Michael McCarty recognizes talent. When he opened Michael's in Santa Monica in 1979, he had a kitchen filled with young chefs who were destined to become the elite of new American cooking. He had hired Ken Frank (who now owns La Toque), Mark Peel (who now owns Campanile) and Jonathan Waxman (who opened Jams, Bud's and Hulot's in New York) as his chefs.
I recently asked them if McCarty had allowed more freedom than other chefs they had worked with, and if they agreed that Michael's had "defined what restaurants were in 1979." Here are their replies:
"A lot of the elements at Michael's were very original; a lot of them were borrowed or imitated.
"He really did allow creativity in the kitchen: I basically got to do whatever I wanted to do. The original menu was Michael's, but the menu was only a base and I got to add anything I wanted. Michael never said no. He let me buy 2 kilos of truffles a week. If it wasn't for the fact that he gave me carte blanche on almost anything, I don't think I would be where I am today.
"I got to benefit more than anybody, but I wasn't the only one. I left once to go somewhere, and Mark Peel was in charge; he did something like 18 specials a day."
"Look at the opening menu: the faux filet of veal with caramelized lemon came straight from Roger Verger, who cooked it at the Diner du Cent. There was a variation on duck a l'orange. There was steak frites and a tenderloin of pork with sherry wine and vinegar sauce. None of that was original-- he just recombined some of the elements of nouvelle cuisine. I'd say it was evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
"And you have to remember that he greatly admired L'Ermitage, and kind of modeled himself on that restaurant. I think Michael would have been ecstatic to have opened an American L'Ermitage.
"As for his allowing more creativity in the kitchen-- I'd worked with Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison for three years, and there was a great deal of freedom allowed there.
"But in the end, I guess the point is that whatever he did, it worked."
"Michael was a copycat and extremely unoriginal. The man who redefined restaurants in this country was Wolfgang Puck.
"Michael's was just a blatant copy of L'Ermitage. Bertranou was gracious enough to let this kid tag along. Michael learned much more from him than anyone has given Bertranou credit for.
"The only reason he allowed people to be creative was because he relied on other people so much. He was interested in people like me and Jonathan, because we had experience that he hadn't had. I had ten times as much experience as any other chef in that restaurant at the time. I was all of 22-- and that's pretty scary."