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Michael Roberts, 55; Innovative Chef of Trendy Trumps on Melrose

April 01, 2005|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

Michael Roberts, chef at Melrose Avenue's trendy Trumps restaurant and one of the leaders of Los Angeles' 1980s dining revolution, died Wednesday. He was 55.

Roberts, who had long suffered from an inherited progressive muscular degenerative disease, died in Philadelphia, where he had lived since 2001.

Originally trained as a concert pianist, Roberts began cooking seriously when he was 21 and decided on a whim to work his way through the encyclopedic "Larousse Gastronomique." He then moved to France and attended cooking school in Paris for more formal training.

Roberts was a co-owner and chef at Trumps in 1980, just as a new wave of fine dining restaurants began to open in Southern California.

Renowned restaurateurs could be found throughout Los Angeles, including Jean Bertranou at L'Ermitage, John Sedlar at St. Estephe, Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison, Ken Frank at La Toque, Joachim Splichal at Max Au Triangle, Michael McCarty at Michael's, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger at City Cafe and Piero Selvaggio at Valentino.

In a building that had originally housed a Union 76 gas station, Roberts served food that was at once whimsical and stylish. Among his trademark dishes were lobster in vanilla sauce, quesadillas stuffed with brie and a "guacamole" made from pureed frozen peas.

"This is delicious food, made by someone who not only loves to eat, but never quite gets his tongue out of his cheek," raved The Times' restaurant critic at the time, Ruth Reichl.

"Those were the beginning years of modern American food and what Michael brought was his own take on casual California dining," McCarty, a longtime friend, said Thursday. "He took ingredients not only from France and Italy, but he also embraced American and Latino traditions. The menu had diversity to it, but all within a central style."

In addition, McCarty said, because of Roberts' food and the backgrounds of the restaurant's investors -- attorney Sheldon Andelson, restaurateurs Jerry Singer and Doug Delfeld and designer Waldo Fernandez -- Trumps attracted a very diverse crowd.

Located in the heart of West Hollywood's fashionable home design area, Trumps quickly became the fashion and furniture designer's equivalent of Spago, though it got its share of show business celebrities as well. At a party only a week after it opened, diners included producer Allan Carr, "CHiPs" star Erik Estrada and "Bewitched" star Elizabeth Montgomery, who became a longtime friend of Roberts'.

More common was the afternoon tea, for which the restaurant became famous, where one could find Eddie Murphy and his entourage seated at a table next to interior designer Ron Meyers and architectural photographer Tim Street-Porter, who were next to artists Ed Ruscha and David Hockney. Because Andelson was important in Democratic Party politics, the restaurant also attracted politicos, including Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

"It was a very big scene, but not in a Spago way or a Morton's or a Michael's way," said McCarty. "It was a very fun place, and everybody went. There was a really wild crowd from all walks of life, from foodies to whatever."

Roberts was named to the first James Beard Foundation "Who's Who in American Cooking" in 1984.

Hurt by the slumping economy, Trumps closed in 1992. After a couple of years spent consulting for other restaurants, Roberts opened Pasadena's Twin Palms, introducing Southern California to his take on rustic Southern French cooking. Two years later, he returned to consulting, working with the stylish Twin Dolphins resort in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

In addition, he wrote several well-regarded cookbooks, starting with "Secret Ingredients" in 1988, followed by "What's for Dinner," "Fresh from the Freezer" (later retitled "Make-Ahead Gourmet") and finally, "Parisian Home Cooking" in 1999.

Roberts was born in 1949 in Utica, N.Y., the son of Sidney and Lucille Roberts. He earned a degree in music theory and composition from New York University in 1972. He graduated with a Certificat d'Aptitude Professional from the Parisian cooking school L'Ecole Jean-Ferrandi in 1975. He lived in Paris and Brittany and worked at several restaurants before returning to the United States in 1977.

After two years at the New York restaurant 1 Fifth Ave., he moved to Los Angeles, where he spent a year at Le Soir before going to Trumps.

"He moved to California because a friend had promised to hire him as chef at his restaurant, which, of course, never materialized," Roberts' brother, Clifford, said Thursday. "Then a little while later he was walking down the street and saw a sign in the window at Trumps saying they needed a chef. He cooked a dinner for the partners at one of their homes, and they liked him so much they each gave up part of their shares to make him a partner."

Roberts had struggled with his health for decades. The disease -- Kugelberg-Welander syndrome, which is similar to muscular dystrophy -- gradually robbed him of his strength, forcing him to give up actively cooking in his restaurant, though he still oversaw the kitchen and the creation of new dishes. He eventually was confined to a wheelchair. For the last year, he was plagued by respiratory infections and bouts of pneumonia.

Besides his brother, Roberts is survived by a sister, Diane Wahby. No services are planned.

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