My First Chef: Michael Roberts

by Annie Stein
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I was the least likely person ever to hitch a ride on the “foodie” train, so my ride turned out to be a benevolent accident. It wasn’t so much that by that time I’d been a vegetarian for over ten years, but that I’d talked myself out of whatever sensual pleasures food might have to offer by the age of twelve. I was, however, in need of a “real” job.

My interview with Jerry Singer at the newly opened Trumps Restaurant, went surprising well for a girl with so little to offer. I relied heavily on my Irish gift of gab and the two things I did have going for me at the time - good social skills and a sense of style. Jerry hired me partially for those reasons and because he is one of the kindest men I’ve ever met. Also, his wife, Pamela Dewey, a fashion designer and a truly elegant woman, had taught her husband the value of a stylish greeter. Sitting there that day, on the outside terrace of the restaurant, arms resting on the cool wheat-colored stone table, designed by Waldo Fernandez - the Trumps partner responsible for the innovative look of the place - I hadn’t a clue how lucky I was or how my life was about to change course.

Trumps consisted of five managing partners and about twenty limited partners or share holders. Jerry, Doug Delfeld, recently back from running a restaurant in Spain; Sheldon Andelson, lawyer, businessman, political and social dean of LA, and the unofficial godfather of LA’s emerging gay community, (sadly now deceased); his ex lover, Waldo Fernandez, the celebrity decorator of the day who was showcasing his signature over-sized furniture and clean light spaces with Trumps; and then there was The Chef - Michael Roberts.

Trumps sat on the corner lot of Melrose and Robertson directly across from its competitor, Morton’s, the “industrys” eatery of choice. Before it was a cream colored architectural point of interest with the Trumps name scripted in small pink neon letters, it had been a gas station. Los Angeles in 1980 was not a restaurant town.

 

The word foodie had not yet been coined. Dentists and gynecologists were not standing in line to invest in California Pizza Kitchens and, frankly, I can’t remember if Wolfgang had even met Barbara yet. Peter Morton ran Morton’s, a Hollywood eatery were deals were made over medium rare steaks and perfect fries. It was a place to see and be seen but there was no scene to speak of until Trumps opened its massive double front doors. No one knew who the chef at Morton’s was and, if they did, it was purely inconsequential. Michael Roberts from across the street would soon change all of that.

“The Chef” is what they called him. Almost reverently.

“Where is the Chef”?

“Go ask the Chef”.

“What does the Chef think”?

“The Chef is drunk and strangling a runner in the kitchen.”

Those were the sentences I heard in regards to the Chef my first night working at Trumps. Before “Himself” as the Irish say, stuck his head into the cashier’s station where I was pretending, out of snobbishness, that I did not have to work while learning the restaurant business.

“The cashier du jour, I presume”? I turned to look at the man dressed in a white chef’s jacket , noticed several red wine stains on the other wise perfectly starched and clean jacket and deduced I was meeting “the Chef.”

“Yes”, I replied, adding, “but not for long. I’m going to be the new night manager as soon as I master this thing.” Spoken like a true chorus girl yearning for her day in the spotlight.

“Well you’d better hurry,” he said, leaning in to check the reservation book to see how the night was shaping up. “The lighting in there does nothing for you. It’s much warmer in the dining room. You’ll look charming in there.” By the time introductions were over I’d detected a slight Long Island accent coming from the tall barrel chested man with the thick black hair and the naughty smile, and was, in a word, smitten. I was an Irish Catholic girl from Long Island and “Jewish” boys were off limits and therefore a breed I knew well and adored. Who knew! The infamous chef was a Long Island Jewish boy. Cash register aside, the “real job” was looking better by the minute.

When I started working at Trumps, Michael was in the midst of divorcing Felicity, a lovely English woman he’d married in New York a few years earlier and moved to LA with, and was in the process of dragging his left foot out of the closet to join his right. Very naïve for a New York actress, at first I was very confused by Michael’s sexuality. I watched women flirt with him and watched him flirt back. I watched men flirt with him and watched him try to flirt back with a self-consciousness and a longing that tenderly told the story. In the very beginning when I really couldn’t tell some of the players without a score card, I overheard one waiter telling another that “The Chef” had a crush on a cute new waiter. When I interrupted with, “what are you talking about, The Chef is married”, they both shot me the look; the little Mary from the convent shut up and stop embarrassing yourself look!

The atmosphere of the early eighties promoted freedom. The cash flowed freely, the art scene was flourishing, and Trumps couldn’t have been a better club house. Several months into my gig, Michael planted that left foot firmly and without any fanfare at all, let it be known that “The Chef” was indeed gay. “Well Duh,” from all the cute runners in the kitchen, “What took him so long” from several of the waiters!

