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ENTERTAINING : California Parties--Past and Future : THE EIGHTIES : THE '80s BECAME A DECADE IN WHICH LOS ANGELES CELEBRATED ITSELF.

November 04, 1990|MICHAEL ROBERTS | Roberts is chef / owner of Trumps restaurant and author of "Secret Ingredients."

Enormous events introduced new scents and trendy magazines. Lavish birthday parties were held for handbag shops on Rodeo Drive.

And in 1982, Trumps became the co-host of an annual party with no redeeming social value. Chefs, owners and maitre d's from 35 restaurants got together just before the holidays for pot luck. Instead of salads and hams, each restaurant was asked to bring pate .

One of the things that made this party so special was the communal effort that went into throwing it. You know what it's like when people bring food to a party--there's a sudden complicity between the invitees and a certain equality--a little host creeps into the guest in each of us.

I was charmed and surprised at these first parties to discover that there was a community of people in the restaurant and wine business. (I overheard someone remark to the Mandarin's Cecilia Chiang that if a bomb went off in Trumps that afternoon, the evolution of cuisine in California would be set back 20 years.) In Europe, chefs visit each other for lunch or dinner, chat, play soccer or petanque together. Americans never seemed to take the time to do this. I think this feeling of new-found community was shared by everyone who came.

I'm now convinced that no group of people knows how to party better than restaurant people. That is because they are so concerned with nurturing and feeding and making people feel special.

I also believe that the best parties are those where a host or hostess throws together a patchwork of people and makes them talk a lot--good conversation is imperative to a good party. (Guests should remember that they enter into a social contract when they accept an invitation. Host supplies food and drink; guest supplies sparkle and wit.)

Our party secret: Food is an ideal icebreaker. Jerry Goldstein, the party's original host found, that if you label pates and cheeses in the same way that wines are labeled--name, type and country of origin--the food will provoke conversation. People taste and compare; they think carefully about what they are eating and choose favorites. Gently suggest to timid guests that they simply must try a certain stinky, runny mess of former goat's milk and see how they suddenly think of marvelous topics of conversation. A soupcon of discomfort is a great catalyst for inspired chat.

In the early years, everyone brought straightforward pates made out of veal, venison, salmon, foie gras. The Mandarin offered a jellied-lamb pate with hoisin sauce that had people screaming. I made partridges in pear trees-- ballotines of squab that hung by ribbons in bonsai ornamental pear trees. It was sort of perverse, but pretty, and very Hollywood, considering that it was food.

After the first two years, the party had become too large, and we needed more food to keep the atmosphere as "fall of the Roman empire" as it had been. We thought sausages would be a good food theme. They were as unpretentious as most of our chefs and could be easily served; it didn't matter much if they spent an extra minute on the grill. They were close to bite-size, could be held on a napkin and, best of all, their small size allowed everyone to sample all the food without exploding in public. We tented the front parking lot, lit two six-foot grills and cooked sausages made from duck and chicken and alligator and sweetbreads. We had Chinese sausages and Cajun andouilles.

The influences exerted on our food aesthetic created a bold, new cuisine. Asia, Italy, France and Latin America have not yet melded into a well-bred cuisine. Our local cooking, quirky even now, is sharp-edged and dramatic like a mountain range of relatively recent appearance. And so was our party. Happily, people still continued to bring pates --and they became more eclectic, representing our polyglot nature and our juxtaposition between Europe and Asia. We've been treated to Mexican pate , strong with cocoa powder and surprising in its seductiveness. Artichoke pate with carrots was brought by a restaurant that was so short-lived that I can't even think of who they were, except for the good pate .

Restaurants come and go, but mostly they come, and the event has been growing throughout most of the '80s. We're up to about 65 restaurants. Acacia, our original co-host, survived an increasingly crowded and competitive market by being gobbled up by a larger (but equally nobby) house, Chalone (our current co-host). This means there are many more wines to sample at the party. And 70-some varieties of cheese now arrive every year from Wally's in Westwood. At the first party there were no customers (it was as if the toy shop closed, and the toys came alive), but these past few years the short list of VIP friends has grown to a few hundred.

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