Michael McCarty is not a modest man.
"We were a pioneer, there's no question about it. I clearly think that in 1979, Michael's restaurant defined what restaurants were," he said as he surveyed his brand new restaurant last month in New York.
Even before he opened Michael's in Santa Monica (at the ripe old age of 24), humility was not exactly his strong suit. "We're doing something different here," he said as he prepared his menu in 1979. "My specials are going to blow your socks off."
And they did.
McCarty's brash charm blew into the Los Angeles restaurant scene like a whirlwind. He filled his kitchen with long-haired young Americans (the old man of the group was 28) who were wonderful chefs--and whose arrogance matched his own. When asked about his formal training, head chef Ken Frank said airly, "I didn't have any. I just worked my way up from being a dishwasher. But that, of course, was in France. You know--in 6 months in France you learn to be a chef in L.A."
These were the first heady days of what was to be called California Cuisine.
This is what the critics said: "Wow" (The Times). "Michael's needs a mother" (New West). "There's a lot of style going on at Michael's" (Herald Examiner). "Haughtiness is served as the appetizer" (Los Angeles Magazine).
If the critics didn't quite understand that McCarty wanted to do what he called "the weirdest things," it's no wonder. McCarty himself described his food as "the best possible ingredients I could buy cooked in the simplest possible way." But in reality it was nothing more than nouvelle cuisine-- served up in a nouvelle ambiance.
"Remember," says McCarty now, "when we opened up, nobody used those big white plates? All the other Villeroy and Boch plates had the baskets on them so the plate looked really busy. I had to go to Germany to get that stripped off." He smiles thinking about it. "Hey, remember how much heat we took for the lights being on in Santa Monica? Everybody said it was so bright. Remember how shocked people were by the music? Contemporary jazz in a restaurant? Remember that? Remember the concept of the indoor-outdoor--how many people were amazed that we had a patio in those days?" He looks around his own new restaurant smugly surveying the collection of very good art displayed on the walls. "I mean, how many restaurants now put art on the walls? And big flowers?"
Actually, McCarty didn't start with big flowers. He didn't start with flowers at all. On opening night, one well-wisher walked into the Santa Monica restaurant with a bouquet and McCarty blanched, punched her lightly in the stomach and said, "Could you divide those into vases and put them on the tables?" But no matter--McCarty is convinced that he virtually invented a new look for restaurants. He gazes around his new room with satisfaction and says, "This kind of lighting, this kind of wall and this kind of art have become a de rigeur design throughout the country for a modern new restaurant."
McCarty likes it all so much that he has virtually reproduced the original restaurant in New York. The walls look the same, the art looks the same, the chairs are the same, bright lights, modern music. There's even a patio out in back. And the menu is the same as the one in Santa Monica.
McCarty would like you to think it is the same menu that he served 10 years ago. "It's interesting," he says. "The food that I created in those days was simply what we have today."
It isn't. The original menu was written in French and contained relics like a fish terrine (borrowed from the menu at L'Ermitage), raw scallops in pureed beets (borrowed from Pierre Vedel), the ubiquitous feuilletages filled with fish and topped with beurre blanc , and Grand Marnier souffles (then found on virtually every menu with a claim to nouvelle cuisine). By contrast, the current menu is written in almost tedious English ("spaghettini with Chesapeake Bay Scallops and Sacramento River Delta Crayfish, Chardonnay Cream sauce, roasted red and yellow peppers, baby asparagus and Lake Superior Golden Caviar"). It's just a way of telling you that the current Michael's menu takes the most expensive products available--no matter where they come from--and puts them together on the plate. These days there are a lot more ingredients than there used to be, but it's what Jonathan Waxman, who was Michael's head chef for four years (before taking California Cuisine to New York at his wildly popular Jams) once called "air freight cuisine."
It is a perfect description. In a way, Michael's food is the antithesis of California Cuisine as practiced by Alice Waters and her disciples; they believe in site-specific cooking and practice the gospel of freshness. But this is the ideal food for a man who likes what he serves so well that he wants to serve it everywhere. For while many modern restaurants proudly rely on local products, McCarty proudly relies on local delivery.
Did McCarty create the cuisine? Absolutely, he says. Absolutely not, say chefs who have worked with him. "He pretty much left the kitchen alone," says one chef who worked at the restaurant for more than a year (and who does not want to be identified). "Even the famous Chardonnay cream sauce was actually invented by Jonathan Waxman. When Michael McCarty was in the kitchen it was because it was the shortest distance between the two dining rooms." The same chef admits, however, that McCarty created an atmosphere that fostered creativity.
He certainly got a lot of press for the new kind of cooking. "He is," says Ken Frank today, "a great marketer and a brilliant businessman."
Which McCarty himself would not deny.
"You have to understand," he said when he opened in 1979, "I'm a wheeler-dealer. It's all a matter of juggling time and money." Today, he says, things have changed. "The good old days of Mike's restaurant where I borrowed $250,000 and paid it off in a year and a half, they don't exist anymore."
These days, McCarty is working for bigger stakes. He says with some pride that the payroll for his four restaurants--two Michaels and two Adirondacks ("the one in D.C. is one of my more successful restaurants, but Denver is a pain") is $4 million. "We'll do $12 million next year in sales. We buy $3 1/2 million worth of food every year. I pay principal and interest to banks on the money that I've borrowed of $1.25 million a year.
"The reason why chefs go in and out of business all the time is because most of them open up restaurants and just can't figure out where the money goes. Because this is the biggest nickel-and-dime business you've ever seen."
Most restaurateurs get their nickels and dimes from partnerships. Not McCarty. "I'm not like those nice little chefs who have rich parents. And I don't deal well with partners. I borrowed my money from the bank, and I work every day at securing and maintaining those credit lines."
At the moment he needs more credit than ever. For McCarty says this is his last restaurant: He has bigger fish to fry. He plans to move on to hotels. "What Michael's restaurant did for the restaurant industry, my hotel will do for the hotel industry."
What McCarty has in mind is a sort of Bel Air at the Beach on the site of the Sand and Sea Club in Santa Monica. "People have a definition of what a great hotel is, and it's a Four Seasons or a Regent or a Ritz Carlton. By no means are they bad hotels, but they are chains. I plan to do things the old way--yet very modernized." He plans great art, great architecture, great food--and all the best people. But it's all a few years off.
Meanwhile, he's got a hit on his hands in New York. The new Michael's has all the buzz that the first Michael's had in Santa Monica when it opened. Reservations are hard to get, the location is great and beautiful people come pouring through the door. The critics have been kind. In New York, they are saying that McCarty has come to town to show them how things are done in California. McCarty isn't interested.
"I'm not coming to town to show anybody anything. I'm coming to town to have a successful business. I'm too old to pioneer anymore."