Michael McCarty is a bona fide scout when it comes to picking talented chefs for his eponymous 38-year-old restaurant in Santa Monica. The list of famous alumni who made a name for themselves at Michael’s reads like the Oscar winners of the food world: Nancy Silverton, Jonathan Waxman, Mark Peel, Sang Yoon and Brooke Williamson, to name a few.
“You have to be a scout like [in] any sport, [like] when people go looking for dancers for the ballet, or they go looking for models — and you get good at it after a while,” McCarty says.
Despite being in the game so long, McCarty — who was pivotal in the California cuisine movement, along with iconic chefs Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and Wolfgang Puck — hasn’t lost his Midas touch. Case in point: Michael’s latest executive chef, 29-year-old Miles Thompson, who’s had a very big year.
We’re nearing the one-year reopening anniversary of Michael’s on Sept. 15; the restaurant briefly closed last year as McCarty redecorated and brought on Thompson. The young, creative chef made a splashy debut at Michael’s with dishes such as uni and Dungeness crab chawanmushi, a savory Japanese egg custard that L.A. Weekly’s food critic Besha Rodell described as “so elegant and creamy it stopped me in my tracks.” In February, the James Beard Foundation named Thompson a semifinalist for its Rising Star Chef award.
McCarty’s son Chas convinced his father to bring on Thompson to helm the restaurant, telling him they needed to “take things to the next step” at Michael’s. “I tell people I hired Miles without even tasting his food,” McCarty says. “That’s how sure I was that he was the guy for the job.”
Obviously, McCarty didn’t go in blindly when he chose Thompson, whose now-shuttered Allumette restaurant in Echo Park was selected by Bon Appétit as one of the Best New Restaurants in 2013. Prior to that, Thompson worked in the kitchens of Nobu, Animal and Son of a Gun.
“I saw many pictures of the food at Allumette, and I could tell just by looking at the pictures that whoever put those [dishes] together knew what they were doing,” McCarty says. “They weren’t overly fussy, they weren’t too plain, they weren’t pounding the plate, they weren’t too meager. I could tell off the bat. I studied its menus, and then called him and said, ‘Miles, where are you?’”
Thompson had been spending time in the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean and had just returned to L.A. After that phone call, they decided to meet up the next morning at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, where McCarty’s gut feelings about hiring Thompson strengthened. McCarty recalls that when Thompson walked into the market, almost all the farmers and chefs he knew were ecstatic to see Thompson, giving him hugs and welcoming him back. “I went back after that farmers market and sat down and cut the deal [with Thompson] and that was it,” McCarty says.
Thompson was equally excited about working at Michael’s. He describes it as an “awesome opportunity. There’s so much history here; there have been so many people who have gone through here. It’s been instrumental in developing and pushing forward California cuisine and market-driven cuisine in a way that a lot of restaurants cook now.”
When McCarty first opened Michael’s in 1979, he was just 25 years old. He brought on a team that he calls the “first generation” of Michael’s, composed of chefs who would later become culinary household names, like Waxman, Peel, Sally Clarke and Ken Frank.
The landscape of cooking in America four decades ago was much different from today. According to McCarty, at that time there weren’t really any modern American restaurants, and if you wanted to learn to cook, you would have to be able to speak French in order to attend culinary school in France. “As an American [then], being a chef wasn’t really a career — you didn’t do that,” McCarty says. “So it was an interesting time in that we had to sort of build everything from the ground up. [In regards to the term] ‘farm-to-table,’ in our day, we had to build the farms: We had to go and find farmers and convince them to grow everything that we wanted to grow. It was a very primitive time.”
In a way, Michael’s also became a culinary school. In those days, McCarty was teaching his chefs classic French technique and nouvelle cuisine, using local ingredients. Back then, he says, there wasn’t a big selection of chefs to choose from; he credits good luck and word-of-mouth for finding his talent. And then the chefs would teach each other. “My motto was, ‘You look to your left and you’re teaching the guy or the girl to the left, and you’re learning from the guy or girl on your right,'” McCarty says.
