The jalapenos aren’t hot enough, Bert Fields says, shaking his head. Nice green color, but too mild, he notes as he eats a slice he’s had marinating all afternoon in lime juice, sugar and salt.
“I don’t like pain,” he says, “But the fajitas I make for myself would probably make you cry.”
Inflicting pain is a professional specialty of Fields’, the fearsome entertainment attorney who famously reduced Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner to a confused mess on the witness stand. Outside the courtroom, however, Fields is best known as one of Hollywood’s warmest hosts, throwing frequent, casual dinner parties at his home on Carbon Beach.
In a land of order-by-number catering, Fields is an apron-wearing throwback. And when he cooks, it’s about as down-home as it gets, even for his A-list regulars Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Dustin Hoffman and “Matrix” producer Joel Silver.
Last week, it was comedian Mel Brooks and his wife, Anne Bancroft; film producer Irwin Winkler and wife, Margo -- the usual crowd. Political pundit Arianna Huffington and “Lion King” director Rob Minkoff arrived later.
What’s for Sunday supper? Chicken fajitas, guacamole, quesadillas and Fields’ Mexican twist on the crudite platter. The baked-apple dessert is courtesy of Fields’ wife, Barbara Guggenheim.
For people who have traveled the world and can afford to hire top chefs to come to their homes to cook whatever they can imagine, Fields offers the gift of a low-key evening. “Someone comes in from out of town and wants to go out to dinner, Bert would rather cook for them,” says Guggenheim, who says they have two or three dinner parties a month.
On this night, Fields is busy stirring the melange of pasilla peppers, red bells and onions cooking slowly over low heat. He’ll add the browned chicken just before serving, he says, to keep it from drying out. Bowls of homemade pico de gallo, fresh cilantro and chopped jalapenos en escabeche (pickled jalapenos), as well as fresh jalapenos are distributed around the table.
Worried that the mild peppers could take the zip out of the fajitas, Fields starts pulling pepper sauces out of his galley-style kitchen’s knotty pine cupboards. Dave’s Total Insanity Sauce is dismissed as too hot. The smoked chipotle sauce and green pepper Tabasco may be a bit over the top as well.
Then he thinks about his guests and opts for a do-it-yourself approach and puts the milder ones on the table. The weather is hot enough.
Just as Brooks and Bancroft arrive -- promptly at 7 -- Fields pulls his open-faced quesadillas out of the oven. There are bowls of guacamole too -- one with fresh onions and peppers and one without for Bancroft (who says she is allergic to raw onions). Fields leaves the kitchen to two servers who man the stove as he passes his lime-marinated crudites.
Brooks looks at the 2000 Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, a $100-plus bottle of Bordeaux that Fields has opened. “Don’t you have anything older?” teases Brooks. A wine aficionado, he leaves a magnum of Triacca’s 1998 Prestigio Valtellina Superiore on the table.
Fields pours him a glass of 1996 Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne.
A bottle of 2000 Trefethen Chardonnay and a 2001 Blackstone Merlot have also been opened and sit alongside the pricier offerings. “Our house wines,” laughs Guggenheim.
The whole group moves out to the wide wooden deck that’s cantilevered a mere three steps above the sand to sip Champagne and watch the sun set. The only interlopers crossing the oceanfront backyard are Courteney Cox Arquette, a couple of her friends, and her dog as they walk to her home.
As delightful as it is, Fields’ and Guggenheim’s beach house passes for modest on Carbon Beach, a singularly over-hyped strip of close-in Malibu.
For the last decade, L.A.'s super-rich -- including Eli Broad, Richard Riordan, Haim Saban and David Geffen -- have been spending tens of millions buying up the old cottages, tearing them down, and hiring famed architects such as Richard Meier and Charles Gwathmey to build overpowering edifices along the Pacific Coast Highway.
