Magic Chef

One night back in the ’80s, when chef Michael Roberts was running Trumps, the best restaurant clubhouse in West Hollywood, one of his regulars (and there were plenty) pushed through the door with a big puff mushroom. Bringing weird foraged or found ingredients to Roberts was a game his customers never tired of, because Roberts was a little like Houdini, if Houdini had played Vegas. Or maybe Marie Curie in chef drag. Roberts goes into the kitchen, slices the mushroom thin and makes the thing into a dessert burrito. And he carries it out to the dining room, holds it aloft, and the gang along the big bar lifts their champagne flutes and martini glasses to yet another feat of the kitchen alchemist. He surveys the crowd, and maybe that night Jerry Brown was there, or Claudette Colbert, or Martha Graham, or Kevin Costner. (Trumps was a place where the paparazzi knew better; people came here when they didn’t want to be seen.) And he thinks, night after night, “Eureka! Isn’t this fun!” He’s telling me the story 20 years after the fact, and he’s long out of Trumps. In fact, he’s not even in Los Angeles — the city that, he says, with a Graham Greene–ish aside, “made me” — but in Philadelphia, where he’s been living with his brother Clifford since 2001. He’s been ill — the degenerative neuromuscular disease Kugelberg-Welander syndrome, which he’d been diagnosed with when he was in his 20s and that his brother also suffers from, is finally getting the better of him. “I needed to get out of the physical side of the business,” he says. I met Michael Roberts when the Eureka moments were much farther apart, his longtime relationship with Daniel Adams had ended, and a new generation of foam-addled TV cooks had eclipsed the California chefs who had hit the restaurant charts with a bullet. After two up-and-down years at Pasadena’s Twin Palms, the mass-driven bistro he conceived after Trumps with Kevin and Cindy Costner (who have since split up and sold their share in the restaurant), he left behind the day-to-day running of restaurant kitchens and started consulting, which was much less physically demanding. At the restaurant in the Halliburton-family-owned Twin Dolphin hotel in Baja Cabo San Lucas, he tells me, he turned bouillabaise into sopa de setimalles, and then hiked into the mountains with his cane and found villagers who made gorgeous rough-hewn clay pots, which he then used as vessels for his soup. And in classic Roberts fashion, he took arroz con pollo, a dish he’d made in his college days from the Better Homes and Gardens One-Dish Cookbook, and put it into overdrive with Mexican spices and French know-how. Sometimes, he’d show off his new recipes at parties that lasted well into the evening at his house in Silver Lake, “to show my friends here in Los Angeles just what it is I’ve been doing in Baja.” But in the end, consulting just wasn’t his thing. He was a cook — a cook without a restaurant. So he decided to take off, wheelchair and all, to South India, to shake up his cooking, and his life. And he wanted to write about what would probably be his last great adventure for Gourmet magazine. I became his editor, and for a couple of years we had a relationship of letters, as editors and writers did before speed dial. Those letters were rich with stories, of wandering around Kerala, eating, he said, “a cup and a half of coconut in every dish,” cooking at an ashram in Tamil Nadu (“the place looks like something from Doctor No”),of sitting in silent meditation for more than a week, and then, for the better part of a year, when he returned, of having his health crash and burn. Despite his illness, though, he’s determined to tell the story, and so I go to Philadelphia with the magazine’s executive food editor and, like Scheherezade, he talks us through his adventures in India. And then he talks us through his life: Through the story behind Trumps’ famous green-pea guacamole (“I was at a dinner party in Texas, and some lady was going on and on about how ‘unsavory people were cutting their guacamole with peas,’ so of course I got back to L.A. and made one entirely of peas — frozen peas. What that says of my character, I’ll let you be the judge”). Through moving from New York to L.A., in 1979, with his London-born wife to, as he said, “get off the merry-go-round.” Through the time he cooked chicken with garlic and also lemon and shrimp in a yogurt curry sauce to a punk soundtrack at a cave of a place called Le Soir, and one day L.A. Times critic Lois Dwan showed up and made him “a hot commodity.” Then there’s the story about how in the ’70s, he took his musicology degree and his five-finger exercises and traded them for the pursuit of perfect omelettes and poitrene de veau farcie at a Paris cooking school. Soon I feel a little like I’d been drinking with him at Club Sept, the gay joint in Paris where, when he would swing out from the kitchen, maybe Jeanne Moreau would be lazing at a table with a monkey perched on her shoulder, and Jerry Hall would be downstairs at the bar gyrating on a tabletop. Or when he was trying his first real hand at “fancy French food” at New York’s One Fifth, cooking for the Saturday Night Live crew, say, then dancing till 5 at Studio 54, and God knows what until he had to get back to the kitchen. “You might say I was a bit of a vampire in those days,” he says, with a look in his eye that told me he’d seen the dawn and there were days when it wasn’t pretty. And then he goes off on how “what’s new and chic in the culinary world is just another way of excluding more people. When something becomes too popular, you have to invent something else. I, for one, do not want an uni milkshake!” Or he gets frustrated with the organic movement: “You read Fast Food Nation and you realize it’s not bullshit, but who can afford a $12-a-pound chicken?” Or his beef with being a restaurateur and having to host wine societies: “frustrated married men who like playing guessing games.” He sits in his custom-made, high-tech wheelchair, struggling for breath, wearing what to my eyes looked to be a bespoke, perfectly crisp white cotton shirt with French cuffs and gold cuff links. “I like to play dress-up,” he says. And in the early evening, when it’s time for a scotch on the rocks, he wraps himself in a soft paisley print silk shawl he’d been given in India, ostensibly to keep the chill off, but probably more because it makes him look like the maharajah of Philly. That’s probably the image I’m going to remember most when I think of Michael Roberts. He died on March 30, not long after we finished his story on South India, which will appear in Gourmet’s September issue. I’m going to miss him as a friend, but I’m also going to miss the way he made us taste food, and life, as if somehow it had been delivered to us, like that puff mushroom at Trumps, with more than a small dose of magic. Nanette Maxim is a senior features editor at Gourmet.

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