Noe Valley Voice May 1997

Jane Peal Brings Tasty Vegetarian Meals to Your Door

By Michele Lynn

In the novel Like Water for Chocolate, people's emotions are stirred when they eat dishes prepared by Tita, the main character. When Tita cries while she is cooking, the food she serves causes the diners to cry while eating.

If Jane Peal were able to perform this feat, the clients feasting on her food would suddenly feel warm, passionate, and full of energy -- just like she does.

"I love what I do, I love every aspect," Peal enthuses. "I even love doing the deliveries!"

Peal is the one-woman show behind Jane Peal Cuisini¸re (the French word for chef), a gourmet meal delivery service she started about five years ago. For $20 a meal, she will prepare and deliver a hearty three-course vegetarian dinner for two to your door. Deliveries take place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Each meal is made from "fresh, natural ingredients, organic whenever possible," says Peal, and consists of a quart of entree, a pint of salad, and a pint of side dish.

Although she cooks in the Richmond, Peal is a 25th Street resident who has lived in Noe Valley since 1985. But she first honed her culinary skills in exotic kitchens around the globe.

"In my early 20s, I fell into cooking jobs while I was in college," says Peal, 41. "I had a passion for cooking, but I didn't think it would be my profession until I started traveling."

She journeyed throughout Europe and the Mediterranean from 1982 to 1986, cooking her way through most of the countries and learning the various cuisines. Her adventures included running a Viennese cafe for nine months, working as a personal chef in the French Alps, and cooking while cruising the Nile on a faluka, a flat-bottomed boat once used by the Pharaohs.

After graduating in 1987 from Tante Marie's Cooking School in San Francisco, where she received classic French chef's training, Peal apprenticed at Greens Restaurant at Fort Mason.

She also attended a Zen yoga retreat with Greens' founding chef, Ed Brown. "I wouldn't be on this path if he hadn't introduced me to the concept of vegetarian cooking as an aesthetic endeavor, not something sparse and ascetic," says Peal. "In vegetarian cooking, there is a world of endless possibilities, with the exception of a pig, a chicken, and a cow. It's not just brown rice and tofu."

She adds, "I'm a chef who chooses not to use animals for personal and philosophical reasons. It was my personal decision to have the way I earn my money reflect my principles. But I'm not a food Nazi, I'm not dogmatic." Only a few of her clients are strict vegetarians, she notes.

Peal's cooking is also influenced by Philipe La Mancusa, who was her mentor when she worked at the now defunct Acme Cafe on 24th Street. "He instilled in me a lust for cooking and a passion for the quality of food."

After completing her chef's training, Peal worked as a wine and food buyer at Real Food Company on 24th Street. Meanwhile, she started cooking privately for clients referred by Tante Marie's. Then she enrolled in classes at Women's Initiative for Self Employment (WISE), an organization that provides entrepreneurial training for low-income women.

"It was so helpful for me to learn how to make a business out of my craft, and to see myself as having a business," she says.

In 1992, Peal "took the big plunge" and launched her own business full-time. Now she cooks for 80 clients a month, with Noe Valley residents comprising a quarter to a third of her business.

"I have lots of working people and new mothers," she says. "And a lot of single people order from me. [They realize] leftovers can stay in the refrigerator and are great for lunch or the next night's dinner."

Even with that many clients, she still does all the labor herself. "This business is just me. I conceive the menu, hand-address all the menus I send out every month, and do the shopping, the cooking, and the delivering."

She also puts some food for thought on her flyers, like this quote from writer Andre Codrescu: "Tomatoes, squashes, and cauliflower intrigue me immensely with their lewd proposals."

After Peal purchases her produce at markets such as Real Food and Rainbow Grocery, she heads to the restaurant kitchen she rents in the Richmond District, where she generally spends about six hours preparing each day's meals. She says she makes a point of never repeating the same meal twice.

"I may use similar combinations of food, but I don't follow recipes," Peal says, noting that this subtle variety is one thing that sets her apart from restaurants. "I'm always trying to keep it exciting."

A typical month's fare includes several European and Mediterranean dishes and at least one meal reflecting the cuisine of Asia, India, and the American Southwest. All dishes are egg- and dairy-free, as well as low in fat, salt, and cholesterol.

The April menu featured such entrees as Israeli vegetable stew with chickpeas and zhug spices; mole de olla, with cinnamon, cloves, and smoked chilies; and vegetables siciliano, made with green olives, red wine, and sun-dried tomatoes.

Salads ranged from Louisiana lima bean with Cajun mustard, to Polynesian noodles with snow peas and caramelized ginger sauce. Her side dishes had such ex-otic titles as Sassy Red Rice, Roasted Pepper Pilaf, and Toasted Cashew Basmati.

Peal asks her clients to phone in their orders by noon the day before delivery. For an additional fee, she will provide wine or bread to accompany the meal. She also offers a selection of desserts from Tom Peasant Pies on 24th Street.

When pressed for a concise definition of her cuisine, Peal pauses and smiles. "It's hard to describe. Some people call it eclectic, homey soul food. Others say peasant food. Some say soulful and earthy. I think it's full-flavored and complex."

Client Joanne Addison just knows that it tastes good: "Her food is just wonderful. She has a tremendous palate of colors. And there's always some sort of surprise. She might slice up oranges and carrots in the same way, but one tastes piquant, the other one sweet. When my husband had a heart bypass a year ago, he was put on a very strict diet," Addison continues. "Jane's meals made it not only pleasant, but something to look forward to. Her Southwestern foods have inspired me tremendously, and also the North African foods -- especially the spices!"

For Peal, it would be deeply gratifying to hear such words. "It's exciting to be an intimate part of people's lives. People call me, sometimes while they're still chewing, to tell me how much they love the food. I feel like I put more than just the ingredients in the food. I'm nurturing people as well."

To receive Peal's monthly brochure or to place an order, call Jane Peal Cuisini¸re at 826-2133.