BRUCE MARDER WAS studying dentistry at USC when he decided to take a break.
"I took a year off to travel, to think," he says.
In Morocco he kept bumping into chefs from Europe who, like Marder, were camping out.
"Before leaving Morocco, I had decided I wanted to become a chef," Marder says.
Once back in the States, Marder took odd jobs to make enough money to study cooking in France, but never quite made it. Instead he studied with chefs Dumas Pere and John Snowdon, both Swiss- and French-trained executive chefs, under a private apprenticeship in Glendale, Ill., where he learned cooking, catering and demonstration cooking.
He ended up at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, working his way up in all areas of the kitchen. The rest is history.
His first restaurant, Cafe California in Venice, became one of the landmarks of California cuisine and a shrine of the health-food movement. Subsequent trips to France, oddly enough, helped confirm his devotion to American cooking while expanding his technique.
"The success of Cafe California was based on good, healthy food. It wasn't French, not European. It was American with my interpretation," he says.
The same basic tenets applied later to West Beach Cafe, another Venice landmark, and its Mexican sister across the street, Rebecca's, which Marder and his wife, Rebecca, operate jointly. They will soon add a bar and grill and an American deli to their empire, both serving "healthy food done tastily and properly," Marder says.
At West Beach Cafe, the menu changes weekly. The cooking is light, sophisticated and very American with European overtones: good pasta; a summer salad with charred albacore, red and yellow tomatoes and balsamic vinegar with extra-virgin olive oil; dried, aged steak served with roast potatoes, steamed spinach and Roma tomatoes.
At Rebecca's--his personal interpretation of Mexican cooking, American style--the ideas run rampant with Marderisms.
There are poblano chiles rellenos stuffed with duck. Marder loves cooking with a Mexican comal (a flat iron pan), grilling king salmon and steaks until slightly charred outside and pink inside.
The tacos are filled with salad ingredients with salsa added to taste; they are served with cabbage salad made with carrots, peas, onions and cilantro and a sour cream topping.
Marder's guacamole contains no lime juice, no sour cream or tomatoes. It's pure Marder: healthy, tasty and properly prepared. Rebecca's steak tacos (Carne Asada), featured here, use charred steak slices prepared on the comal and cut paper-thin. "I lean to black and blue--black outside, blue inside. And I don't like to mix salsa and meat because it makes the meat watery," Marder says.
BRUCE MARDER'S PRIME NEW YORK STEAK TACOS
2 1-pound prime New York steaks, trimmed of most fat and well chilled
Salt, black pepper
6 or 12 corn tortillas
2 medium white onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
4 bunches cilantro, leaves only, coarsely chopped
15 serrano chiles, stems removed, split and thinly sliced horizontally
Season steaks with salt and pepper. In hot skillet, cook steaks 3 minutes over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, cook 3 minutes longer, then turn and cook 3 minutes over high heat and 3 minutes over medium heat on other side. Meat should be seared, almost charred outside, rare to medium rare inside.
Remove steaks from skillet and keep warm. Using tongs, heat tortillas over direct flame, turning until slightly singed. Wrap in cloth to keep warm.
Slice steak paper-thin crosswise. Use one tortilla, or overlap 2 tortillas, and place a few slices of steak on top. Sprinkle with onion, tomato, cilantro and chiles, then roll up. Serve with Marder's Guacamole and Refried Beans. Makes 6 servings.
3 avocados (preferably Hass)
2 serrano chiles, minced
1/2 medium onion, minced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Peel and coarsely chop avocados. Add chiles, onion and cilantro and mix until creamy but with lumps. Season with salt.
1 pound black beans, soaked overnight
5 cloves garlic
1 onion, quartered
1/2 pound pork trimmings with some fat
1 onion, chopped
Cook beans in water to cover with whole cloves garlic and quartered onion until tender, about 1 1/2 hours.
In skillet, render pork trimmings. Add chopped onion and cook until onion is lightly browned. Add beans with broth slowly to pork mixture. Mash the beans, if desired, and season with salt. Makes 8 cups.