Who Becomes a Legend Most?


In the late late ‘70s, back when Cher and Gregg were still an item, the tiny brick parking lot in front of L’Ermitage was where Rolls-Royces came to park. It’s said that the restaurant’s famous chef-owner, Jean Bertranou, would occasionally slip out of the kitchen and drive the few blocks to his chief competitor, Ma Maison. Without getting out of his Peugeot, Bertranou would count the Rolls parked in front of the restaurant where French food was being cooked by a guy named Wolfgang and the waiters weren’t above running down to the local burger stand for a chocolate malt should a finicky starlet not find anything to her liking on the regular menu.

L’Ermitage never served a chocolate malt, and often, it lost the battle of the Rolls, but L’Ermitage was as hot as a serious French restaurant has ever been in this town. From the time it opened in 1975, until 1983 or 1984, depending on whom you ask, L’Ermitage was packed. And during its absolute height of popularity, from the end of 1979 through 1980, tables at L’Ermitage were sold out 12 weeks ahead of time. Three months. Solid.

During this hotness, when L’Ermitage was acknowledged as the best restaurant in Los Angeles and among the finest in America, its founder and guiding spirit fell ill. Late in 1979, doctors discovered that Jean Bertranou had a brain tumor. He died in May, 1980, at the age of 50, his restaurant so in demand that the family did not close L’Ermitage even on the day of his memorial service.


An obituary at the time read, “It is sadly ironic that L’Ermitage is so strongly crafted and so well-staffed that it will continue safely.” True to those words, it did continue--for 11 years. But the last several years have not been kind to L’Ermitage. Even after the nouvelle revolution in French food, Americans had it in their heads that French food was too rich, too heavy, too unhealthy. And it took too long to eat. The ritual of fine dining was out. Breezy, casual, fun restaurants were in. Still are. That’s why there are so many Italian restaurants in L.A.

And then there was money. Fine French food is expensive. At the end, L’Ermitage tried lowering its prices--back to 1978 figures--and so, for one day a week, Monday, L’Ermitage packed them in. To accommodate the bargain-hunters, which on an average Monday reached 170 people, the restaurant had to fit in nearly two complete seatings. At a restaurant like L’Ermitage, where customers are typically served an amuse-gueule , appetizer, entree, dessert, petits fours with the coffee, and perhaps an after-dinner Armagnac, it was difficult to get a party through dinner quickly enough to get the next reservation in, and comfortably enough so that the first eaters didn’t feel rushed.

On other days during the week, however, the restaurant would serve just 30 customers, though the next day 80 people might show up, with no apparent reason for the change.

Now L’Ermitage is closed, its famous brick driveway marred by unsightly grease spots and the appearance of strangers’ late-model cars, the owners figuring that the death of a restaurant means a few more parking spots in the neighborhood.

Mr. Bertranou was my mentor--I would love to have him walk through my doors and see what he inspired me to make.

--John Sedlar, chef-owner of Saint Estephe and the soon-to-open Bikini

You’re talking about my hero. Working for Jean Bertranou--it was like being admitted to heaven.

--Mark Carter, chef-owner of Duplex

Hey, Jean was my best friend.


--Michael McCarty, owner, of Michael’s

Eleven years after his death and a week after the closing of the restaurant he founded, people are still talking about Jean Bertranou. For Michel Blanchet, who was Bertranou’s chef du cuisine from the beginning and who stayed with the restaurant to its sudden end, this has been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because Blanchet believed in Jean Bertranou’s grand plan to change the way Americans eat. A curse because the shadow of Bertranou is always present. L’Ermitage never became known as “Michel Blanchet’s restaurant,” and anytime an article mentioned Blanchet or L’Ermitage, it also mentioned “the legendary Jean Bertranou.”

People often say that Michel Blanchet is shy. That he’s not charismatic. That he cares more about making food than about running a restaurant. And in this town, where chefs turn up on pizza boxes and as guests on the Letterman show, that is a liability. More than anything, though, Michel Blanchet is a dignified man. And anyone who has worked with him will tell you straight out: Michel Blanchet is a brilliant chef.

“I still remember his fish terrines and pates--all his cold appetizers,” says Kazuto Matsusaka, the chef of Chinois on Main. “The way he does those dishes is the best in the United States.”

Mark Carter at Duplex wants Blanchet to make a sort of white-toque tour as guest chef for a week at all the restaurants of L’Ermitage alumni. This plan amuses Blanchet. “I’m touched that they want to invite me,” he says. “But of course, I may take a new position soon.”

