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Valley Restaurant Kitchens Were Learning Labs for Teen-Age Chef

<i> Jan Golab is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i>

Diners who send a glass of champagne back to the kitchen of head chef Randal Abrams are politely told that this traditional salute might contribute to the delinquency of a minor.

Whereas many of his 18-year-old peers cannot even pronounce escargot Bourguignon or fettuccine Milanaise-- much less prepare them--Abrams dishes up these and other delicacies six nights a week.

One recent evening, the Canoga Park teen-ager scurried through the kitchen preparing his specials just before the dinner rush at Twists in Sherman Oaks. Abrams grew excited as he ticked off the names of the dishes: oysters and clams Provencal with garlic, fresh charbroiled swordfish, smoked sturgeon with bearnaise sauce, fresh salmon with pecans and honey butter, roast leg of lamb, roast goose with rosemary and green pepper corn sauce, duck with natural gravy over rice and pork tenderloin Parmesan.

Picking up a large, shiny silver bowl, he gave its contents an affectionate jiggle. “But this is my favorite,” he said, displaying a dish of angel hair pasta, which he later combined with mussels, cream, garlic, shallots, mushrooms, basil, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. “Fish pastas are my specialty,” he said, beaming.

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Abrams began his culinary career at 14. “I lied,” Abrams acknowledges, without a tinge of guilt. “I told them I was 16.” The job was at an Armenian hamburger stand in Reseda called Arman’s. “Basically, my father told me I wasn’t getting any more allowance and that I had to go out and get a job. It was just for extra money. I didn’t think about wanting to be a cook.”

That soon changed. After a few other short-order gigs at an ice cream parlor and a dietetic food store, he landed a job at Epicurean Express in Tarzana, where he fell under the tutelage of restaurateur Joey Donohue. Donohue took the fledgling cook under his wing, schooling him in the basics of preparing veal, fish, pasta and salads for connoisseurs of continental and California cuisine.

By the time Donohue discovered Abrams was underage, he was too impressed with his skills--and desire--to fire him for lying about his age.

For the next year and a half, Abrams helped Donohue prepare about 20 specials a night at Epicurean Express and Donohue’s other restaurant, Joey D’s in Woodland Hills, and he quickly learned the ropes. He then moved on to L’Express, where he worked around the clock at three of that chain’s four restaurants.

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Meanwhile, Abrams teachers at Taft High School in Woodland Hills were not entirely supportive of the young man’s budding career.

“They gave me a lot of static about work permits and things like that,” Abrams says. “You’re only supposed to work 20 hours a week, but I was working about 55.”

Abrams breezed through a proficiency exam, and, at 15, had his high school diploma--and the freedom to pursue his career full time. He began to spend his days driving all over town, touring kitchens, dropping off resumes (with age falsified), ever in search of more creative opportunities.

His next stop was the trendy Cadillac Cafe in West Hollywood, an experience Abrams describes as “cooking gourmet food for punk rock kids.”

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While plying his pastas for the benefit of rock stars and their fans, his popularity grew and he was soon being asked to cater Hollywood affairs. The Eurythmics, while shooting a music video, hired him to prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for 85 extras and deliver the meals to various locations. He also catered a wrap party for 600 of the cast and crew of Hill Street Blues at their Burbank Studios.

One weekend he catered a wedding for 175 people out of his house (he didn’t know it was illegal), renting refrigerator trucks to deliver his delicacies. He had to take his mom with him to the liquor store to buy the seven cases of champagne.

Gastronomical glory, Abrams has learned, has its price. The time and care needed to plan, budget and organize a gourmet kitchen can be all-consuming. “A cook works 15 hours a day,” said Abrams. “I know a lot of chefs and they all work very hard. They’re nervous people. Just about every chef I know drinks and smokes three packs of cigarettes a day.”

Besides working at Twists, Abrams has his own side business, Contemporary Catering. And, somehow, he still manages to work a few mornings each week for his father’s wholesale plumbing company in Canoga Park.

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Abrams and his girlfriend broke up recently, he said, “because she never saw me. Do you know how many days I’ve had to go to work when all my friends were going to the beach?”

Still, he feels that his friends, most of whom are still in school and do not have jobs, actually envy him a bit. “When we do go out at night, I’m the one who has all the money. I say, ‘Hey, let’s go out to Malibu Grand Prix'--but they can’t afford it.”

Abrams doesn’t go out much to sample the competition. “The only night I get off is Monday, and the last thing I want to do then is go sit in a restaurant.” He concedes, however, that he sometimes can be persuaded to cook a feast for family and friends at home, where he lives with his mother and sister.

Abrams has considered going to a famous culinary school, like the Cordon Bleu in Paris, but he’s not entirely sold on the idea.

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“With that kind of schooling, you can go anywhere in the world and get a job as a chef,” he concedes. “But I’m already learning a lot. Every day I come into work and I teach myself different things. I read a lot of books to get ideas--not just for recipes, but for techniques.”

Eventually, Abrams says, “I’d like to own my own restaurant and, to do that, I don’t think going to school would be necessary. Taking 1 1/2 years out of my life is a major step--and school will always be there.”

For now, Abrams is happy to learn in a hands-on environment. “This is the only job I’ve run across where people actually thank you,” he said. “A very famous musician who comes in here all the time tells me, ‘This is the best I’ve ever had.’ That’s a good feeling. I don’t care if you’re a doctor or an attorney or whatever, nobody thanks you like that.”


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