Nina Lamb may be partially responsible for some of the greatest rock music ever recorded. Her contribution? Cheese-and-spinach phyllo rolls.
“The Doors would go into their studio to rehearse or record,” Lamb says, “and they’d get hungry and they’d call me at, maybe, midnight. They’d say, ‘Can you bring us down some phyllo?’ So I’d bake a bunch and take it down to them. I started making it and keeping it in my freezer.”
As the wife, and then ex-wife, of the legendary Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, Lamb served as the label’s de facto chef, preparing food not only for industry parties for artists as diverse as Jim Morrison and Judy Collins, but also sending over snacks whenever her favorite acts felt the urge.
Ray Manzarek, who co-founded the Doors with Morrison and played keyboards in the band, has fond memories of Lamb’s food. “We’d call her,” he says, “and we’d say, ‘Help. We’re starving here. We need food. We’re in the studio working late tonight. Can you bring us a tray of that marvelous phyllo?’ Saved our lives.”
The Doors scored eight Top 40 singles and six bestselling albums in just four years, 1967 to 1971. And who’s to say that it wasn’t those cheese-and-spinach phyllo rolls that mellowed the moody, mercurial Morrison and moved him to make that monumental music?
“I remember her bringing it to the recording session for ‘Road House Blues,’ of which we had multiple takes,” Manzarek says. “We were rockin’ out and playing it too fast and needing to get into the later part of the night so that the tempo would be right. And Nina brought in the phyllo and we had a little wine and, man, it was good food; and long about 1 or 2 o’clock we got it. So, Nina’s phyllo had a lot to do with getting the master take of ‘Road House Blues.’ ”
At that time, 1968, Lamb had recently moved to Los Angeles, shortly after her divorce from Holzman, who had launched the label in 1950. It became one of the musically most important record companies of the 1960s and ‘70s and one of just a handful of super-successful independent labels.
In the ‘60s it was known as the premier label of the singer-songwriter movement, with artists including Collins, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Tom Rush. By the end of the decade it had branched out into other genres, with acts like Love and the Doors helping to establish L.A. as a serious center of the psychedelic rock scene.
The Doors, of course, became rock royalty. And around that time, Lamb became known in the music world for her cooking.
Lamb, now in her early 70s and living in Santa Monica, works for Comerica Bank in its Private Banking Entertainment division. She began her career as an assistant to the editors of Woman’s Day and other magazines and started working for Elektra in the 1950s, taking on a variety of roles, such as calculating artists’ royalties.
As Elektra began to grow and its artists started to perform at larger and more prestigious New York City venues, Jac and Nina Holzman hosted their post-performance parties, with Nina, always a good cook, preparing all of the food.
The Doors had been guests at some of the Holzmans’ post-performance parties in New York, where they first tasted her phyllo. Nina would attend the concerts too but still be ready to serve 100 guests afterward. “We would go to the concerts,” Lamb says, “and I would wait until just before the encore and then I would run out of there, jump in a cab and go home.”
An early one, in the mid-'60s, was held for Collins after an important concert. “I can visualize exactly how it was laid out,” Lamb says. “We were living in a really beautiful apartment in the Village. We had a real dining room. The buffet would be set up in the dining room, and there was an adjoining living room with a fireplace.”
For this party, Lamb presented a French buffet. At that time, Americans were enamored of and just becoming familiar with French cuisine, influenced by Jackie Kennedy’s White House entertaining and her chef, Rene Verdon.
Much of what was included in Lamb’s French buffet is, she says, “pretty normal now, but it was new and different back then. The pissaladiere is a very traditional dish; it’s like a French pizza. And the eggplant ‘caviar’ is something that I still make all the time. The recipe may have originally come from my family, who came from Europe.”
“The parties Nina gave me and others at Elektra were really famous,” Collins says. “They were very important social events, because when you’re starting out like that, as we all were, you aren’t able to socialize very much, when your life is on the road.”
Lamb looks back at those days fondly. “It was just a very nurturing, special time in music, and I feel extremely lucky that I ended up being part of it.
“And I really loved doing those dinner parties. I wouldn’t have done them if I hadn’t enjoyed them so much, because it’s a lot of work and you really have to know what you’re doing. For what I did, most people would rather hire a caterer. But it was something that was part of our life. There was no distinction between our personal life and the company. It was all an enormously involved and evolving thing. So for me to do this was just kind of natural.”
Shortly after she moved to L.A., Lamb got the idea to start what she called “feed-ins” -- serving free meals on a regular basis to, she says, “strung-out teens.” She and a partner, Ellie Shanahan, teamed up with the L.A. Free Clinic, persuaded record companies to contribute to the project and served lunches at a church. Something in that experience gave her the idea to start a catering business, which she did with Shanahan, calling the venture Pure Pleasure.
One of their first jobs was preparing the behind-the-scenes food for the artists and crew of the 1970 Big Sur Folk Festival in Monterey, which featured Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, Kris Kristofferson, the Beach Boys and others. That meant feeding 100 people almost constantly for 12 hours. With little previous experience but much careful planning, the pair pulled it off. “I didn’t regret it,” Lamb says. “But I don’t think I’d do it again.”
Meanwhile, the Doors started calling. The group had attended many of her New York dinners. “Great parties,” Manzarek recalls. “You’re milling around and talking to lots of rock stars and Elektra Records artists, like Carly Simon, Harry Chapin, the Butterfield Blues Band, and eating this great ethnic food.”
Another of those memorable mid-'60s New York affairs was an after-concert dinner party for Phil Ochs. The singer-songwriter was one of the most influential songwriters of his time, known mostly for his brilliant and powerful protest songs, but also for humorous satirical tunes and haunting love songs.
The focal point of that menu was Brunswick stew, a dish that dates to the 19th century American South. Originally made with squirrel, rabbit and other animals that were available there (to anyone with a gun), it has evolved into a chicken dish -- probably more palatable to most people these days.
Lamb learned it from Anne Warner, who, with her husband Frank, was an important American folklorist and folk song collector. Frank, in fact, may have single-handedly launched the folk boom by recording a song he’d found, called “Tom Dooley,” which was then recorded by the Kingston Trio, whose version became the first million-selling Top 40 folk song of the new musical era.
“I felt this dish was so ‘Americana,’ ” Lamb says, “and Phil was too. He was so political, and this dish just seemed so American.”
Lamb is still cooking today. She and her second husband, Kirk, have been members of a gourmet club with three other couples for 11 years, which she says has been “challenging and rewarding.”
Each couple prepares one major dinner a year for the group, usually with international themes. All of the couples travel quite a bit, taking at least one major trip a year, to countries around the world.
“We bring back ideas and decor for our next big dinner,” Lamb says. “The presentations are sophisticated and beautiful, both food and table. Our dinner this year was Hawaiian. We had been to Maui a few months earlier. We brought back decor for the table, little gifts for the guests and many food ideas.”
As active as ever, Lamb rises at 4:45 a.m. three days a week to take a spinning class at a health club on her way to work. She and her husband also attend many arts events, with season subscriptions to an eclectic series of music and dance at UCLA; a baroque music series, Musica Angelica; and theater at the Mark Taper Forum. And they entertain frequently, hosting about three dinner parties a month.
When not entertaining, Lamb says, she cooks everything. “I plan menus in my head. I go to the farmers market in Santa Monica almost every Saturday; it’s very inspiring.”