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How to Build an Empire : L. A.'s Bruce Marder, who gave us West Beach Cafe and Rebecca's, hopes DC 3 will also take off

December 04, 1988|RUTH REICHL

Eleven years ago Bruce Marder was sleeping on a banquette at a restaurant called Cafe California. At night he went to a friend's house to shower. In the daytime he was the restaurant's chef. He was also the waiter. And the dishwasher.

"After the first week my partner and I pooled our tips and hired a dishwasher," he says. "We just kept moving up."

Way up. Today Marder has built a $500 investment in a funky Santa Monica restaurant into an empire. Marder's third restaurant, the $2.5-million DC 3, opened this week. Next year he will open another big-deal restaurant (with Citrus' Michel Richard).

At the rate he is going, it is not inconceivable that in the decade to come, Bruce Marder will emerge as the city's most successful restaurateur.

But Bruce Marder is hardly a household name. He hasn't been inducted into Cook's Magazine's Who's Who. Food and Wine magazine never named him one of its best new chefs. You don't read profiles of him in Gourmet or Bon Appetit either. And when people talk about California cuisine, the name Marder does not spring to anybody's lips.

Yet he was cooking California cuisine (although he certainly didn't call it that) at his West Beach Cafe before Michael's, before Spago, before Trumps. Marder had duck tacos on his menu before the term Southwestern cuisine was coined. Before there was a City Cafe to build a tandoori oven, Marder was playing around with Indian food. He streamlined French cooking and reinterpreted American food. And in a time when food and art were not considered much of a mix, Bruce Marder was hanging really good art on the walls of his restaurant.

"At first it was hard to get anybody to take me seriously," he admits. "The darling boys were Ken Frank and Jonathan Waxman. . . . We were successful, but we didn't have a name. It took at least six years for people to recognize what an establishment we were."

Says one friend baldly: "That's probably because Bruce has absolutely no personality."

Marder may be L.A.'s most handsome chef. He is certainly among its most talented. He is bright. He is well-dressed. He is successful. But he is, by his own admission, "not a people person." Small talk is foreign to his nature. The word charm is not in his vocabulary. "I'm not the sort of person who goes up to every table and schmoozes," he says.

In normal conversation his voice is so low it's hard to hear, and when you ask for anecdotes about him, none come to mind. In a world where chefs are celebrities who write books, make television appearances and are as famous for their personalities as they are for their food, Marder is an anomaly. Unlike the amiable Wolfgang Puck, the quotable Michael McCarty, the outspoken Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, the suave Piero Selvaggio and the lovable Michel Richard, Marder has been easy to overlook.

But if Marder lacks charm, he owns a double dose of an equally important quality: Determination.

"Bruce is a funny kind of guy," says artist Charles Arnoldi, who found himself designing DC 3's interior despite the fact that he had never done any design work and didn't intend to start. "He's very sure about what he wants. He can block the whole world out. When he decides on something, he's committed to it and he doesn't let anybody change it."

Marder remembers the exact moment when he became committed to the idea of cooking. He was studying to be a dentist at UCLA. "I quit school and went to Europe for a year. I didn't think I was going to be able to make it as a dentist." Now he was camping on a beach in Morocco. "It was Christmas, 1972, and I was out of it in a big way in the back of a van. All of a sudden it came to me that I wanted to be a chef." Marder never looked back.

He ended up back in the United States, trying to make enough money to go to France and learn to cook. "I read about the Dumas Pere School of French Cuisine in Chicago." Marder talked the owner, John Snowden, into taking him on as an apprentice.

"John trained butlers to cook for rich people, catered food and wine dinners, did magazine layouts. We had our own garden, made our own jams . . . we did everything."

Marder stayed about a year. "I was learning a lot," he says, "but I couldn't stand being with John. He was an awful person." So Marder came home to Los Angeles and tried to get a job in a French restaurant. And tried. "In 1975 no French restaurant would hire Americans." Marder finally got a job flipping omelets at Cafe Figaro.

He eventually ended up working at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "It wasn't quite as high a cuisine as I was used to, but I worked my way through the kitchen and learned all the stations." Marder stayed at the hotel a year and a half. "I worked hard. I was really into it."

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