Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Cafeteria lunch a la Google

We were in Palo Alto Movie Theater to see “Little Miss Sunshine” (which was a great movie, by the way) and I had to use the bathroom. “After Google, no toilet is ever good enough,” said a young woman to her friend in the neighboring stall. “No cafeteria is ever good enough either,” I thought out loud as we were washing our hands. “Oh, you work there too?” she asked. “No. I was just visiting a friend there for lunch today.”

Out of all the great restaurants, bakeries, and cafes, the most remarkable food experience of our trip was Google. We were visiting our friend Kai, who moved to CA about a year ago. After the tour of Goggle campus with treadmill swimming pool, laundry room, on-site haircuts, and persimmon trees, we headed to the newest of seven cafeterias for lunch. “They take food pretty seriously here,” said Kai. “I even got to interview a chef once.” “So what did you ask him?” I said naively. “Oh, we didn’t ask him anything. He had to make a 6-course meal for 50 people and we filled out a form about our impressions. His tangerine sorbet was really nice.”

We walked through the door with a “Farmer’s market” sign. “You have a farmer’s market on site?” I wanted to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. “Oh yeah, but I’ve never tried it,” said Kai. “Actually, I haven’t cooked since I started working here. You see, the food’s free for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and there is prepackaged stuff for the weekends.”

We picked up trays and silverware and got in line. Kai explained to us that this was the “tapas” cafeteria – not really Spanish, but everything was served in appetizer portions. The stations included antipasti with mini salami sandwiches on baguette, roasted veggies, pesto, and tapenade; a raw bar with hamachi tartar, seared scallops, and raw salmon stuffed with crab salad; a soup station with watermelon almond gazpacho, white asparagus soup with fresh ricotta crouton, and bouillabaisse; hot station with shrimp tempura, miso-marinated steak, and at least 5 other dishes I didn’t get a good look at because the cheese station distracted me with its bounty of blues, cheddars, bries, fruits, nuts, and little cakes with blackberry coulis for dessert. Not only was real china used instead of ubiquitous Styrofoam containers, but you got a different plate for each little dish so as not to mix your sauces.

I probably don’t have to tell you that it was the best cafeteria food I’ve ever had. The question is just *how* good was it? Let’s put it this way – it was better than any catered corporate event and even better than many “nice” restaurants. But it wasn’t as good as the restaurant I find worthy of eating out at, but hey – I am picky and I love to cook. Comparing Google cafeteria to the meal we had at Cyrus in Healdsburg is just not fair. $100/person meal was obviously at a whole other level. And if I was judging the pure deliciousness of the food, even the casual places like the Girl and the Fig in Sonoma, or the Downtown bakery in Healdsburg were way more memorable than Google cafeteria, showing more artistry and integrity. But all these establishments had the luxury of making food to order and Google cafeterias had to feed a huge hoard of people and thus required more advanced prep of ingredients and plating everything as a buffet. What amazed me about their food was that in spite of the scale (Google has over 4,000 employees in Mountain View), the freshness of ingredients, the seasoning and doneness didn’t suffer (or at least not much). The steak was medium-rare, the seafood was fresh (if not transcendent), and everything I tried was well-seasoned. It was also refreshing to see that healthy choices were not limited to limp lettuce. The raw seafood and a watermelon almond gazpacho that I had for lunch were both light and satisfying and I wouldn’t feel guilty having this kind of food for lunch on regular basis.

I wish I could’ve taken pictures of the food, but photography inside the building was strictly forbidden. Hmm, I wonder if the NDA I signed to go inside covered the food. I am sure a cafeteria this good can be patented.

It was time for Kai to get back to work, so I asked to use the bathroom before having to leave the utopia called Google. I couldn’t put my finger on what made me feel so warm, cozy, and relaxed. Then I realized – the toilet seat was heated. Now if only they could add such advanced features to Blogger…

10 comments:

Kalyn said...

Very interesting. I guess it's good to know that they treat their employees that well. (At the school where I work, the cafeteria food is not something I would remotely consider eating.)

Yulinka said...

It seems seductive, but I wouldn’t want to work there. Sounds like a ruse to get their employees to work 16-hour days and stay on “campus” as much as possible. (I wonder if they dorms. Why have a life outside work at all?)

No, I’d rather have my 9-hour a day job, complete with a crappy cafeteria and unheated toilet seats. Cooking, farmer’s markets, and haircuts should be leisure activities for which you have time outside work.

Helen said...

Hi Yulinka,

I know what you mean about companies providing all this stuff to get their employees to live at work. But that's not the case with Google. My friend said he works 40 hours a week and another person we had lunch with has 2 kids and goes home at a reasonable hour every night. Free dinner is not there for people working after 7:30 (like it is at most companies). You can take it home on your way out if you don't have time to cook. The farmer's market is something I would really appreciate. In Boston area, all markets happen in the late afternoon (around 2-6pm) and it's really hard for me to get there even if I leave work at a reasonable hour. So having a market on site would be great.

Cheers,
-Helen

Mary said...

Wow. Reading it made me wished that I want to work there. Hehe. With all those facilities, all employees must be really happy.

Jason said...

Actually, Google's a fantastic place to work; quite the contrary to 16-hour days is their 20% policy in which you get to focus that much of your work week on a project of your choice (be it Google's or your own). Also, it's just ingrained in their culture to be passionate about food :D

Yulinka said...

Ok, I take it back: I would want to work at Google. I'm still suspicious about companies that offer pie-in-the-sky perks and call their offices a "campus," though.

vasilisa said...

Have just discovered your blog. Love to find so many tips on fish, and Russian food.

PS: heated toilets? sounds like an overkill...

Helen said...

Hi Vasilisa,

Welcome to Beyond Salmon :) By the way, I love your name. It reminds me of Russian fairy tales.

Cheers,
-Helen

vasilisa said...

Helen, you're spot on! Took it from the Russian fairy tails :-) Which I still seem to like too much...

Lizzi said...

Working at google must require so much computer skills to compensate on its benefits.