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The party that's lasted a quarter century

May 26, 2004|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

It's been 35 years, but Michael McCarty can still recall the precise moment he decided to become a restaurateur.

He was 16, and he and his parents had just finished dinner at a fancy French restaurant in New York, celebrating his departure the next day to spend his junior year of high school in France.

"My parents always entertained a lot," he says, "and now here we were in this restaurant, and when the owner ... started working the room, you could see the service get crisper and the buzz get louder and then they brought the check and I thought, 'Wow. You can have a party with all this fun and all this great food and wine and at the end, you give the guests a bill.'

"That's my kind of business."

Ten years later -- fresh from a return trip to France, where he went to cooking and hotel schools -- McCarty opened Michael's restaurant in Santa Monica and fired one in a volley of shots heard 'round the gastronomic world. Almost overnight, Michael's became both a breeding ground for a new generation of chefs and a laboratory for what soon came to be called the New California (or New American) cuisine.

McCarty was neither the first nor the most influential pioneer in this revolution. Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and Wolfgang Puck, among others, played crucial roles. But six years before Time magazine deemed "Eat American" worthy of a cover story, McCarty helped popularize it and give it a name and a face, and after his restaurant celebrated its 25th anniversary last month, I sat down to talk with him about his vision and his voyage.

"My whole idea was to make a restaurant that was not a restaurant," he said. "I didn't want one of those stuffy, classic French restaurants with everything codified by Escoffier and everyone uptight. I wanted to repeat the casual experience of entertaining in my parents' home."

A restaurant begins with food, though, and McCarty wanted to break with formal French tradition here too. For him, as for his colleagues, California cuisine came to mean certain ingredients and techniques, a sensibility that blended Provence, the Mediterranean and Southern California in a formula that now sounds almost cliche -- fresh, local produce, simple grilled foods, pizzas with exotic toppings, salads of field greens topped with goat cheese and grilled meats.

An all-star roster

When Michael's opened in 1979, the chefs in the kitchen included Mark Peel (who later opened Campanile); Ken Frank (who went on to run La Toque here and, now, in Napa Valley) and Jonathan Waxman (who later introduced New York to California cuisine with his Jams restaurant). The all-star roster grew quickly.

Nancy Silverton, who began as a cashier, became the dessert chef before going on to Spago and Campanile. Kazuto Matsusaka went from Michael's to Chinois. Roy Yamaguchi went from Michael's to, ultimately, a global empire. Gordon Naccarato became the top chef in Aspen. Eric Tanaka, now at Dahlia Lounge in Seattle, is one of the top chefs in the Pacific Northwest.

I first went to Michael's, shortly after it opened, because I'd been dazzled by Frank's food at two other L.A. restaurants. That night, when I asked McCarty if Frank were in the kitchen, he stood ramrod straight and demanded to know why I'd asked. I told him I thought Frank was the best young chef in town.

"I'm the chef here," McCarty said imperiously. "All the recipes we use here are my recipes. Ken is just one of my cooks."

But that was just a bruised ego speaking. I've come to know McCarty fairly well over the years, and he's told me often how talented Frank and his other young chefs were.

From the start, ambience has been as important as cuisine at Michael's, though, so he put thousands of dollars of fresh flowers everywhere, put half the tables outdoors in a lush garden and dressed the wait staff in Ralph Lauren pastels, not tuxedoes. He piped in jazz, not classical music, and he filled the walls with great original art, not what he dismisses as "red velvet and cobweb mirrors."

"I wanted openness and fun and spontaneity," he says.

McCarty may be the most gregarious person I know, and his ebullient personality -- loud across-the-room greetings for everyone -- made guests feel welcome, special, early on and sustained the restaurant when tough times came later.

On the day we last had lunch -- at Michael's -- he seemed to know every guest. Either they came to the table to say hello or he jumped up to greet them. For each, he had a bone-crushing handshake, and after each handshake, he had a story.

"What can I say?" he asked. "I love people and I love to party."

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