With a master bedroom that opens onto the living room and a dining room that doubles as the entry hall, Fields and Guggenheim’s bungalow is a mere 1,400 square feet. The good news, says Guggenheim, is they have the beach all to themselves. “I think these are their third houses,” she says of her never-seen neighbors.
The Winklers arrive, joining the party outside. On this unseasonably warm evening, Brooks is bemoaning his choice of dinner clothes. “What am I doing here in a $100 white shirt?”
Winkler comes up behind him and looks at the tag on the collar. “It’s a $200 shirt,” he says.
“Wear one of my Hawaiian shirts,” Fields says, stepping into the bedroom and reemerging with one in his hands. Following him inside, Brooks braves a moment of bare-chestedness and changes shirts in the living room, pausing to show off his buff physique. Bancroft leads the crowd in a round of applause.
“I love eating at Bert’s,” says Winkler. The producer of movies that stretch from “Rocky,” and “Raging Bull” to “The Shipping News,” Winkler is also an art collector, with a significant private collection of French Impressionist paintings. “The food is wonderful,” says Winkler. “His wines, superb.”
Winkler’s favorite Fields’ creation is tomatillo chicken. “It doesn’t look great -- it’s green -- but it’s good,” he says. “It’s not so spicy that it makes you sweat.”
“I have the tomatillos in the refrigerator at home right now for our housekeeper to make it,” says Margo Winkler.
In the past, Fields had monthly Sunday dinners with guest speakers for a dozen friends. The first series -- an overview of American history -- continued for two years. Dustin Hoffman picked up the idea and hosted a series of dinners to discuss ethics.
“Cooking is a wonderful end to the day,” says Fields. “If you can make some part of the day a celebration, that’s a great thing.” It’s also a challenge, he adds. Slaying corporate giants can really cut into the day and Fields rarely makes it home before 8. That leaves half an hour to make dinner -- which he does every night, guests or no guests.
To make room for his culinary avocation, Fields has learned the art of quick cooking. His recipe for clam spaghetti, for example, relies on canned clams. In fact, he prefers their reliable tenderness. “It’s very hard to get it right with fresh clams,” he says.
“I rarely do anything that takes a long time,” Fields says, waxing on about bottled fermented fish sauce, a dash of which, he says, can turn a salad of shrimp, rice and grapefruit into an adventure.
When Huffington finally arrives, the hungry party immediately sits down to dinner, where the talk turns to favorite meals. For Bancroft, it’s her mother’s Italian food -- but then there was that meal in Madrid. And what about the Jewish artichokes at Trattoria Dell’Arte on 7th Avenue in New York City?
The pink trout that Fields’ gardener caught from the river that runs through his millhouse outside of Paris, says Brooks: that was certainly the best fish the couple has ever eaten.
But then he remembers a meal of eggs and bacon cooked in an army helmet on a cold day in Germany near the end of World War II. “Now that was the greatest meal ever,” Brooks says.
The most delicious meals, the group agrees, are the ones eaten when hunger pangs are most acute -- hot dogs bummed at Nathan’s on Coney Island when they were kids; day-old bagels with lox consumed late at night after room service has stopped.
“Isn’t there something pornographic about talking about eating while you are having dinner?” asks Margo Winkler.
“No, it’s Jewish,” says Brooks.
For her part, Margo Winkler loves truffles. With this summer’s heat wave decimating French truffles, the fungi now are costlier than ever.
“I smuggled truffles in once,” says Fields, noting that he disguised the contraband in a plastic box that would keep the smell under wraps. “You don’t want them sniffing it out.”
Margo Winkler is a pro. “Five layers of plastic wrap and two Ziploc bags,” she says. “The dogs at the airport aren’t trained to sniff for truffles, but if you see a pig at Orly, turn around and leave.”
As Fields uncorks a second bottle of Trefethen, the cork breaks. He nonchalantly pokes it into the bottle then pours as the servers bring out dessert: Guggenheim’s baked apples, fresh berries and coconut ice cream.
They leave the carton on the table with a serving spoon.