If you want a little spicy dish without the need for utensils, dive into Andrew Friedman’s Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll (Ecco), a comprehensive look at how the superstar American chef of today evolved from the rebels — and even acid-dropping hippies — who took cooking seriously at a time when no one else did.
Detailing the stories of Wolfgang Puck, Susan Feniger, Alice Waters and other culinary icons, Friedman begins his book on the beaches of Morocco in 1972 with college dropout Bruce Marder, who's tripping on LSD and trying to figure out what to do with his life. Marder's discovery of wild herbs such as cilantro and spices like curry wafting from a tagine brought him to his epiphany: Take the hippie van to Europe and become a chef.
“This book is about a less evolved time, and all the stories are completely varied,” Friedman, who started out as a screenwriter, tells L.A. Weekly. “It was a time where Jonathan Waxman and Thomas Keller could be peers. But chefs were still just considered cooks. I think the average person imagined them the equivalent of just shoveling coal.
“Most of the people in this book, their initial moments of self-discovery as cooks was in isolation,” Friedman continues. “They would tell their parents they wanted to become chefs and the parents’ heads would explode. It was basically their version of coming out.”
Marder went on to transform the dining scene in Los Angeles, combining food and art when he opened the super-hip West Beach Café in Venice in 1978 and the rustic and elegant Capo in Santa Monica in 1999. His company, FoodCo West Restaurant Group, also owns Marvin, Cora’s Coffee Shop and the Red Rooster Bakery. (The Red Rooster Restaurant, featuring grilled specialties from the custom fireplace as well as a bakery, has taken over the historic Bistro of Santa Monica space and will open this summer.)
Friedman credits Marder’s rebellious and fearless philosophy for his success, as well as the public’s growing knowledge and interest in the culinary experience. Open kitchens as a stage had a lot to do with it.
There are plenty of juicy stories in the book about cocaine-fueled parties after hours. Then there's Wolfgang Puck’s rocky start, which made him contemplate suicide. Despite his father’s wishes, Puck left home at age 14 for an apprenticeship at the Hotel Post in Villach, Austria, which kicked off years of failures and being told he would never make it as a chef. His love of cooking and desire to succeed kept him going, though, and brought him to America.
Friedman recounts the battles that went on between Puck and Ma Maison owner Patrick Terrail over everything from china patterns to kitchen renovations in the early days of the hottest celebrity spot in town on Melrose in the ’80s. The two parted ways and didn't speak for years but have buried the hatchet since, when Terrail was diagnosed with cancer.
There are details of the intense relationship between Puck and his ambitious wife, Barbara Lazaroff, who made it her mission to catapult him into the culinary brand stratosphere.
And it was a tough time for women. Susan Feniger, who with Mary Sue Milliken later launched the successful Border Grill brand of restaurants and food trucks, lived hand to mouth working lunch shifts under Puck at Ma Maison in the ’80s, when Los Angeles restaurants and chefs were just starting to pick up steam.
“People would describe chauvinism to me from that era,” Friedman says. “As a woman you could only be garde manger [“keeper of the food”] or pastry. Mary Sue was trying to get into a kitchen in Chicago and the guy said she was too pretty and offered her a job as a hat check girl.”
Friedman says the culinary future looks bright and still has room for misfits and wanderers. “Even today there are people who don’t feel they fit in anywhere else and find the kitchen by accident,” says the native New Yorker. “Kids don’t have to hide the fact that they want to be cooks. I feel very romantic about this — I think the kitchen has saved a lot of lives.”
Beloved by chefs and endlessly fascinated with their life stories, Friedman goes in depth with them from coast to coast on all subjects, from sexual harassment to the latest food trends, on his Andrew Talks to Chefs podcast. He also has written Knives at Dawn: America’s Quest for Culinary Glory at the Legendary Bocuse d'Or Competition and Don’t Try This at Home, kitchen disaster stories from famous chefs.