On the surface, Michael Franks and Robert Bell seem an unlikely pair. London-born Franks is a graduate of a hotel management school where he studied the finer points of table service and hospitality. Bell is an untrained chef from the Bronx, who left a well-paying career as an architect to become a $150-a-week line cook. Together they have carved out a small restaurant empire in the South Bay with Chez Melange, Fino and Misto Caffe. They also run a gourmet deli called Chez Allez, and a bakery attached to Misto Caffe. This year they hope to open their fourth and most ambitious restaurant, the Depot, in a restored Southern Pacific railroad station in downtown Torrance that dates from 1912.
At the moment, they are at Fino, having a disagreement about creme brulee .
"You like it like that?" asks Bell. He sees Franks struggling to break through the hard burnt-sugar crust.
"I know you like it this way," Franks says diplomatically.
"Well, remember the first time you told me about creme brulee ?" Bells says. "It was just after your first trip to Paris and you were telling me how part of the concept of eating creme brulee was cracking through the sugar."
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 13, 1991 Home Edition Calendar Page 99 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
In some copies of the Jan. 6 Calendar, because of an error in the editing process a caption misstated the surnames of restaurateurs Robert Bell and Michael Franks in the article "The Free Spirits Behind Chez Melange."
Franks smiles. "I remember. But times change, don't they?"
Bell and Franks' partnership began in the '70s at a restaurant called Courtney's. ("We managed the restaurants," Franks says. "But basically, Robert was the cook and I was the waiter.") After Courtney's expanded to a five-restaurant chain, Franks and Bell left to open Chez Melange in 1982.
The restaurant could have easily been no more than a motel coffee shop (it's attached to the Palos Verdes Inn). But Bell and Franks were ambitious.
They started with what they considered a straightforward menu--"simple grills, light sauces," Franks says. That didn't last long, however. Bell, who was the chef at the time, began changing the menu, every day, every lunch and dinner. Long before "eclectic" cuisine became a hot restaurant formula, Bell was experimenting with new ingredients and different ethnic cooking styles. Not everything worked, but the menu was certainly a melange.
"It was very much a free-wheeling, free-thinking kitchen, " Franks says. "It was an adventure."
Chez Melange, outside of the concentration of Westside-Melrose restaurants, needed a strong image to be noticed by the restaurant community. Franks started a series of dinners with important winemakers and turned Monday nights into theme nights.
"Some of those Monday dinners did get a little bizarre," Bell admits.
"I had martial-arts dancers in the restaurant once," Franks says, "and at New Year's Eve we had a snake dancer. We did Brazil, we did the Philippines, every little island, every small country. . . ."
"We've calmed down a little," Bell says.
"Well," Franks says, "we did just do a Georgian-Soviet dinner."
At one point, Franks and Bell considered opening a restaurant in Santa Monica. This might have brought them closer into the Westside foodie circuit, but they decided to stay in the South Bay. "We really understand this area," Franks says. "This is our community."
A year and a half ago Bell and Franks finally did expand. Fino, their second restaurant, got a lot of attention from critics for its Mediterranean cooking. But the menu was too purely European for their regular customers.
"The problem was we were introducing items that were totally new to people here," Bell says. "They didn't want lentils or bulghur wheat. They'd say, 'We want a potato.' "
Now, Fino serves potatoes. And there are salads and pastas and fish dishes. Along with a few of the original Mediterranean dishes--Spanish tapas and Italian orecchiette pasta with ricotta salata --there might be mako shark sauced with a papaya coulis, coconut and kiwi. It's what their customers expect.
"We had to make it work for the community," Franks says. "We had to make the menu a lot more flexible."
"And," Bell says, "our success at the Chez has been flexibility."