From the windows of Google Pittsburgh in Larimer, you can see the neighborhood’s past and future.
Brick buildings wear ghost signs from decades ago when the neighborhood was predominantly Italian. The Ellis School stands to the east. Closer in, sold-out luxury condos teem with residents who moved in last month, while other buildings remain under construction that began in April as part of Bakery Square 2.0.
Google Pittsburgh resides in the 100-year-old Nabisco plant that the company left in 1998. On the seventh floor, a giant mixer rescued from the factory sits against the wall in the center of the common room like a throne among ping-pong, pool and foos-ball tables. A hardwood floor wears a scar from the building’s former life.
Dressed in Google T-shirts and shorts, skirts and comfortable shoes, Googlers -- as employees are known -- sip coffee, collaborate with co-workers and type on laptops among cubicles. Google engineers and product managers focus on search ads and research and development.
“Because of this plant, the neighborhood used to smell like a bakery,” says Google executive chef Lee Keener as he takes visitors on a tour of the building.
A chef with Parkhurst Dining Services, he leads Eat’n Park’s most high-profile location among restaurants that include The Porch at Schenley and Six Penn Kitchen, Downtown.
He has been pivotal in shaping Elements Cafe, the Google restaurant that opened in late June.
Closed to the public, Elements debuted with a state-of-the-art kitchen run by 20 cooks who serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. The complex includes a dining room with high-tech hot and cold stations, a teaching kitchen, a culinary lab, seven micro-kitchens and a coffee shop that opened in December.
Mr. Keener has built a hydroponic and rooftop garden network, where he also raises chickens and bees. He butchers whole animals in a dedicated kitchen. He cures meats and fish and composts waste.
His efforts are part of Google’s plan to educate as well as satiate Googlers’ palates. All food is free. And there’s a nod toward health: There are no sodas, no fried foods such as french fries and limited access to sweets.
“We apply the principles of behavioral economics to design spaces that nudge toward healthy behaviors,” said Google spokesperson Becca Rutkoff. “A meal experience can inspire the next big idea.”
With the opening of the new restaurant and the teaching kitchen, food service at Google Pittsburgh now falls among the most ambitious programs of the company’s 70 locations in 40 countries.
Five years ago, Mr. Keener and three chefs cooked for 60 employees. He was responsible for feeding 300 by 2013. Since May of last year, the company has grown 15 percent and now serves over 350 employees.
Google attracts more than job applicants. It’s luring business to Pittsburgh. It is one of the reasons the trendy Ace Hotel is coming to the city, says Matt Ciccone, head of the boutique real estate firm Edile, which is co-developer of the project.
There are several other factors about Pittsburgh that appeal to the Ace Hotel people, he said of the 63-room hotel opening in spring 2015. “But Google was certainly an initial factor. Ace Hotel already had a good relationship with Google in New York and the Pittsburgh office was on their radar.”
The hotel in the former East Liberty YMCA on Whitfield Street will solidify changes to East End neighborhoods, especially when it comes to retail and restaurants.
The dining experience
To the left of the entrance to Elements on the third floor are several columns that serve as a hydroponic garden for arugula, dandelion, basil and other herbs. Greens are clipped by cooks as needed.
A host greets Googlers as they arrive for lunch, and it’s clear he knows if not their names, their dietary preferences.
Each meal is an hour to an hour and a half long, like college dining for grown-ups, with more exciting and locally sourced fare.
More than 30 percent of Mr. Keener’s ingredients come from the Tri-State area. Beef is from Logan Family Farms of Hempfield; lamb is provided by Jamison Farm of Latrobe; and chicken is sourced from Gerber Amish Farms in Kidron, Ohio. Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance supplies vegetables as well as 160 dozen eggs a week from two farms.
Giant display windows, cafe lighting, handsome tables and counters are a stylish departure from the 3-year-old Mixing Bowl, the now-closed cafe that served Googlers on the sixth floor until recently, where bony seating and lean decor was met by a warming kitchen that Mr. Keener pushed to its limits. Food was prepped off-site and transported over each day.
Three floors down, Elements is much more comprehensive, geared toward satiating every craving and tempting Googlers with healthful meals.
