California to the core
NOT that Michael and Kim McCarty were in need of a theme to host a Sunday lunch -- they do it every other week, and just about any excuse will do to have friends up to their edge-of-the-bluff house in the mountains of Malibu.
But the grapes in their vineyard had suddenly reached a perfect ripeness, pickers had come and gone in a day, and it was time to plan another annual harvest celebration.
A dozen or so guests would be invited, and they would be only those of the McCartys’ acquaintance with an unbridled gusto for food and wine, for four courses that stretch across several hours, for afternoons that sometimes linger so long the whole thing starts all over at dinner.
“It’s such a journey to get here, people expect a big feast,” says Kim, a painter and watercolorist.
“Our friends have to be on the bus, as Ken Kesey said,” Michael, a trained chef and restaurateur, interjects. “They have to get it. They’re usually a quote-unquote fun-loving group. “
There’s no denying that description. So much laughter and so many zesty conversations fill the loft-like living-dining-kitchen area as the comfortably dressed guests who made the cut move freely about with their glasses of Prosecco, a sparkling Italian wine, you’d think it was a stadium crowd.
But, then, their hosts see to it that everyone is welcomed at the door like a family member and made to feel like the day could not possibly have worked without their presence.
Everything about the scene, including the woody warmth of the house with its profusion of light and its air of informality, broadcasts one big lusty rollick of a party -- loose, comradely and California to the core.
Michael was, as always, doing the cooking, a skill he has mastered with the kind of enviable ease that has become second nature to him. “I love to entertain.... I live to entertain,” he has said.
And today he had a dual purpose. He was going to usher out the season using end-of-season ingredients, “a tribute to the last of summer,” he says.
McCarty brings to a home-cooked meal the same panache and professionalism that helped propel him to almost instantaneous stardom in the restaurant world when, in 1979, at 25, he opened the now-institutional Michael’s -- and started a Southern California dining revolution.
Along with such chefs as Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and, later, Wolfgang Puck of Spago, McCarty was a pioneer of what came to be known as California cuisine: fresh, regional ingredients prepared simply, using classic techniques. “Green, light and clean,” he says. “No brown, murky and sweet.”
“My whole idea was to create a home-like atmosphere, using real art, good silverware, good glasses, good china, good linens. I was after a similar feel to a quintessential California house, with an indoor-outdoor aspect. I put in an open-air garden. There were no other restaurants with a garden. The point is, I wanted a restaurant that didn’t look like a restaurant.”
The similarity to the McCartys’ own house, at least in quintessential-California terms, is striking. A contemporary 5,500-square-foot post-and-beam with glass walls and a deck jutting from vineyard slopes toward the distant curving horizon of ocean, it is on intimate terms with the dramatic landscape, seeming to float cloud-like between mountain ridges. To say the house has a view understates the effect: It gives the sensation of being inside the view.
What you see is what you get, according to the architect, Doug Rucker, who is designing a similar one for the McCartys’ friend Kris Kristofferson on a ridge not far away. Whatever is holding things up is boldly revealed and unadorned: the Douglas fir beams, the white fir ceilings that deepen in darkness as they get older, the off-white plaster walls that are an ideal backdrop for the dozens of contemporary artworks, mostly by California artists whose works also fill the walls of Michael’s.
“There’s nothing more and nothing less,” says Rucker. “If a house is simple, it becomes powerful. If it’s not simple, it loses its power. The most beautiful things are simple, like a clam shell. That’s the area where the McCartys and I get along.” In its quietly stunning way, the house reflects not only the aesthetic philosophy of the McCartys, but Rucker’s architectural philosophy that any house should be designed as a background for what’s in it: “The house isn’t the thing -- the people are the thing.”
“When you sit up here, it’s like you’ve died and gone to heaven,” says Jen Morton, chef-owner of Blue Plate on Montana Avenue and founder and former owner of Divine Pasta Co. on La Brea Avenue, who is here with her husband, Robert Morton, a TV producer, and their daughter Billie.
Denise Wingate, a costume designer, and Astrid Preston, a painter, de-leaf basil while their husbands, director Alex Zamm, and electronics executive Howard Preston, watch a tennis match with Jerry Casale, a founding member of the band Devo, and the McCartys’ 16-year-old son, Chas. Two 4-year-olds, Dashell Zamm and Billie Morton, watch a big-screen TV in the family room. The family’s yellow Lab, a genial rescue named Blanche, galumphs around and plops about here, there and everywhere. Patricia Shea, an art advisor, joins Wingate and Preston at the 4-foot-by-16-foot kitchen counter.
“Michael gets everybody involved,” says Kim, who helps him prep and whose role, as she describes it, is to second-guess what he’ll probably need. “It’s an interactive experience.”
“It’s organized chaos,” says Michael. “But all of a sudden it comes together. It’s my job to take charge and keep it flowing -- in a natural, relaxed way.” He’ll hand herbs, vegetables, cheeses, ice cream to whoever is standing nearby and ask if they want to chop, peel, slice, scoop. Most do -- they’re foodies, after all -- working on the opposite side of the counter from him while he monitors everything with the instinctive confidence of a man who has done this many times, for a long time.
In swift, graceful strokes, Michael slices crescents of golden Sharlyne melon, places them one by one on big white plates, loosely drapes them with thin pink strips of Serrano ham (“people who carefully roll them up, what’s that all about?”), drizzles them with Provencal olive oil, and sprinkles bits of mint alongside.
