Chef With Disability Plans for Life Outside the Kitchen

Times Staff Writer

It's Trumps on a frantic Saturday night, and back in the kitchen the chef de cuisine has just reprimanded the cook for not keeping the lobster pot simmering. The cook has just speared a customer with a vicious epithet for ordering boned chicken. Everyone is yelling because the dishwasher forgot to replenish the clean plates.

Through it all, Chef Michael Roberts leans on his cane beside the warming table and "edits" the dinner entrees before they leave the kitchen.

Suddenly, the chef and Trump co-owner spots a disaster in the making: two orders of pan-fried catfish, nowhere near the same size, are going out to two prospective mothers-in-law, sitting at the same table. "Don't send that out," Roberts snaps. "Get two the same size."

He later explains the fish were within a half ounce of each other but he still feared someone would take offense. "It's crazy, but I've seen it happen before."

Which is not to say he would have it any other way. "I love being a chef," he says. "I love being a restaurateur. I love inventing (recipes) and working out little themes. . . . I have an idea. I can cook it. I can serve it and be recognized for it all in the space of half an hour. And it happens hundreds of times a day."

The only problem, he says, is that the day is rapidly approaching when he physically won't be able to do the job.

The reason: a chronic muscular atrophy dating from his teens. Although it's not readily apparent in his face or trunk, over the years it has weakened his arms and legs--which he says are like "spindles"--so much that he now walks with a cane.

Within 10 years, doctors say, he'll be in a wheelchair. Since he could hardly run a kitchen like that of Trumps that way--if for no other reason there's not enough room--he's had to start planning for a new life now.

He has decided to speak out about his affliction, Kugelberg-Welander disease, in the hope of helping other handicapped people.

Speaking at a School

He had been in a car accident years ago and when people saw him with a cane they assumed the accident was to blame. But he decided to speak out about his condition after he was invited to talk about being a chef at Career Day at a friend's school.

He didn't mention his physical problem in his talk but a teacher later told him it was too bad he hadn't because there had been a young girl in the audience who had the same disease.

He then vowed not to make the same mistake that President Franklin Roosevelt had, which was never to let the public see that he had polio, and, thus to not help the handicapped.

Roberts doesn't make a crusade out of his muscle-degenerative disease (though he made Trumps available Oct. 2 to raise money for an art auction to raise money for muscular dystrophy) and says when you get right down to it, his disease is "a long story and not very interesting."

Still, it amazes him, he says, how people fail to notice things. When he goes in the dining room with a cane, customers say to him, "Oh, what happened to you?"

"Well, nothing happened to me," he replies. "I've been this way for the last 25 years but you never noticed."

Meantime, to prepare himself for the day when he won't be able to run a kitchen anymore, Roberts has started work on what will eventually be his second career--writing cookbooks, the first of which will be published Nov. 1.

Inventing New Dishes

Beginning two years ago, he hired a chef de cuisine to run the kitchen, deal with personnel and oversee the food preparation under his supervision. This freed him to do what he was best at--inventing new dishes to compliment those he already was famous for: such as plantains and caviar, chicken with roast garlic and candied lemon, potato pancakes with goat cheese and sauteed apples.

"Michael is known for his weird flavor combinations," says Don Dickman, former chef de cuisine at Trumps and now head chef at the Opera restaurant. "But they are not weird to him. He is the kind of guy who can look at a set number of ingredients that have no rhyme or reason . . . and turn it into a new dish."

For the chef of such a trendy restaurant like Trumps, Roberts is surprisingly informal and unaffected. Sitting under a carob tree on the patio of his small duplex near Trumps on a recent Saturday morning, he comes across as candid, funny, open-minded, and sleepily relaxed--which belies the fact that, when it comes to cooking, he can be very hard-nosed.

You don't just slice kiwi over a fish, call it California cuisine and think you've done something, Roberts says, insisting that cooking requires discipline.

When he first started cooking he was so undisciplined, he recalls in "Secret Ingredients," he served a beef Wellington with Madeira and bearnaise sauces and a nosegay of fresh flowers.

Although people seemed to like that dish, Roberts knew he was in over his head. So in 1975, he moved to Paris and enrolled in a state-run vocational school that trained cooks for institutions--hospitals, railroad stations and schools. From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, he learned how to dice vegetables, get the consistency of sauces right, when to salt red meat and when to stop whipping cream.

"We didn't do anything terribly exciting," he says, "but the attention to detail was so insane. It was better training than I could have gotten anywhere. They would look at the carrots you diced and-- 'Argggh!'--throw them all on the floor because you hadn't diced them all to the same size."

Because of his training, he says, he has the background to invent recipes without his ego becoming the most important ingredient. "I'm not jumping out of every plate-- 'Look at me. I'm flashing you now.' "

Hidden Seasonings

When he sat down to do his cookbook--a treatise to be published next month by Bantam on the subtle enhancement of flavors by use of hidden seasonings--he wanted to write the whole thing himself. "I . . . felt there was something I had to say and I really wanted to say it."

His "Secret Ingredients" manuscript was such a hit that his publisher booked him for a 2 1/2-week nationwide tour. Meantime, Roberts has signed contracts to write two more books with a second publisher. He is about to sign a contract for a third and thinking about a novel.

"I am, in fact, extremely proud of myself," he says, because his cookbook is "extremely accessible. . . ."

What makes the book so appealing, says Stephen Rubin, Bantam senior vice president, is there "is nothing gimmicky about it. . . . It deals with basics--things that are instinctive to the natural cook aren't instinctive to the home cook."

Or Robert's mother. After he sent her early copies of the book, she called to tell him how proud she and his father were. But she said she couldn't figure where he had learned all this stuff.

Roberts flippantly answered that he had made it up.

"Don't say that," his mother told him. "You didn't make it up."

"Then it occurred to me," he says, "I did make it up. . . . I invented all the stuff I wrote about, all these flavors, why the various combinations work, the whole theoretical part. I made up and it works."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World