A CULINARY SUPERSTAR IS BORN IN HOLLYWOOD
By Bob Vickrey
As I entered the dimly lit restaurant on Melrose Boulevard, my eyes had not fully adjusted from the mid-morning Southern California sunlight and I could barely make out the images of the shadows inside Ma Maison.
I spotted a large imposing figure in a darkened corner booth with curtains that almost surrounded his table. The man appeared to be the only diner in the restaurant. His massive size had required the width of two benches placed together to accommodate his enormous girth. As my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, I realized the man with the well-trimmed full-gray beard was none other than film legend, Orson Welles.
I approached his table and asked if he knew where I might find the proprietor. He seemed startled by my somewhat careless breach of the silence that filled the room. He pulled his plate of food toward his side of the table as if I intended to come between him and his rack of lamb, and then silently pointed in the direction of the kitchen.
I had come there representing my publishing firm to meet a young chef and part-owner of the fashionable Westside establishment who had completed work on his first cookbook, which was to be released in upcoming months. A youthfully energetic and smiling Wolfgang Puck burst through the swinging kitchen doors and greeted me warmly as he whisked me toward his private office. “Follow me. I’ve got big news.”
Puck closed his office door and announced he was leaving Ma Maison soon to open his own restaurant on the Sunset Strip. He was excited about the future of his bistro that he would call “Spago,” and about the impeccable timing of the publication of his cookbook—Wolfgang Puck’s Modern French Cooking.
I curiously asked about the solitary diner who sat in the darkest corner of the room. Puck explained that Mr. Welles often had three meals a day there—even though the restaurant was only open for lunch and dinner service. “He comes in early and takes walks in the neighborhood in between his meals. He generally dines during off-hours, so he won’t be disturbed.”
The Austrian-born chef had come to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s after having apprenticed at Hotel de Paris in Monaco, Maxim’s Paris, and two years at La Tour in the Midwest. His fiancée, Barbara Lazaroff, was his partner at Spago and would be handling the interior design for the new venture. Their excitement about the project was palpable and contagious, especially for this relatively new arrival in town who had inadvertently stumbled upon the very beginnings of a food and dining empire.
The cookbook promotion was launched in 1981, and was greeted with enormous publicity as word of the imminent opening of Spago had spread throughout the city. Puck became the new cover boy for the Los Angeles Times Food section. His national profile was also dramatically enhanced with Spago’s opening along with his media appearances on behalf of the cookbook.
Restaurant critics hailed his classic French dishes as creative and innovative as he blended the freshest local California farmer’s market seasonal produce into his recipes. (He also introduced the concept of “Asian-French fusion” when he opened Chinois on Main in Santa Monica two years later.) He was dubbed the would-be savior for a region which had been derided as a veritable “dining wasteland.” The city of Los Angeles had never been able to remotely match the gourmet star-power of New York City restaurants, nor even compete with its West Coast sister city of San Francisco for quality dining.
During the course of the following year, I found myself dining in unexpected company as I occasionally treated bookselling friends to the new Westside hot-spot. Plates of tantalizing dishes, which I couldn’t begin to identify, would magically appear at our table—compliments of the smiling chef merrily creating his mysterious experiments behind the counter of the open-air kitchen that adjoined the dining room. As I watched Puck handle the careful orchestration of his kitchen, he reminded me of a passionate scientist in his lab in a quest for new breakthroughs and innovation.
The charismatic chef left his kitchen routinely to roam the dining room and chat with his customers who seemed to lap up the attention from the newborn star. One evening, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau dined at a nearby table and seemed as infatuated with his company as the rest of us. Hollywood had found its gourmet star and engaging host.
Spago soon began hosting the preeminent Oscar party after the conclusion of the Academy Award presentations, and in doing so, had stolen some thunder from several more established landmark restaurants. Every Hollywood star suddenly wanted to be seen after the show in the presence of the talented Wolfgang Puck.
My short-lived honeymoon period with Spago and its owner took a turn later that year when I committed a major dining faux paux. A friend had called me who had out-of-town guests arriving and asked if I could get them reservations at the restaurant for a Saturday night. I did so, and was thanked profusely several days later for the extraordinary evening that he and his guests had shared. He mentioned that when the famous chef had come by the table to say hello, Puck seemed quite surprised that I was not among the party. When I told the story to a well-traveled friend, he informed me that the practice of allowing my name to be used by other parties would likely have gotten me banished to the far-reaches of the dining room in future visits.
A few months later, I had a visit from an old college friend who requested we have dinner at the place he had been reading about in recent months. When we arrived at Spago, I immediately noticed the maitre d’ skipped his usual warm greeting and rather curtly led us to a small table located just outside the men’s restroom door in the corner of the restaurant.
I settled into my seat which was underneath a banana plant whose fronds partially blocked the view of my companion and most of the dining room. After a while, I noticed the usual complimentary hor d’ oeuvres and the occasional bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet had not arrived at our table. My friend had been right. We were lucky not to have been seated at a table inside the men’s room.
Oh well, the experience had been fun while it lasted. Besides, I had already heard that Wolfgang had planned on publishing his next book with Random House, so my brief flirtation with the fine culinary life would be coming to an end very soon anyway.
My ultimate banishment and fall from grace didn’t seem to bother my pal who was happily reveling in spotting celebrities seated around the room. As we finished our dinner, my friend suddenly blurted out: “Did you see who just walked by? I can’t believe it; Michelle Pfeiffer just smiled at me.”
I had unfortunately failed to witness his magical celebrity epiphany. It seems I missed seeing Ms. Pfeiffer when I was unexpectedly slapped in the face by a giant green banana leaf while moving my chair so a gentleman could exit the men’s room.
Bob Vickrey is a freelance writer whose columns appear frequently in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle and the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors at the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.