It would have made sense that Trumps, with its light airy décor and first rate art that changed monthly so its patrons got to dine looking at a Wayne Thiebaud piece one month and a Mike Kelly or an Ed Ruscha the next, and with its elegant High Tea, could have become a “gay” restaurant. But no one involved, especially Michael, would have wanted that. It was about food and elegance, intelligence and humor and never labeling, or segregating. Michael loved indiscriminately, entertaining, witty, he loved being the center of all things lively and smart. Trumps open and oversized dinning room proved the perfect backdrop for Michael’s personality. Members of all churches were welcome to come genuflect before him.

Besides being an animal I was familiar with, a clever Jewish boy from Long Island with the same 50’s and 60’s frame of references, Michael had something else going for him that drew me to him: a degenerative neuromuscular disease that he’d had since childhood. It progressively weakened his arms, legs and speech. My mother, who was the be all and end all of my life, suffered from Lou Gerghig’s Disease until she died when I was thirteen. For the few years before her death, I prided myself on being able to help her walk, as well as understand what her jumbled speech was trying to convey. Michael reminded me of my mother. I was a sucker for someone coming towards me on wobbly legs or with hands that shook.

Michael’s lust for life, his brilliant mind and his healthy ego wasn’t about to let anything, not even a disease there wasn’t a cure for, deter him from showing LA, if not the world, what a genius he was. Trained as a classical musician, graduating from NYU with a degree in music composition, before heading to Paris to trade in his double bass for a set of carving knives, Michael combined and layered ingredients like they were musical notes. He broke all of the rules so he could make up new ones or do away with the need for rules. Experimentation was the name of his game and it worked!

No one before Michael had ever thought to put good French Brie with a California staple, the corn tortilla, throw in a few ripe grapes, fry it up and make it a starring menu item. Who but a kitchen dare devil would dream of throwing a bag of frozen peas into a blender to create his signature sweet pea guacamole. He was a brilliant chef who put his intelligence, tastefulness and playfulness into his dishes, says his long time friend and cook book editor, Janet Albugh. “He created quirky food with a sense of humor and helped LA become a Mecca for California cuisine.” His kitchen and all of its ingredients became his orchestra and people came in droves to hear Michael’s symphony. And rarely did he disappoint.

Six months after I’d started “working the door” at Trumps, Michael was in a horrible car accident. He’d gone to Tijuana for the weekend with Tom McCoy, a very funny, very handsome waiter, to shop for furniture for his new house, conveniently located around the corner from Trumps. Driving back Tom crashed and totaled his car. After two weeks in the hospital Tom’s father brought him back to the house they shared, and Michael was brought home to his house around the corner from Trumps, where he lived alone, to begin several months of recuperation.

At the time I was living in a small house with a terrific view up on Sunset Plaza Drive without so much as a cat that needed feeding. I moved into Michael’s house, along with his good friend, sweet, hysterically funny Jeffrey the waiter and embarked on a month long pajama party. Michael was bedridden and in a hell of a lot of pain. He had a revolving door of practical nurses whom he loathed and scared off. Nurse Ratchet after Nurse Ratchet would turn his beloved opera down, demand he sleep, hide his wine and curtail his entertaining. Michael would have Jeffrey turn up La Boheme, open another nice Cabernet, and have me welcome in the next round of visitors.

They came bearing food, wine, books and flowers. Michael, always the dutiful host, held court in his living room in the rented hospital bed we’d placed by the window. He’d sit up supported by an army of pillows, wearing clean pin striped Brooks Brothers pajamas, gossiping, laughing and holding court. One day, Michael sent me out to buy a nurses outfit, avec le chapeau and a pair of spiked heels for Jeffrey to wear, which he did. Gladly. Without the costume Jeffrey was beyond funny, his lanky body and long nose lent itself to clowning around and his lighting quick wit had one laughing before he’d even finished a sentence, but in nursing whites with that three cornered hat singing “Teen Age Enema Nurse” off key, he was the bomb! Michael laughed until his sides hurt and he coughed out “Enough! Enough! Take the damn thing off!”

His recovery was slow due to his neuromuscular disease and for the first few months back he tried to work only half days, coming in either for lunch or dinner unless there was a special party. He tired easily and was still in pain and could be more than his usual temperamental self in the kitchen. When he said he wanted a husband to take care of him all I could say was, “Honey, WHAT a good idea!” And prayed to God he’d find one.

Soon after Michael met Daniel Adams, his Irishman, and I believe the love of his life. Daniel looked like a fair-haired, freckled face kid wearing his older brother’s suits in the beginning, but as time went on his face matured, he grew into his suits and the two looked wonderful together. Daniel and I, cut from the same Celtic cloth, immediately bonded and Michael was crazy about Philip Chiang who I had started dating by then. The four of us became wonderful friends and began to spend time together. We began weekly dinners that grew into Thanksgivings and Christmas’s. Whenever Michael got mad at Daniel, he’d throw me into the mix with “Oh you stubborn Irish Girls”! Watching how much Michael and Daniel adored each other, watching their love grow and the unbelievable tenderness with which Daniel took care of Michael, constantly inspired me.

