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A Native Son Returns
Carolyn Jung | Photo: Liz Daly | March 20, 2017
For Flea St.’s talented new chef, taking the reins in the kitchen marks a homecoming of sorts.
Throughout his career, Charlie Parker has been a chef at impressive restaurants far and wide, including Manresa in Los Gatos, The Village Pub in Woodside, Ubuntu in Napa, Freddy Smalls in Los Angeles and three Daniel Patterson establishments (Plum Bar in Oakland, Haven in Oakland and Alfred’s Steakhouse in San Francisco). In between, he also managed a four-month stint at the exalted Noma in Copenhagen. Parker’s latest head chef job, though, has brought him back home—literally—to a restaurant where he first ate at 12 years of age, located two blocks from his family’s house where he grew up.
Last October, 33-year-old Parker took over the kitchen at the homespun Flea St. Cafe in Menlo Park, where he and his parents have been regulars for more than half his life. “Back then, I never thought I’d be working here, let alone in Menlo Park. It’s come full circle,” says Parker with a chuckle, noting that in San Francisco, he would cook his last dish at 11:30pm, while in soporific Menlo Park, he’s already back home in Oakland by then. (He eventually plans to move to the Peninsula.)
Parker has always had a fondness for the 36-year-old Flea St., where the martinis are bracing, the produce just-picked and the signature sesame seed biscuits always warm. An early pioneer in organic ingredients before it became de rigueur, it’s a place he would always return to eat whenever he visited his parents, who still live in the same house in the same neighborhood. Owner Jesse Cool made quite the impression too, especially with her trademark purple-streaked hair. “I remember Flea St. better than any other restaurant we went to,” Parker says. “The food looked pretty, not heavy, and everything on the plate made sense. It was always so comforting. Jesse was outspoken and hip. She’d come to the table with a big personality.”
At 67, Cool still has that going on in spades. She considers it a coup to have landed Parker, the first customer she’s ever hired. “To watch someone grow up, then come home with all that knowledge, makes me feel profoundly grateful,” she says. “The fact that he wanted to come here means a lot.” It happened rather serendipitously. Cool was shopping at Bianchini’s Market in Portola Valley last fall, when she bumped into Parker’s mom, Juli. It was the only time they had ever run into one another outside of Flea St. As always, Cool asked about Parker. When his mom explained that he was looking for a new job, Cool’s ears perked up, as her own head chef had just departed. Cool asked Parker’s mom to have her son call. He did, one day before he was to cook dinner for a prospective new employer. Parker aced that tryout, but ended up turning down that job in favor of Flea St.
The irony is that when the teenage Parker first expressed interest in cooking professionally, Cool tried to dissuade his parents from it because she knows firsthand how tough the business is. Understandably, she’s glad to eat those words now. Parker jokes that he got into cooking because “I had two older brothers who made me their short-order cook when they’d come home late after drinking beer, and I’d make grilled cheese for them.” After playing football, rugby and lacrosse in high school, Parker related to the teamwork required in a kitchen. In his junior year in high school, he started as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant in San Carlos, before becoming a prep cook at John Bentley’s in Woodside, where years later he would ascend to executive chef.
Parker’s imprint is already evident at Flea St. in the longtime favorite of ricotta gnocchi, which he has taken to crisping in butter, then plating artfully in rows before finishing with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and wild nettle salsa verde. He forages nearby for watercress and miner’s lettuce. He preserves yuzu for a month in sugar and salt, before pureeing its flesh to add its floral brightness to arugula risotto enfolded with Dungeness crab and crowned with Fort Bragg sea urchin.
Parker even persuaded Cool to add foie gras and veal to the menu for the first time, convincing her of Hudson Valley Foie Gras’ provenance and sourcing veal from baby male dairy cows destined to be slaughtered anyway. “He has inspired me to open my mind,” says Cool. “I was a very simple cook; Charlie is a far better chef.” With no pastry chef at the restaurant, Parker also conceives the desserts, such as a deconstructed Black Forest cake served with kirsch ice cream.
This spring, Flea St. will open for lunch on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays for the first time in seven years. Parker’s mom and his dad, John, a physician, remain familiar fixtures here—of course, even more so now. “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think he’d be working here,” says Juli, who is fond of her son’s hamachi crudo with dashi vinaigrette and shiso. “When we sit at the bar now and eat his food, it’s such a treat.”
Flea St. Cafe
3607 Alameda de las Pulgas, Menlo Park, 650.854.1226, cooleatz.com
Starters, $4-$20; second course, $16-$26; entrees, $32-$48; desserts, $10-$20
Tue.-Sun., 5:30-9:30pm (lunch service coming soon)
Originally published in the March/April issue of Silicon Valley