Eating local, organic lunches every day at work — for $4

Which Bay Area-based, technology-oriented company with a hip-yet-geeky staff has made a point of serving local, organically grown food since 1997?

Nope, not Google. Back then, at the height of the dot-come boom, Larry and Sergey were still grad students and calling their search technology "BackRub" — years away from having the bucks to make the wonderful Café 150 a reality.

Give up? It's Wired magazine, and one man is responsible: Chef Phil Ferrato, who's been cooking up breakfast and lunch from sustainable ingredients for the magazine's staff for the last 10 years.

His approach may be trendy now, but Phil has trouble understanding why anyone who cares about food wouldn't have always done the same. "Buying local just makes sense as a chef," he says. "Using what's available means it's fresher, it tastes better."

Probe the taciturn New Yorker a little more nosily, and he will confess to being a big fan of local, seasonal doyenne Alice Waters. In the mid-'90s he moved to Oregon, where he learned an early lesson in sustainability. He owned a bakery called the Venus Pie Trap, which sourced as much as it could from local farmers and sold only at the farmers market. Phil started coming down to San Francisco to help a private-chef friend who sometimes catered dinners for wealthy Bill Clinton supporters.

"I was the lowest man on the totem pole, doing prep and stuff, but one time I saw Alice burst into tears over local garlic that had just been delivered," he tells me.

"Because it was bad?" I ask incredulously.

"No, because it was so beautiful!" he says with a rare smile.

The Wired 15

I've been working at Wired for the past month, editing Test, the magazine's special issue on gadgets, and I admit that my Wired friends' tales of Phil's cooking were about half the lure of the gig.

I was not disappointed. For breakfast, which costs $2, he usually makes some sort of egg dish or homemade oatmeal with fruit, nuts, and brown sugar you can put on top. Fridays there's Fatted Calf bacon, sliced thick and fried until crispy and hard but oh so delicious, like a porky potato chip. Always available are made-from-scratch granola with fruit and Clover Organic milk; bagels with two cream cheeses and/or thin slices of red onions, tomato, and avocado.

Phil's cooking tends toward unfussy, perfectly seasoned dishes that taste healthy without having an overtly good-for-you taint. Lunch is an ever-changing parade of fairly simple dishes showcasing what's in season: in the past month I've been lucky enough to eat grilled wild salmon with a tarragon cream sauce over fresh Lima beans, heirloom tomato bowtie pasta, tender haricots vert, grilled chicken with Little Gem salad, Fatted Calf bockwurst with grilled onions, pappardelle with pesto, grilled ahi tuna on a make-your-own Nicoise, and mushroom adobo. Fresh fruit and organic mixed salad greens are constants, as are — unfortunately for someone like me with a compulsive sweet tooth — tasty baked goods such as peanut-butter cookies, gingersnaps, cheesecake, and fruit cobblers with fresh whipped creams.

Lunch is $4.

No wonder people gain a few pounds when they start working at the magazine. (In case you're tempted to make fun of how full my plates are in the slide show, in my defense I was often biking and walking to or from the BART, plus not eating a real dinner as I've been getting home around 8:30 on average. And yet I have at least one extra love handle for sure: I blame the donuts and creampuffs that show up in the office from other sources.)

Soup to nuts

The kitchen service is not a moneymaker for Wired, but as Phil points out, since he and his helpers Neil Geller and Nurie Mohammed are Wired employees, not contractors, it doesn't have to make a profit like most other corporate cafés do, such as those run by Bon Appetit Management (which also tries to use local and sustainable ingredients, to a much smaller extent). Phil buys from Veritable Vegetable, the oldest distributor of organically grown produce in the U.S., which mostly sells to retail stores; Wired is one of the few restaurants they deliver to, along with Zuni Café. While Veritable sources its organic food from all over California, plus a few neighboring states, Phil buys from the "150-mile list": I've seen boxes from Riverdog and other farmers-market stalwarts in the kitchen. For meat, he uses the natural and organic beef, pork, and chicken distributed by Golden Gate Meat Company; he is actively looking for more pasture-based protein sources from smaller family farms. Sourcing such meat has been a challenge in the past.

The key to keeping costs down is serving a limited menu. "Wired is a high-style soup kitchen," he says. "A fixed menu — like Chez Panisse has — enables you to focus all of your resources on one group of items. The more items you have on a menu, the more waste you have. "

He or his staff sends out an email every morning telling people what's for lunch that day, so they can plan accordingly. Between 45 and 65 people will eat in — no RSVPs are necessary. It is a bit like a soup kitchen, in that employees line up, grab plates, and serve themselves — unless Phil's afraid he'll run out of something, in which he case he keeps the spatula on his side. That's the one aspect of cooking at Wired he doesn't enjoy. "We can't plate the food. That bothers me and Neil," he says. "We used to portion our food in the old days. We love it when we see people taking care with how they arrange their plate. There's one woman who works here who does a beautiful job, and I appreciate that."

(At this point I think guiltily of the sloppy ways I'd been piling my plate, and the photos I've been taking with my iPhone at my desk under subpar lighting conditions. So you'll just have to trust me that the food is much more attractive than my slide show makes it look.)

While some ingredients will show up a few times in one week, the dishes themselves almost never get served twice. Repetition makes it stop being special, according to Phil. However, any leftovers get put in the communal fridge in case people want to take them home for dinner, and they've almost always vanished long before 6 o'clock, when hungry freelancers are poking around looking for emergency snacks.

When Conde Nast bought Wired, there was talk of shutting down the kitchen, which used to operate on an even smaller budget, without a commercial dishwasher. Reportedly, several longtime staffers went to Si Newhouse and argued that the meals are not only good for productivity — they keep people on the premises — but also foster community, by giving people the chance to eat together at the large round tables that dot the kitchen.

"There's an entertainment aspect to food here, the pleasure quotient, but to me it's also about education," says Phil, explaining why he sometimes puts up signs noting, for example, that the apples set out for snacking are Gravensteins, a heirloom variety. "Supporting sustainable agriculture is a very current idea — it's wired."

The day we talked he'd served local wild salmon bought from Monterey Fish; the Monterey Aquarium's sustainable seafood pocket cheat-sheets were set out for taking. Lunch had been followed by a flood of complimentary emails to the KP staff, which I echoed.

Phil deflected the praise: "People really notice the difference between that salmon and the farmed salmon they might eat elsewhere, I think. And that makes my day,"

 

Know of any other workplaces (outside the Bay Area is OK) that treat employees to local, organic meals? Drop me a note to .

4 Responsesto “Eating local, organic lunches every day at work — for $4”

  1. Whigsboy says:

    Holy crap is that awesome!

  2. I loves me some Phil - he always has the best of everything.

  3. I applaud what Chef Ferrato is doing at Wired and also stand proudly behind Bon Appetit's Farm to Fork program. All 400 of our cafes in 28 states feature local ingredients everyday - quite a feat in Minnesota in January. Last year we spent over $55 million with producers within 150 miles of our kitchens.

    Our commitment to local purchasing has shown other food service companies that a large, contract company can do the right thing. We've set a high bar for our competitors. I hope more companies and restaurateurs follow the lead set by Chef Ferrato and Bon Appetit.

  4. Liz says:

    This sure quites everyone who bashes on the expense of local, organic food. In order to be a respected citizen we must eat eat this and not this, yet it breaks our bank and empties our wallets most of the time. Praise to you guys! I teach cooking in people's own homes now with the main emphasis on local and organic and it's sometimes hard to explain why one should pay more for better food. I'll make sure to tell them about you guys!