Rating the Cuisine at Google and Facebook

Where would you rather go for lunch?

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report on the battle for the future of the social Web.

Yes, there is such a thing as a free lunch—and breakfast and dinner, if you work at Google or Facebook.

And the food is pretty remarkable, too. Both Google and Facebook go way beyond simple sustenance with menu items like venison, boar, and Kobe beef, and wheatgrass shots and variously infused spa waters. Without a doubt, these workplace cafeterias have better food than most cruise ships.

Google food is synonymous with its former chef Charlie Ayers. He once cooked for the Grateful Dead, wrote Food 2.0: Secrets of the Chef Who Fed Google (2008), and now runs a trendy café and a to-go market near Stanford University. At Google, Ayers redefined corporate cuisine by bringing it into the multicultural, locally sourced organic age. Facebook head chef Josef Desimone is proud to have taken lots of staff from Google, and his approach evolved out of the Google tradition.

There are, however, some key differences I discovered while stuffing myself recently at each company, a few lunchtimes apart. Facebook clearly keeps to a budget of sorts, and it also takes steps to pacify middle-American palates with a steady supply of basics like roast turkey and pizza. Such mundane concerns are completely off the radar at überhip Google.

On the Menu: Facebook
Desimone presides over two cafés at Facebook headquarters: Café X and Café 6. Both of them have a new, always different theme every day; sometimes they share the same theme, sometimes each has its own. For Johnny Cash’s birthday, for instance, diners at Café X enjoyed ”I Walk the Lima” beans and ”Streets of Laredo” barbecue pork ribs. Another time Café X was dishing beef brisket in cabbage for its Ireland day, while Café 6 had turned to Trinidad for its coconut tilapia, guava cookies, and rum cake.

Desimone has worked in hotels and fine dining establishments, including a two-star Michelin restaurant in Amsterdam. He shows off his chops with his own version of a cooking style he calls ”à la minute”: Instead of steam tables, his chefs pop just-cooked food into enameled cast-iron Le Creuset cookware. Bias-sliced hanger steak, just off the grill and resting in the Le Creusets, was deeply satisfying, with or without the creamy chervil sauce.

At Café X, the nicest surprises for me were the roasted Brussels sprouts, silken and fetchingly aromatic, frites that stayed crisp, and feather-light quinoa with orange zest. The textures and flavors fit together.

Meanwhile, over in Café 6, which I visited the day after Presidents’ Day, the chefs honored George W. Bush with a pastry pretzel, commemorating the famous incident in which he choked on a pretzel while watching TV and passed out. Café 6’s pretzel was dry, perhaps intentionally so. The sushi bar’s barbecued beef roll, with Texas and Japan fighting for palate prominence, was not a culinary success.

Desimone mainly uses local suppliers, goes about 75 percent organic, and serves only fish that are not endangered or raised in ways that harm the environment, as defined by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. He estimates that 85 percent of the menu is vegetarian. But within the remaining 15 percent, Facebook eaters can be daring, he says. ”They’ll try anything: rabbit, venison, wild boar’’—particularly, it seems, if it’s organic and sustainably grown.

For those days when employees don’t feel adventurous, Facebook offers them comfort with a formula right out of a college dining hall (well, maybe a really expensive college): two meat entrees and one vegetarian, a vegetarian pasta, one meat and one veggie soup, pizza, an extensive salad bar, a turkey carving station, two house-baked desserts, and frozen yogurt with toppings. The cocoa truffles looked great, but they were gone by the time I was ready for dessert.

In Desimone’s plans for the dining areas on Facebook’s new campus, employees won’t have to run between the restaurants to evaluate their dining options or check the roundup posted on the Facebook page of the Facebook Culinary Team; there will be one large café where employees can leisurely survey the whole cornucopia.

On the Menu: Google
Google’s Mountain View campus has more than 18 cafés, including one for people who eat raw foods, one for vegans, and a four-continent food court named Charlie’s Café, after founding chef Ayers. Around its spacious perimeter, the food court has Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican venues; the 40th Street Deli; decent thin-crust, foldable pizza; and Kobe burgers at Chuck’s Diner. The central Farmer’s Market salad bar features three types of roasted beets, baby mozzarella balls, wheat berries, and wok-seared Hodo Soy organic tofu; condiments range from croutons to wakame seaweed.

