Silicon Follies

Chapter 15: Where elite geeks meet to eat -- and run

By Thomas Scoville

Published May 5, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

High noon at Bistro Elan, and the burghers of the Silicon Valley were lunching to win. The bistro was more than just a restaurant; it was a bona fide strategic dining opportunity. The valley's finest dined with the same high-stakes, pressurized intensity of the opening hours of an IPO. Executives, managers and eccentric-looking technical Brahmins talked in urgent staccato acronyms while wolfing down radicchio and foie gras. Cell phones and PalmPilots were everywhere.

The bistro was arranged like many au courant California eateries: open kitchen, dining at the counter -- for those who wanted a front-row seat on the culinary action -- and a surrounding room of tables arranged in quirky and asymmetric fashion. The dicor was stylishly understated, but the action in the kitchen was furious. Three chefs juggled their preparations without speaking, their intense concentration unbroken by the clamor of the activity in the dining room. Flames periodically erupted from the grill, fiery homages to Escoffier. Oversized plates, brimming with the latest in California cuisine's savory thrills, floated from the kitchen on waiters' trays, tantalizing smells tracing their passage.

In one corner a well-known industry chieftain -- fresh from the wrong side of a corporate merger, but trailing a golden parachute -- gave dictation to a posse of infotech journalists. In another, a project team from Sun Microsystems celebrated this week's once-in-a-lifetime technology achievement with the canonical victory lunch. Judging by the wreckage of tableware and the empty wine bottles, Sun was picking up the tab. The team's project manager had hoisted himself halfway out of his chair, delivering an undoubtedly inspirational paean to excellence, teamwork and synergy, but most of his smartly dressed, perfectly coiffed crew couldn't hear him through the ambient din of the bistro. They smiled and nodded intensely nevertheless; it was important to project that quality of super-focused enthusiasm, even when the signal-to-noise ratio approached zero.

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Laurel stood in her smartly starched white apron and attempted to recite the plats du jour to a table of frantically gesturing technology zealots. They could barely contain their technical tent-revival long enough for her to finish.

"Today we have jumbo Day Boat scallops in a ginger-chive cream. Also we have the confit of duck with garlic-mashed navy beans, chanterelles and a pomegranate reduction. Very delicious, I recommend it. Last but not least, California mussels in a chive saffron broth with pommes frites."

"Great, great," the most animated of them hurried her along. "I'd like the mussels. But can I substitute french fries for the whadayacallit?"

Laurel didn't miss a beat. "Absolutely, sir," she assured him.

"And could you see that we get our food in a hurry? We've got a meeting in Cupertino at 1 o'clock."

"I'll do my best."

They were all like that, Laurel reflected, these hyperkinetic infotech types; food culture was largely wasted on them. In one of the world's most fertile culinary regions -- only a few microclimates away from the Napa Valley or the East Bay homeland of nouvelle cuisine's patron saint, Alice Waters -- the digerati couldn't be bothered to spend an extra 20 minutes to savor the experience. After all, in the land of rapid and relentless innovation, a leisurely lunch might mean the difference between profitability and Chapter 11.

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When the doors had closed for the afternoon, Laurel sat at the counter folding napkins with Veronique, her comrade in arms throughout the lunch rush. "Vero" was French. Mid-20s, taken by wanderlust, she had come to California to see San Francisco and exercise her formidable cooking talents. She had loved the Golden Gate, but waiting tables at the bistro was as close as she might come to a commercial kitchen, at least without a work visa. Still, the owner was willing to risk Vero's tenure on the wait staff; she was -- in the lexicon of legions of young Frenchmen migrating to the Silicon Valley gold rush -- une grosse nana. Roughly translated: a total babe. Whatever the relative proportions of young, male French software entrepreneurs in the valley, Vero guaranteed they would be over-represented in the bistro's clientele.

Laurel shared her observations on the futility of serving fine food to time-starved careerists. Vero leaped to validate in her accented English. "Oh, yes! Every-sing is always rush, rush, rush -- there is no time for enjoying. Quelle dommage. A waste. If only they can stop to ...? Smell these roses. But what can you do? They have money, but no time to enjoy.

"I am thinking," she said, giving Laurel a sidelong, conspiratorial look, "to start a little business where I make the food and bring it to these kind of people. They can have the good food without spending the time to go out. Maybe at home, maybe at work. I can create a ... mobile cuisine. Maybe they can take time to enjoy it more."

"Great idea," Laurel replied. Then, bouncing up in her seat with enthusiasm: "You could call it 'Guerrilla Gourmet.'"

"Yes, yes," Vero piped, green eyes flashing. "'Guerrilla Gourmet -- pret ` manger'! It will be wonderful! You should come and help me. You are too good for the bistro. This will be more fun."

Laurel didn't think of herself as someone with entrepreneurial inclinations, but she found the idea strangely appealing.

"Oh, let's," she agreed. "It'll be fun. We'll go out and conquer the world with our movable feast!"

Funny thing was, she actually believed herself. She found herself smiling a big smile. Self-determination always cheered her up.

Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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