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Did This Man Invent the Modern Restaurant? : Michael McCarty assesses his place in restaurant history : THE INTERVIEW

December 31, 1989|RUTH REICHL

NEW YORK — Michael McCarty is not a modest man.

"We were a pioneer, there's no question about it. I clearly think that in 1979, Michael's restaurant defined what restaurants were," he said as he surveyed his brand new restaurant last month in New York.

Even before he opened Michael's in Santa Monica (at the ripe old age of 24), humility was not exactly his strong suit. "We're doing something different here," he said as he prepared his menu in 1979. "My specials are going to blow your socks off."

And they did.

McCarty's brash charm blew into the Los Angeles restaurant scene like a whirlwind. He filled his kitchen with long-haired young Americans (the old man of the group was 28) who were wonderful chefs--and whose arrogance matched his own. When asked about his formal training, head chef Ken Frank said airly, "I didn't have any. I just worked my way up from being a dishwasher. But that, of course, was in France. You know--in 6 months in France you learn to be a chef in L.A."

These were the first heady days of what was to be called California Cuisine.

This is what the critics said: "Wow" (The Times). "Michael's needs a mother" (New West). "There's a lot of style going on at Michael's" (Herald Examiner). "Haughtiness is served as the appetizer" (Los Angeles Magazine).

If the critics didn't quite understand that McCarty wanted to do what he called "the weirdest things," it's no wonder. McCarty himself described his food as "the best possible ingredients I could buy cooked in the simplest possible way." But in reality it was nothing more than nouvelle cuisine-- served up in a nouvelle ambiance.

"Remember," says McCarty now, "when we opened up, nobody used those big white plates? All the other Villeroy and Boch plates had the baskets on them so the plate looked really busy. I had to go to Germany to get that stripped off." He smiles thinking about it. "Hey, remember how much heat we took for the lights being on in Santa Monica? Everybody said it was so bright. Remember how shocked people were by the music? Contemporary jazz in a restaurant? Remember that? Remember the concept of the indoor-outdoor--how many people were amazed that we had a patio in those days?" He looks around his own new restaurant smugly surveying the collection of very good art displayed on the walls. "I mean, how many restaurants now put art on the walls? And big flowers?"

Actually, McCarty didn't start with big flowers. He didn't start with flowers at all. On opening night, one well-wisher walked into the Santa Monica restaurant with a bouquet and McCarty blanched, punched her lightly in the stomach and said, "Could you divide those into vases and put them on the tables?" But no matter--McCarty is convinced that he virtually invented a new look for restaurants. He gazes around his new room with satisfaction and says, "This kind of lighting, this kind of wall and this kind of art have become a de rigeur design throughout the country for a modern new restaurant."

McCarty likes it all so much that he has virtually reproduced the original restaurant in New York. The walls look the same, the art looks the same, the chairs are the same, bright lights, modern music. There's even a patio out in back. And the menu is the same as the one in Santa Monica.

McCarty would like you to think it is the same menu that he served 10 years ago. "It's interesting," he says. "The food that I created in those days was simply what we have today."

It isn't. The original menu was written in French and contained relics like a fish terrine (borrowed from the menu at L'Ermitage), raw scallops in pureed beets (borrowed from Pierre Vedel), the ubiquitous feuilletages filled with fish and topped with beurre blanc , and Grand Marnier souffles (then found on virtually every menu with a claim to nouvelle cuisine). By contrast, the current menu is written in almost tedious English ("spaghettini with Chesapeake Bay Scallops and Sacramento River Delta Crayfish, Chardonnay Cream sauce, roasted red and yellow peppers, baby asparagus and Lake Superior Golden Caviar"). It's just a way of telling you that the current Michael's menu takes the most expensive products available--no matter where they come from--and puts them together on the plate. These days there are a lot more ingredients than there used to be, but it's what Jonathan Waxman, who was Michael's head chef for four years (before taking California Cuisine to New York at his wildly popular Jams) once called "air freight cuisine."

It is a perfect description. In a way, Michael's food is the antithesis of California Cuisine as practiced by Alice Waters and her disciples; they believe in site-specific cooking and practice the gospel of freshness. But this is the ideal food for a man who likes what he serves so well that he wants to serve it everywhere. For while many modern restaurants proudly rely on local products, McCarty proudly relies on local delivery.

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