The desserts are amazing. Even those who can resist the popular bread pudding and the oatmeal cherry chocolate chip cookies I encountered at Charlie’s one day still have to make it past a freezer case of Google-labeled It’s-It ice cream sandwiches, a local brand beloved by generations of San Franciscans.

Over at the crowded No Name Café, the sandwich bar is stocked with gluten-free and other fresh breads. Lettuce includes hearts of romaine, spring mix, and arugula. Whole-wheat couscous salad—studded with currants and almond slices—is a mouthfeel bonanza. And on the hot line: Humboldt Natural rib eye, tender curry chicken, grilled local mackerel, roasted Lakeside Farms broccoli, couscous with local peppers, and roasted golden beets. Think all-you-can-eat day at Whole Foods.

For no-line dining, many of the cafés also have refrigerated cases. At the tiny Slice Café, vegans who can’t wait for a made-to-order mushroom burger might instead grab a hummus/spinach wrap (a tad pasty), organic pink lady apples, and dark chocolate ”energy nuggets” that keep their promise.

If I ever get to eat at Google again, I’ll definitely try the traditional Chinese fare and tabletop ”hot-pot” dining at Jia, yet another specialty dining option.

On the Label
To make it simpler to extract healthy options from the culinary extravaganza, both Google and Facebook follow the traffic signal school of food labeling. GREEN means eat all you want, YELLOW is slow down, RED is put on the brakes. At Facebook’s Belgian-themed lunch, for instance, chicken with juniper berries was coded yellow and roasted Brussels sprouts were green, unless you added the rich Mornay sauce, which was red all over. Both companies also use symbols to designate allergens as well as vegetarian and vegan dishes. Google’s Grab & Go maki box warned of fish, eggs, wheat, alcohol, seafood, soy, and peanuts. Also on the label were the date and hour each item was prepared and the precise hour of expiration.

A Fridge Near Every Cubicle
The 10 or so microkitchens scattered around Facebook’s headquarters stock fresh organic fruit, baby-cut carrots, five brands of yogurt, Stretch Island Fruit Strips, Clif Bars, and such drinks as Teva ice tea and Columbia Gorge Organic Vitration Protein CoGo (but the Red Bull and Mexican Coca-Cola go quicker). Breakfast cereals, including mainstream options like Froot Loops as well as gourmet granola, pour out of market-type dispensers. Piles of Kit Kat Bars, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and individually wrapped string cheese are always on hand, and for folks looking for more than a snack, there are loaves of bread in the cupboard, with cheese, meat, and condiments in the refrigerator. ”We try to do a really good mix,” says Desimone, ”and let the adult decide what to eat.” The approach seems to work; Facebookers show little sign of the ”freshman 15” or other excess poundage.

Like Facebook, Google has microkitchens with sinks, microwaves, and gallons of soy milk. But they don’t shout ”Eat here!” Less convenience store than West Coast spa, Google’s pantries trend toward roasted soybeans and yogurt bars.

A Company in a Coffee Cup
Both Google and Facebook feature local coffee roasters; this is not Starbucks country.

Google buys its beans from San Jose’s Barefoot Coffee. The founder of Barefoot personally travels from farm to farm to select the beans, with a concept it says goes beyond fair trade to direct trade. You could say that this coffee gets its special taste from the search.

Facebook sources its beans from San Francisco–based Philz Coffee, a company that eschews single-origin coffee and has earned fame for its blends, special recipes developed by founder Phil Jaber and his son, Jacob. You could say this coffee gets its special taste from its social network.

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report on the battle for the future of the social Web.

This article originally appeared in print as "Food Fight".

About the Author

Sheila Himmel was the restaurant critic for the San Jose Mercury News for 10 years, following stints as the newspaper’s magazine editor and opinion editor. Her writing was honored with a James Beard Award, the food world’s Oscar. She’s the author of Hungry: A Mother and Daughter Fight Anorexia and recently curated ”San Francisco Eats,” an exhibit showcasing San Francisco’s culinary delights from the gold rush to slow food, for the San Francisco Main Library.

To Probe Further

For more about the author, see the Back Story, "Taking a Taste of Google and Facebook"

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