Remembering Josef Desimone, Facebook and Google's Head Chef: "I Never Wanted To Be An Astronaut. I Only Wanted To Cook."

A look back at the man who fed Facebook (and before that, Google), who died this week at age 44.

On Monday, Josef Desimone died in a motorcycle crash. He was 44. At the time, he was Facebook's executive chef. Desimone joined the company in 2008 when the culinary team was a handful of employees with a single café, and he built a global team with dozens of company restaurants. "Josef was a Facebook legend and institution," Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page, a post with more than 191,000 likes and counting.

Desimone was also a legend and institution at Google, making him arguably Silicon Valley's premier chef. When we met five years ago, he could not have been more humble. He was one of 15 employees featured in our 2008 package, "The Faces and Voices of Google." I was struck that he was as impassioned, curious, and entrepreneurial about food as Marissa Mayer and Google's engineers were about the technology.

With the aroma of Kahlua pig in the air (it was Hawaiian day), Desimone and I sat in one of Google's cafeterias after the lunch rush. He described his work and marveled at his unlikely path to Silicon Valley. He grew up in Miami Beach, doing stints in restaurants as a teenager. He went on to attend culinary school in Charleston, North Carolina and train in Holland before eventually becoming executive chef at Café de la Presse at San Francisco's Trident Hotel. "Google," he told me, "has exposed me to new cuisines, new ways of life, new ideas and life philosophies. Where do you go from here?"

He found the answer later that year: Facebook.

Here, Desimone describes his cooking philosophy and how food can be as a powerful element of corporate culture.

Food Values
"I've worked everywhere from family-style to Michelin-caliber restaurants, and I've never seen anything like Google. Nobody changes the menu daily on this scale. Seventeen cafés. Thousands of meals. It's unheard of. I thought corporate food was premade sauces and things dumped out of cans. But it's not like that. We cook from scratch.

"I used Google in college, but I didn't know a lot about the company when I started here. I just liked the philosophy of the kitchen. My impression was, 'Wow, you hire a guy who's an expert in food and let him run with it! You don't get in his way or micromanage.' After a year or so, I realized this is the way everything works here.

"We came up with a values system. We said we want local. Then it was local, fresh, and sustainable. Then it was local, fresh, sustainable, and organic. We're giving money back to the local mom-and-pop businesses. We're not sending it to the giant conglomerates. We don't want genetically modified organisms or nitrates. We don't want MSG. We're not going to have GMOs here. Genetically modified organisms. We're the first company to go global with cage-free eggs."

Food With A Mission
"John Dickman, the brain trust behind food service, told us, 'This is your platform to educate and change things, not just here, but abroad. It's your time to make a difference, to change how the world works. You may never have a chance like this again in your life. This is your soapbox.'

"After one of my colleagues learned that a San Francisco burn treatment center got its funding cut, we threw a fundraiser here. Press, senators, all these people come, and email starts flooding into the governor's office. Within a month, the center's funding got reinstated. As John says, all you want to do is make a ripple. A ripple turns into a wave. A wave crashes on a shore. Things get changed.

"People from every department come to the cafés, so we get to influence everybody. Every table in our cafés has filtered water to keep you from using bottled water, along with a little sign that explains why. If you want the Coke, it's in the microkitchen, but the sodas that are offered conveniently are agave based. We're here to educate employees."

Something For Every Taste
"Other companies are always visiting. Top chefs, too. Mario Batali. Sam Choy. Paul Prudhomme. Everybody walks away saying the same thing I said when I got here: 'I can't believe this is corporate food.'

"Every café has its own concept. At Taste, we make food from a different region of the world every day. Today was Hawaiian, so the meat is Kahlua pig. At No Name, we went crazy with a nutrient-dense real healthy concept: raw, vegan, living cuisine. That means it hasn't been cooked over 108 degrees. It's things like living lasagna--thinly sliced vegetables, lightly marinated and creamed cashews for the cheese.

"I keep a database on how everything sells. Some groups are more open to wilder game--venison, elk, rabbit. The sales building is predominately younger women, so you're talking salads, any vegetarian or vegan option. No Bambi animals. They're big on fish and chicken without the skin, sauce on the side. The frozen yogurt is a huge seller. Chocolate cake isn't. You go to engineering, and it's a lot more Asian, Indonesian. Fish with the skin on, lamb. Beef and pork are not going to be as popular.

"We've got people working at Google from all over the world, and we think about bringing a piece of everybody's culture here. We can't bring their families. But we can bring the food from Norway or India or Russia. We need to make them feel at home. I'll hit them up for their grandma's recipes."

Googleplex Celebrities
"I never wanted to be an astronaut or a rodeo clown. I only wanted to cook. I get joy from feeding people. If you come to my house, there's food and drinks the moments you walk in the door. Here, for the first time in my career, I get to interact with the guests. Before I was always in the back, never in the dining room. Now I get stopped in the hall. 'Hey, chef, great barbecue today.' Or, 'Can I get that recipe for those raviolis?' A lot of the engineers have their own search engine to look for their favorite foods. They blog about the menus. It's like being a celebrity on campus. It's nice to know that you made an impact on that person's day."

[Image: Russ Quackenbush]

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6 Comments

  • Guest

    Charleston, North Carolina?  Surely a NYC writer who has spent time in NC wouldn't make such a faux pas.

  • Seamus

    No, Charleston, as in South Carolina. And along with Charleston, he also ventured to North Carolina and a train in Holland...and he will be missed.

  • Amee

    There is a typo in the article, but that is ok.  It says Charleston North Carolina.  This is great though.  Such a great way to represent him and reflect on who he was.