2 Scrub the potatoes well, pat dry and lightly coat with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place in the oven and bake for about 45 minutes or until tender to the touch.
- Step 3 When cooked, remove from the oven, split in half and allow to cool. Once cool, cut each half of the potato in half again so you have 12 uniform sized potato wedges.
- Step 4 Using a spoon, scoop out the potato flesh and discard or use for an alternative purpose. Place the potato skins on a baking sheet.
- Step 5 Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Liberally coat the potato skins in cooking spray. Season each skin with more kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place in the oven and cook (on high convection if you have it) for about 15-20 minutes till crisp. Remove form the oven and allow to cool slightly.
- Step 6 For the Tuna poke: In a small bowl add the diced tuna, sesame seeds, sesame oil, mirin, Tamari, pickled ginger, Sriracha sauce. Hold off on adding the chives for now. Mix well to coat. Set aside.
- Step 7 Make the Red Miso Sauce and Wasabi Sauce. Each sauce can be made in a Vitamix, kitchen blender or by hand. Keep refrigerated until needed.
- Step 8 Use a mandolin for the cucumber and radish if you have one, if not, slice as thin as possible.
- Step 9 To assemble: Add the chopped chives to the tuna and mix. Arrange the potato skins on a serving platter. Place a generous amount of wakame seaweed salad on top of the skins. Next add a good amount of tuna poke, followed by alternating sauces, sliced radishes and cucumbers. Finish with salmon roe and flowering chives. Serve at once.
I would like to thank Chef Ayers for talking the time to speak with me and for allowing me to feature him in my Changemaker series. I have been a fan of Ayers for sometime and aspire to do what he is working so hard to do–get people to eat better!