The news of the restaurant’s closing did not come as a complete surprise to Blanchet. “Actually, I was . . . I cannot say prepared, but . . . “ Sitting on the edge of a sofa in the living room of his West Hollywood Spanish-style home, he stares into space as a melancholy new-age guitar song wafts from the radio. “I really didn’t think that it was going to be this way.” Blanchet is not used to having time on his hands.

“We became successful fairly quickly,” Blanchet says. “I’d spend 14, 15, 16 hour days there--but we were always behind. I’d go home, sleep, take a shower and come back.”


If life at L’Ermitage was exhausting, it was also exciting. Besides the constant flow of fresh products that few had ever tried to obtain in Los Angeles, Bertranou brought in a device so the kitchen could smoke its own salmon. An ice cream machine from France arrived--L’Ermitage was among the first to make fresh-fruit sorbets; a fish tank was installed so that the chefs could make trout au bleu , which requires live fish to be plunged into boiling court-bouillion. And then there were all those Americans running around wanting to be trained. (At the time, most serious restaurants in Los Angeles served French food cooked by French chefs; Americans were a minority.)

But Jean Bertranou’s death brought an end to the innovations, which after all required control of the restaurant and a certain autonomy--something Blanchet never had.

“The feeling of having an owner in the kitchen stopped when Mr. Bertranou got sick,” Blanchet says.

“For me, it was a challenge to continue the restaurant, but it was a good challenge. Of course, now, I don’t know if I succeeded or failed. You see, it’s a failure to see the restaurant close--it’s a bad feeling. But I don’t have to be ashamed of myself because I know I did what I could to maintain the quality.”

When Blanchet heard the bad news, he spent the next four days arranging new jobs for his cooks, making phone calls on their behalf and even going with them on the interviews so that he could introduce them personally.

“It’s like something being broken,” Blanchet says of losing his staff. “We were a family together for so long . . .” His voice trails off. “It’s like something is falling apart for me. It feels so bad to be separated.


“But sometimes I think you have to look forward,” he says. “There’s no point looking back, it’s better to see either what can be done now or look for something else.”

He picks up an old photo of himself with Bertranou that rests on his fireplace mantle. In it, Blanchet looks young, dashing, his eyes slyly darting to the corner of the frame as if he’s caught the eye of a pretty girl just out of camera range. “Ah, a souvenir,” he says. “I was 27, then, about a year after the restaurant opened.” He sets the picture back in its place and smiles, “Time does go by.”

“The only time I ever officially ‘worked’ at L’Ermitage was when the cashier would go on vacation.” Susan Fine takes a sip of cafe au lait and sits back in the cafe chair. “You know, Jean was funny. He was from the old school. I’d tell him that I wanted to work in the kitchen, and he’d react as if I had suggested the most horrendous thing. I wanted to be a waiter and it was like, forget it. There wasn’t even a consideration.”

Fine, co-publisher of the Food Yellow Pages and Pro Line manager at Avery Restaurant Supply, was, as she puts it, “the person behind the man.” She and Jean Bertranou lived together for four years. “I was the person in the wings. You know how they blame Nancy Reagan for having Ronnie’s ear? Well, I had his ear. And because of that, I was able to get a lot of things changed. Being Californian, being younger, I had a perspective on things that he didn’t.”

Fine knew, for instance, that people in Los Angeles were tired of being treated like buffoons by snobby French waiters. She knew that untranslated French menus were insulting. And that a recited list of specials was confusing.

And so Bertranou hired American waiters and instructed them to be nice to their customers. English translations were added to the menu. And Fine herself typed up a list of specials every day. “That way, customers wouldn’t have to remember everything, and they wouldn’t have to ask the waiter how much things cost--most people are too embarrassed.” Fine also eventually persuaded Bertranou to hire a woman in the kitchen--pastry chef Olivia Ershcen. “I really had to call in pillow talk on that one,” she says.


Before she met Jean Bertranou, Susan Fine had never eaten foie gras . She had never tasted French Champagne. To Fine’s way of thinking, mushrooms came in a can and said B & B. But this she blames only on the environment in which she was raised. Ever since she was 12 years old, Fine has craved good food. “I made my first cinnamon toast and fruit cup in home-ec class and that was it,” she says. “I never looked back. My fantasy was to ride around in a Rolls-Royce and eat caviar. And I always used to imagine going to all these wonderful restaurants that I would read about and dream about.” When she was 13, she started a diary in which she wrote down everything she ate for a year. “I threw it away when the year was up,” Fine says, “because I thought, if anybody ever read this I would be so embarrassed.