Then fat creamy hunks of Gioia burrata side by side with arugula and diced basil are topped with a combination of heirloom and old-fashioned tomatoes.
In less than 10 minutes, the McCartys are ready to serve the first course, accompanied by a delicate rose, a 2004 Domaine Tempier Bandol on the rectangular deck table under green and white striped umbrellas. The artful blend of colors suggests -- well, art, one of Kim’s watercolors, in fact. Except for the first course, a way of “jump-kicking” the party, says Michael, everything is laid out on the kitchen counter, buffet style.
Because the space is designed with a large, enclosed pantry off to the side where the two ovens and the cabinets are, along with a double sink and a second dishwasher, the kitchen is free of the mess of scullery. “I’m not a fan of open pantries,” says Michael. “Especially in a house like this with no formal dining room.”
After the plates are cleaned and the exclamations of pure pleasure have passed up and down the table, Michael gets up to prepare the second course. He dumps live Maine lobsters onto the oak floors of the kitchen, partly to thrill the children, before halving and grilling them with a lemon, basil and garlic butter made with Meyer lemons he grows. Another eight to 10 minutes, max, and they’re ready to be served with a big, rich oaky California Chardonnay, a 2002 Kistler.
People linger at the table for a while, and then Michael goes back inside to prepare the main course of steak seasoned with fresh thyme from their garden, fish seasoned with chives and lemon, peewee potatoes, succotash and salad.
The comforting aroma of onions steams up from the skillet where Morton sautes Walla Wallas until they’re translucent, and then folds in sweet white corn sliced from the cob with light green baby peas, orange-ish baby chanterelles. Michael has enlisted her to oversee the succotash while he readies the 28-day dry-age New York steak and line-caught striped bass for the outdoor grill. “We always offer a choice of meat or fish,” he says. “Always.”
He pours the wine everyone has been anticipating, the McCartys’ own: a 2002 Pinot Noir from their 3,000-vine, 3-acre vineyard. There are the expected oohs, ahs and wows, and multiple refilling of glasses. “The beauty of a Pinot Noir is that it can go with both meat and fish,” Michael says. They produce 100 cases a year of the Malibu Vineyard Pinot Noir, mostly for his two restaurants -- the other is in Midtown New York and is known for its lunchtime celeb-spotting of the entertainment and media glitterati.
A light dessert of mixed fresh berries and vanilla ice cream paired with a 2000 Bonny Doon Vin de Glaciere follows. “Fruit, cookies, ice cream or sorbet, that’s all we ever serve for dessert,” says Michael. “That’s all you need,” says Kim.
The whole process is a quick study in the McCartys’ philosophy of entertaining: Start with good ingredients, keep it simple, serve a lot of fruits and vegetables, pay attention to color, presentation, texture, taste and temperature, organize beforehand, delegate, get the right mix of people and include children (and dogs).
“Part of the joy of entertaining is putting together the right people at the right time with the right kind of meal,” says Kim.
“Which is defined by the season,” says Michael, “by what we’re doing, and by, I can’t emphasize this enough, the simplicity factor. You gotta keep it simple. It doesn’t matter what the meal is, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Sunday brunch.
“A lot of what we do involves no cooking. We’ve been to dinners where people start three days in advance and prepare some elaborate meal. You never see them -- they’re always in the kitchen. It’s just too fussy and complicated.”
“You leave feeling like you’re gonna die,” says Kim.
Although it’s past 5, no one appears ready to leave the McCartys’. A few people stay at the table under the diminishing sun, a few others wander down to the guest house across from Kim’s art studio (with a tennis court on the roof) and sit poolside.
A hawk soars overhead. The leaves of the vines already show hints of turning into sunset tones of red, orange and yellow, the colors of autumn. It’s the last gasp of summer, and this has been a fine farewell of a celebration.
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Rules to lunch by
Sure, Michael McCarty can pull off cooking a four-course lunch for 12 without breaking a sweat. Why couldn’t he? He’s a seasoned restaurateur and a chef with Cordon Bleu credentials. That’s not most of us. But McCarty says anyone can. Just don’t try to duplicate a restaurant experience in your own home. Not even he does. He simply employs a few things he’s learned from a lot of experience. Here, in his own words, they are:
Use fresh ingredients. “When Kim and I entertain, we buy what’s fresh, seasonal, available. I have my favorite vendors at the Santa Monica farmers market, but I also find good produce at my local Ralphs and at Vons. Today, the basic consumer can buy just about everything a restaurateur can buy.”
Preparation is key. “Do as much in advance as possible, like laying vegetables out to slice. You’ll be more relaxed when there’s no rush.”
Get organized. “Whether I cook for 12 or 24 or 150, it’s really just a matter of organization. And I delegate. You have to have a leader who directs the show so there’s no lag time, so that everything flows. It’s all orchestrated. The way we entertain is pretty hands-on. We don’t have staff at home, we don’t have help -- except from our guests. Involving everybody is common among our friends, who like food and who like to entertain.”
Keep it simple. “Maybe most important of all. The biggest mistake is to be too fussy, too complicated about the whole thing. We like to serve fresh, simple foods -- lots of greens -- and wine in moderation, over a period of time, like the French. They always have a salad, and they never eat anything in one course. It’s better for the digestion, and besides, it’s boring to wolf down everything in 45 minutes. Where’s the fun in that?”
Barbara King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org