To feed all these people, the complex is outfitted with dozens of refrigerators including five walk-ins, one of which is used to hang meats for charcuterie. Temperatures for all are controlled by Mr. Keener through an app on his phone. The kitchen has a vacuum sealer and a thermal circulator, sausage makers, meat grinders, an ice-cream maker and a pasta extruder for making shapes. Many of these are part of the kitchen’s culinary lab. Around the complex, menus hang on flat-screens overhead, announcing the selections for the week.
In the dining room, the cold food island called Ice is framed by hardwood floor panels, marble counters and stainless-steel appliances. The center is defined by a windowed walk-in fridge stocked with clear bins of watermelons and heads of cabbage. Giant wooden bowls rest on top shelves.
At the counters, Googlers peruse each dish, which features an ingredient placard with red type for meat, yellow for fish or chicken and green for vegetables: a heads-up to health.
Farther down the line, cut vegetables and crackers flank a loaf of pate aux champignons. Cheeses and grapes align a cutting board. Blueberries and fresh pineapple slices rest in bowls. Baskets cradle sourdough and wheat rolls from Mediterra Bakehouse.
Individually portioned salads start with mache and coins of sweet potatoes, topped with feta and pecans and dressed with lemon vinaigrette, each bowl artfully assembled. At the far end of the line, an array of mini-desserts tempts with lemon, cream and custard.
“We have so much less waste now that we’re plating portions,” Mr. Keener said. He keeps track of the debris station with scales that weigh recyclables and organic waste he uses for composting.
Over at the hot station called Fire, seafood bisque, chili and cream of chicken are soups of the day. Cuban-style whole snapper lies in a dish with caper berries, tomatoes and olives. It’s well-seasoned, fresh and flavorful. Roasted eggplant smells slightly sweet and garlicky. Rustic mashed potatoes sport skins among starch. And stewed greens are flavored with cider vinegar.
After five years, Mr. Keener says he’s gotten the hang of menu planning here, a challenge as he monitors daily input from Googlers on Google Plus about products and ingredients. He has created menus as esoteric as celebrations of Aruban Independence Day as well as a week of recipes inspired by celebrity chefs with personal ties. Jamie Oliver Day was a nod to Food Revolution Pittsburgh, for example, and Emeril Lagasse Day was a tribute to his former employer.
Mr. Keener worked at Emeril’s in New Orleans for four years, followed by a two-year tenure as a chef in St. Thomas. He has worked for Parkhurst for 14 years.
For a while, he didn’t repeat a day’s meal until Googlers said they wanted repeats. They especially appreciate pig roasts and taco days, the most popular menu ever.
“We make special meals,” he said, “But we’re not a snobatorium.”
KitchenSync: The Download on Food
Past the hot foods and a colorful filtered water station of columns filled with strawberries, lemons or melons, a barn door slides open to display the teaching kitchen. Named KitchenSync: The Download on Food, it’s a tribute to the Mountain View Googleplex in California and an acknowledgement that Pittsburgh is the only other Google location with a teaching facility. Inside, stainless steel refrigerators are built into the wall. A row of sinks and work stations await future students, Google employees who will sign up for classes.
Inside, chef instructor John Karbowski, a native Pittsburgher, leads a demo where he’s introducing Googlers to yucca as they walk by. A dollop of avocado dresses a plate, to which he adds steamed yucca, pickled tomatoes, fresh bell pepper and cilantro. An employee asked him about specifics of the dish as he explained why he combined toasted cumin, coriander and salt to season it. The yucca is finished with habanero pepper vinegar and a squeeze of lime.
“Don’t forget the lime,” he says. “That dish without lime is like a sundae without the cherry.”
Mr. Karbowski was a chef at the Michelin Guide-recommended restaurant Cetrella in Half Moon Bay, Calif., for three years. He and his wife, who is originally from Japan, moved to Pittsburgh for his job.
He cites Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto and applies it to the kitchen. “My goal here is to try to please diners and to get them inspired,” he says. “I want to help them make good decisions about food.”
Back in the dining room, Mr. Keener is scrolling through his phone for his biweekly Google Plus updates about his food offerings. “Sometimes you get three or four responses,” he says. “Other times someone makes a request and it’s a flood of conversation.”
As Google grows, Mr. Keener expects to expand the kitchen’s operations, including the lab and the classes. Where else can he cook for 350 regulars?
He hopes to do more pickling and whole-animal butchery. He wants to expand the rooftop beds and hydroponics. And he wants to build a bakery. He points to a basket of rolls.
“I want this neighborhood to smell like a bakery again.”
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.