“The boys”, as she called them, loved Philip’s mother, Cecelia Chiang, creator of the Mandarin in San Francisco and Beverly Hills. The “Madame” as Michael called her, a darling of gay men round the world, is a formidable, lively, lover of good food and wine. She is also known in certain circles for her jewelry. Michael used to love to get her talking excitedly about something. Her accent would trip up the faster she spoke and her perfectly manicured hands would start waving around furiously. He’d get such a kick out of the whole thing. He’d get her gossiping about James Beard, or her trips to China with Alice Waters, but the thing he liked best was to hear her talk about the time she took opium. He couldn’t imagine the Madam in an opiate haze, and of course, he loved to talk about her jewels. Whenever she was in town we’d all have dinner. Often, during one of those evenings, he’d lean into me and whisper “I’m getting you the pearls” referring to the fabulous long strand she often wears that he loved.

One night we were at some “foodie” event and the wife of an up and coming restaurateur was at our table blatantly staring at the diamond ring on Cecelia’s finger. The thing was huge. Without missing a beat, Cecelia turned to the woman, flashed a lovely smile, said “eleven carat’s” and went on with her conversation. Michael adored it! As we were leaving the restaurant, though, he slipped his arm through mine whispering “its way too big. We’re sticking with the pearls.”

Michael was the only person, before or since, who could call me a “stupid twit” and get me to stop, and listen,…and possibly, learn. When Philip and I got back from our first trip to Paris, Michael wanted all the details. I got to the part about us having a huge fight in the Tuileries Gardens, about my eating habits, wanting, if not expecting, sympathy. Michael cut me off with “stupid twit” adding that he would’ve ripped me to pieces and left me for the “frogs” to have for lunch. He then proceeded to lecture me on how I needed to “get over” myself. The end result was that soon after I went with Philip to his favorite hamburger joint, Cassels on Third Street, which, sadly, is no longer around, and devoured my first hamburger in over ten years.

Even though I only worked at Trumps for two years, my friendship with Michael continued through the decade. When I look back at my stint at Trumps and think about what the right word would be to mark that period it would have to be kindness. Michael Roberts’s kindness permeated the place. People came for the ambiance and art. People came because it was “in”, but what kept them coming back was Michael’s food, and his food came from his heart. And my dear friend with the tormented and debilitating body had the kindest of hearts.

Yes, he could scream and yell and carry on in the kitchen, threatening to decapitate anyone who messed with a veal chop. Yes, he could reduce a busboy to tears for clearing a place before everyone at the table was finished eating. (A pet peeve) And yes, whoa be the waiter who ever repeated a customer’s request for sauce on the side. “Had I wanted the sauce served on the side, I would’ve created it on the side” was a constantly bellowed statement from the kitchen. But the tirade never lasted long and when it was over, it was over.

There were the celebrities, Miles Davies and Cecile Tyson liked to come in late and sit at table five in the corner, Sam Sheppard liked to eat at the bar. Kevin Costner was a regular. Waldo had his group, Sheldon his, but Michael was the main attraction. The devilish Barry Krost, with his dear friend and client, Elizabeth Montgomery, and her long time partner Robert Foxworth, came in several times a week. They never asked for table one or either of the preferred corner tables, but sat on the terrace where they could laugh loudly without offending anyone. They’d drag Michael out of the kitchen, face flushed red from the heat, tweed jacket casually thrown over his kitchen whites, make him a comfortable place at their table and proceed to laugh like hell for hours.

During a SAG strike that stretched out for months, he gave our mutual good friend Cynthia a job in the kitchen. She had her own talent agency at the time and she told me he gave her a job to keep her from sitting in her office day after day staring at the silent phones.

Before Philip and I broke up, I went to talk to Michael about it. Never one to sink into melodrama, (drama was one thing, melodrama, way too common!) he just smiled sadly and said, “Well, you know, you stupid twit, this means you wont be getting the pearls.” We both laughed, but I knew Michael understood.

Years later, after Trumps had been long gone, and Michael and Daniel had also broken up, Michael’s condition took a turn for the worst and he moved to Philadelphia to be near his brother. When I got the call saying he had passed away, a vision of Michael floated through my mind. I’d always considered him to be a handsome man, but as he aged and his disease progressed, Michaels legs thinned causing his gray trousers to bag more than he would’ve preferred, and his already barrel chest seem more so. This could make him look, at times, like a puffin with great hair in a too small tweed jacket. The mahogany cane he began using after his accident became his constant accessory. This is not the Michael that walked into my mind as I sat morning the loss of my friend. No, he walked in cane less, tall and proud, wearing starched whites with red wine stains on the jacket and his naughtiest smile.

Over the years there have been so many times I’ve wanted to talk to Michael and so many things I’ve wanted to tell him. I’d tell him that I eat pretty much everything now and that my daughter with Philip is a real foodie with her grandmother’s spunk. But what I really want to tell him is that I got the pearls. And thank him with all my heart for giving them to me.

 

 

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