The longtime Palo Alto resident and mother of four knows her way around a kitchen, having catered Academy Award parties and diplomatic events.
But Ada's — to be open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. — is a startup enterprise with an unusual mission: employing people with disabilities to prepare and serve great food.
"Our goal is to bring people together that usually don't have an opportunity to connect," Hughes said.
With the community center opening a year behind schedule, Ada's team members have been biding their time, honing their skills and earning money through catering jobs, including gigs at the Italian Consulate in San Francisco and a recent Portola Valley reception featuring environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
On a recent Saturday in Ada's gleaming industrial kitchen in Mountain View not far from Mitchell Park, Hughes and four employees wearing kitchen gloves were prepping for a 50-person event they were to cater the following day.
Standing at a stainless-steel counter, Karina Nolan and Monika Pinter were hollowing out mushrooms to make room for stuffing.
Linda Linker was sautéing a giant pan of onions she had chopped.
Chris Ferkol had cleaned and stemmed the mushrooms, as well as removed the sausage from its casings, and Champ Pederson had shredded quantities of Asiago cheese.
"I'm Kathleen's guy," the genial Pederson said. "She tells me what to do."
Next on the list was starting the mini chocolate-chip cookies — one of three dessert choices on Sunday's menu — and Hughes supervised as Ferkol and Pederson broke the eggs and kept the count.
"One batch will make seven dozen cookies and we're going to double it, so how much is that?" Hughes asked. With some effort, one of the cooks came to the right answer.
Among other items on Sunday's menu were shots of tomato soup, roast sweet baby pepper stuffed with quinoa and feta, organic baby spinach salad with Fuyu persimmons and Bartlett pears, shrimp with three dipping sauces, mini empanadas, crostini with blue cheese and fig jam and mini eggplant Parmesan sandwiches.
In winning the city's Mitchell Park café contract against established brands, Hughes could point to her own catering experience as well as her more recent work in training and managing special education students at Terman Middle School and Gunn High School in opening small cafes to serve teachers and staff.
She launched the school ventures when one of her sons, Charlie, was a special education student, as a way to engage those students in the larger Terman and Gunn communities.
The experience, she said, "made me realize that this blending of young people with people with disabilities could really work when it's around this common goal of making something delicious to eat and serving it.
"When they were empowered to do that it was truly a magical experience for everybody, so that's when I realized we needed to bring this to the public."
The work is challenging, to be sure.
While most people can complete the training for a California Food Handler's Certificate in two hours, Hughes says it takes her employees with disabilities a lot more time.
"We go through each item and do a manual demonstration of what's being talked about, practice washing hands for 20 seconds. ... They really have it ingrained in them. We spend a lot of time on kitchen-equipment safety and knife skills as well." Employees with certain disabilities do not use knives at all.
"It takes a lot longer, but it's do-able. It just takes more time." Many workers are adept at repetitive tasks and, with practice, they get faster, she said.
With the goals of "commercial success, community values and compassionate employment," Hughes and her husband, Tony, calculate it will take two and a half years — once Ada's Café actually opens — for the nonprofit venture to break even.
Disabled and non-disabled employees will have wage-paying full- or part-time employment and other local students will have volunteer opportunities. Hughes herself will remain the unpaid CEO.
To purchase kitchen equipment, Hughes has raised funds from the community, including the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, which last year awarded Ada's $25,000.
The café's name, she said, has a double meaning as the acronym for the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as the name of one of her role models, the grandmother of a childhood friend in Pittsburgh, Penn.
When Ada's Cafe opens, Hughes promised, it will be "warm and welcoming — feeding delicious food to everybody who walks in," just like Ada did.