“Until L’Ermitage, my only experience with a French restaurant was Le Petit Moulin,” Fine says. “I was 21 and I remember everything I ate. The silverware. The service. I remember that they brought out my coat when we left, and I hadn’t even asked for it. I thought, my God, this has gone on for my whole life and I never knew about it .”

In college, Fine was a foods major--it was the only way she knew to get into the food world. Her courses taught her about food chemistry and nutrition, but Fine wanted more. She craved the passion of food, not the science.

So that she could learn to be a chef, she tried to get into the apprentice program at the Century Plaza Hotel. “I was told that women were not allowed in the program,” she says. “They weren’t even embarrassed to say it at the time.”

She did work in other kitchens, but none were of the caliber she was reaching for. And so she went to work for the Glendale Produce Company as a salesperson. “The way it worked was if you sold to the best restaurants in town, other restaurants would buy from you,” she says. “The best restaurant in town at the time was L’Ermitage, so I went there.” But Bertranou wasn’t buying. “I haven’t had any problems with the company I’m with,” Bertranou told Fine.

“So here I am thinking,” Fine says, “how am I going to get another meeting with this man? Because when you’re selling, you never take no for an answer--you always try to find a reason to come back. So I’m standing in the kitchen, staring at these guys sauteing potatoes for pommes souffles. And I noticed these tiny black dots in the middle of each potato, so I knew, from my foods classes, that these guys were using the wrong potatoes. See, there was too much sugar in the potatoes and so they were burning. When Jean came back and saw me still standing there I told him, ‘I can get you a better potato.’ That’s all he had to hear, because with Jean if you had something better or fresher you could negotiate.”

Fine began selling vegetables to L’Ermitage, but it wasn’t until a New Year’s Eve party that she and Bertranou got together. “We sat at this table and drank French Champagne--which I’d never had before. We talked all night; it was as if there was no one else in the room.

“The first night he came to my house he brought food, and it was so remarkably out of context because I had this teeny apartment in Mar Vista, with a stupid kitchen--not even a dining room--and here was this great chef with mache and foie gras. And little lamb chops. And a wonderful bottle of Burgundy. To me it was just like dreaming.


“I could tell him about my family’s Saturday night barbecue menu and he could transform it into steak vinaigrette and make it elegant and wonderful and fantastic. It was like having this little genie. I used to pinch myself. Here I was in the most spectacular restaurant. I’d sit in the dining room and think, wow , if you wish for something, you can get what you wish for.

“And then he took me to France, which is this whole country of people who are unashamed of loving food, and we’d go to all these great restaurants. It was all so new to me.

“It wasn’t just that we went to France, it was also that the people coming to the restaurant were going to France. I mean, it used to be that you had to be the richest of the rich to get to Europe. But then it got to the point where regular people--people who weren’t super-wealthy--were traveling abroad. So we could come back and do things at the restaurant that we’d been inspired by in France and our customers would understand. Everyone was getting more sophisticated.”

“Being in his kitchen was like watching a ballet. Right before the service would start, you didn’t see any food anywhere--it was like the curtain hadn’t risen yet. Then a check would come in from the dining room, and someone would hang it on the little check rail and--BOOM!--it was like the orchestra had started up. Michel would call out the order and someone would take out fish, and the saute pans would start in motion, and then it would all flow together. And then this guy would be ready and that guy would be ready and then all the plates would appear and they would go out to the dining room. It would go like that till it peaked, and it was just so beautiful to watch because everybody had their parts, and their places to work, and it was so well-coordinated.”

Fine’s dream life did come to an end. When Bertranou became ill, his wife, whom he’d never divorced, returned to the restaurant full-time--and Fine was not welcome. She found out about Bertranou’s death from a waiter who called, but begged her not to tell anyone he’d contacted her--he was afraid of being fired.

Even still, Fine stayed in the restaurant business. But not because she wanted to make lots of money. “Jean used to say, ‘If I wanted to be rich I’d buy a franchise at McDonald’s.’ That to me is exactly right.

“A real restaurateur like Jean is someone who is trying to make things better. Who is trying to make people happy and excite them and bring them all these things that had never existed before.”