McCarty also liked to promote from within, as he did with Silverton, now co-owner of acclaimed Italian restaurants Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza. She cut her teeth at Michael’s and was one of the chefs who moved up through the ranks there.
“Nancy was my night cashier who kept eyeing the pastry department and [talking about] how much fun it was, until she became the night producer and [started] making her own cookies and rolling out the pots and making the breads and everything,” McCarty says. "She graduated to the assistant [pastry chef] during the day and [then] she became my pastry chef.”
McCarty says he feels fortunate that he also got to work with Yoon, who later opened important L.A. restaurants Father’s Office and Lukshon. “I knew when he came, he offered a lot,” McCarty says. “They all were very good, equal partners. It was a big two-way street. No one took more than they gave, and that’s the kind of people that they are — they’re still those kinds of people today. They’re still on the playing field because they’re good people in that respect.”
Peel, who owns Prawn in Grand Central Market, shares McCarty’s sentiments about the strong bond among the crew at Michael’s. “Family dinner was extremely important to us,” Peel says. “There was a strong sense of family camaraderie and enthusiasm to feed your fellow workers. It was a fun time for us to experiment with new dishes and ingredients. Those who didn’t value it didn’t last long, because if you didn’t care about feeding your staff, you weren’t the right fit for our family.”
Part of what McCarty saw in his chefs was a strong entrepreneurial spirit, as in his former chef Roy Yamaguchi, who now has 17 Roy’s restaurant locations nationally. He saw the same drive in Williamson, who was part of the fourth generation of talent that went through Michael’s, and worked under Yoon. Williamson was this season’s winner of Bravo’s Top Chef; she has opened a handful of restaurants in L.A., including Playa Provisions, the Tripel, Da Kikikoko, Hudson House and Small Batch. Williamson had a meteoric rise as well: She started as an intern at Michael’s, became the youngest sous chef to work there, at 20, and moved up to chef de cuisine before launching her own restaurants.
Williamson hasn’t forgotten her roots at Michael’s. “One of my most memorable moments at Michael’s was working their 20th-anniversary party,” she says. “I was in charge of the foie gras station on the patio, thinking it was going to be easy, and got overloaded with tons of people. I was trying not to freak out as there were so many other super-talented chefs working alongside me. It was kind of intimidating and I was totally starstruck but it’s a memory I’ll never forget.”
The same thing has happened to Thompson at Michael’s. Last month, at a Los Angeles Food & Wine Festival "Power Lunch" event at the restaurant, Thompson hosted a reunion of the restaurant’s past chefs, which included Waxman, Silverton, Yoon and Williamson. Thompson says that at first he felt intimidated because of the massive amount of talent in the room. “But really, there was an awesome camaraderie that kind of just began from the second everybody walked in the door. ... They felt at home and it put me at ease and I had fun working with everyone,” he says.
Thompson's favorite memory so far of working at Michael’s was when influential restaurant critic Ruth Reichl came into the restaurant for a meal with Silverton. At the time, Thompson had just watched Silverton’s Chef’s Table episode about her obsession with making bread and says he was “blown away by it.”
“We make our own bread,” Thompson says. “Immediately, I was very nervous that she was going [to try it] — not that she would dislike it or say anything,but that it wasn’t up to what it should be up to. She ended up enjoying the bread, which was super exciting, and it was an awesome moment for me when she commented on that. ... It was a really special VIP moment that made us all jump on our toes. It still makes me excited talking about it.”
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Thompson seems to be following in the same footsteps as his successful predecessors, and perhaps it's because he's taken the advice McCarty has offered. “As I’ve said to all of the people I’ve trained over the years, if you’re going to do something you might as well do it right, you might as well be historic — not from an ego point of view, but you might as well. You’re at the top of the game here, you’re in the top 10 in the United States, so it’s as if you owe the public to do it correctly, and you owe it to be fascinating, and you owe it to be tasty.”
1147 Third St., Santa Monica; (310) 451-0843, michaelssantamonica.com.