Bites Between Bytes
Cooking lemongrass beef tossed with pan-fried noodles; falafel stuffed into house-made naan; eighteen fresh toppings for rolled-to-order burritos and more for 5,700 people a day. "Here or to-go?" by Nancy Rommelmann
March 5, 2007 - 12:52 am
It was ten in the morning when I was issued an ID badge and passed through the badge readers at Intel’s Jones Farm campus, twenty miles west of Portland, Oregon. I was there to meet Micah Cavolo, executive chef with Bon Appetit Management Company, the catering outfit that services Intel. But first, Richard Calbow, the on-site general manager for Bon Appetit (no relation to the magazine), would give me a little tour.
“The way everything is sectioned off, I describe it as fitting into the engineering culture,” said Calbow, who, as he does each workday, was doing a walkthrough of Jones Farm 3, the more user-friendly, shall we say, of the Intel campus’s two food courts. Here, smiling servers stood behind color-coded stations; this one serving burgers, that one, tacos; a third, sandwiches, and so forth.
“We’ll get three thousand people here today, and another twenty-seven hundred at Jones Farm Five,” said Calbow, as behind him six middle-aged men sat down to lunch together, a meal that began with each opening his respective laptop.
The high-tech revolution, with its isolated office parks and flexible work schedules, has in many ways made the lunch hour obsolete, no doubt one reason the roads to Intel’s wafer fabrication and manufacturing center offer views of grass fields rather than golden arches. And yet, between bytes and chips, Intelians still need to eat, and do, cafeteria-style, though what they eat bears little resemblance to the waterlogged cabbage and sloppy Joes plopped onto the grade school trays of our youth.
“Actually, we don’t like the word cafeteria, we use caf√©,” said Calbow, as he cruised through a Jones Farm cold kitchen, where the food began to get bolder. One prep-cook hand-crushed arugula for pesto. A second plunged an industrial-size immersion blender into a vat of mangos, cilantro, limejuice and jalapeno. What was it?
“Mango chutney,” he said.
And what was that bubbling in the gigantic cauldron behind him?
“Refried beans,” he said. “For the taqueria station.”
The ecumenical menu is partly a result of practice; Bon Appetit has more than 200 corporate clients, including Adidas, Yahoo and eBay. Yet it is also a hallmark of their being able to operate autonomously: while contracted by Intel, they are not bound to Intel’s operating systems.
“At Intel, there is no margin of error,” said Calbow. “The word ‘consistency’ has sort of been emblazoned on my vocabulary since I’ve been here. But cooking…”
Is an art?
“Yes, and also, flexible,” he said. “You want to substitute fresh fruit for cauliflower? Sure. Also, we need to have variety, so people don’t have to leave campus.”
Ah, food, the great unifier-and one more way to cement the troops and promote unity.
“And productivity,” he added. “Let’s be honest; you’re going to take less time for lunch. You’ll hear servers say, ‘Is that for here or to go?’ But ‘to go’ means, they’re taking it back to their cubicles.”
Calbow continued through a loading dock heaped with outdated computer-monitors and across a courtyard to Jones Farm 5 caf√© just before the lunch rush.
“The food here is more sophisticated,” he said, as he passed set-ups for Vietnamese lemongrass beef tossed with pan-fried noodles; falafel stuffed into house-made naan; eighteen fresh toppings for rolled-to-order burritos; sun-dried tomatoes and fire-roasted peppers and fresh mozzarella for pizzas sliding into the gas-fired pizza oven. The selection was so deep and broad one suspected, because it must satisfy so many, it is chosen by committee.
“I decide all the menus,” said chef Micah Cavolo, who, as the first of the day’s 5,700 customers filed in, looked no more harried than if he’d been asked to hold a butterfly net for a sec. How did he come up with so many choices?
“The clientele drives what you do, to a certain extent,” he said, as he began slicing the first of two-dozen cheesecakes. “We’re at an advantage here, because they can pretty much choose whatever they want and we can give it to them; we do Halal [food]; [food] for Passover. We always have an Indian station for the sizable Indian population in the workforce. The main difference between this and a restaurant is, here it changes every day, whereas at a restaurant, you have a certain amount of things that stay the same.”
Right, so the chef doesn’t lose his mind…
“But this is good because we get to change and do whatever we want,” he responded.
Really? So, there’s no CEO dictating, six peas and six peas only!
“No, I have free reign to do what I want to do,” he said. “Bon Appetit does have standards, things you’d want to do anyway; sustainable agriculture and vendors; natural, grass-fed beef; antibiotic-free chicken. It’s part of the BA mantra: sauces and salsas and soups and stocks from scratch.”
And it is true that Cavolo has thirty people working under him. Still, 5,700 divided by thirty equals… 190 meals people per person, five days a week, everything from scratch. Again, Cavolo appeared unruffled.
“The hardest thing to get the staff to do was compost,” he said, and lifted the lid on a bin of asparagus stalks and blood orange rinds. These, he said, are driven to an organic farm. “It’s more work than to just chuck it in the garbage, but sometime, we’ll go out there and buy something they grew with it and cook it and then give them back the scraps.” He smiled. “It completes the circle.”
And then he did have to excuse himself, to go make something like a million gallons of soup. I joined what was now about 400 people, slowly pushing trays past more than a hundred lunch choices, stopping for tasting portions of chowder; watching the flames dance up from a wok, and deciding whether they wanted roti with their Bombay Pollack infused with coconut milk and chiles. I did, as well as basmati rice and curried chickpeas; a dish for which I’d have happily paid $18.95 at a restaurant, but here set me back $4.95.
As Calbow, who before coming to Intel ten years ago worked with Bon Appetit on the campuses of Stanford and the University of Hawaii, and I split a make-your-own sundae, I asked whether the employees at Intel realized how good they had it. He said, most did, though feeding some of the senior engineers came with its own set of exigencies.
“These are not college kids, who are all about carbs and calories,” he said. “And we do have some thrifty, older, less adventurous customers at Jones Farm Three. I remember our first year here, getting the comment, ‘Can you just make a basic chicken noodle soup?’”
Nancy Rommelmann is a columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Bon Appetit and other publications, and a frequent contributor to Portland Food & Drink. She is the author of several books, including Everything You Pretend to Know About Food And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask, and the recently completed memoir, Leaving Los Angeles. Her personal blog can be read here.