Food Arts presents the July/August 1997 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michael McCarty, stylish visionary and vibrant survivor, for spearheading the creation of a now-ubiquitous genre of restaurant that grafts European notions of outstanding food and meticulous service onto American informality. McCarty’s hybrid was dubbed “California cuisine,” a style that has surfed into every corner of the restaurant universe.
Michael’s sprouted in Santa Monica in 1979, a fresh American seedling veering from the French standard that had become synonymous with fine dining restaurants in the United States. McCarty’s restaurant had all the accoutrements of a starch establishment—Christofle silverware, Villeroy & Boch china, linen tablecloths. But with a sunny waitstaff outfitted in pink Ralph Lauren button-downs, khakis, green ties, and Topsiders, and with tropical flowers on every table, a landscaped garden dining area, and works by soon-to-be-famous artists on the walls, Michael’s was more Left Coast than Left Bank. It was packed from the git-go with Los Angeles glitterati, and the buzz spawned instant success, fame, and a sea of imitators that launched a culinary movement.
“The restaurant was Californian by birth, and the food had an American sensibility with a French/Italian background,” says the 44-year-old McCarty, who was 25 and freshly shorn of a four-foot-long ponytail when he opened in Santa Monica. “And one of the fundamental things I wanted to do was eliminate all the bad-cliché working conditions of French-style restaurants—the long hours, the overworked, underpaid staff, and the archaic, horrible rivalry between the front o f the house and the back.
For this task, McCarty was uniquely qualified. He grew up in the Cheeverian world of Briarcliff Manor, New York, where conviviality was propelled by good food and drink. Years later he wrote in Michael’s Cookbook (Macmillan, NY, 1989) that “the main reason I decided to become a restaurateur was that I live to entertain people, to show them a really good time.” A high-school junior year spent in France made such a gastronomic impression that he returned after graduation to earn a professional certificate from the École Hôtelière de Paris and diplomas from Le Cordon Bleu and Académie du Vin. He stayed in Paris through most of the early‘70s, catering, operating a small restaurant, and hanging out with some of the future stars of French cuisine.
Upon his return to the United States in 1974, McCarty attended Cornell’s summer hotel program and received a B.A. from the University of Colorado. He didn’t become Californian until 1975, when his parents coaxed him out to their new address in Los Angeles. There, McCarty immersed himself in catering, giving cooking classes, and operating a duck/foie gras farm with the late chef Jean Bertranou of L’Orangerie.
All the while, McCarty was driving the back roads, searching, searching, until he chanced upon the Brigadoon Pub two blocks from the ocean in Santa Monica. When he walked around and saw an unused, wildly overgrown backyard, “wham, boom, it hit,” he recalls. Thus began Michael’s, which opened in April 1979 and whose first years had the likes of Jonathan Waxman, Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton, Ken Frank, and Roy Yamaguchi in the kitchen. “I’d work morning and afternoon in the kitchen in my whites and then change to work the floor for lunch and dinner,” McCarty remembers. “I had half the staff living in my house; we’d get in at 8 a.m. and leave at 2 in the morning. When you’re 25 years old, you can do all that stuff.”
Married to artist Kim McCarty and with two children, McCarty is now bicoastal, with a Michael’s in midtown Manhattan (opened 1989). He has reinvigorated his two restaurants after weathering the collapse of a mini-empire he founded with Jimmy Schmidt. (McCarty sold his stake in Rattlesnake Club ventures in Detroit and Denver and in Adirondacks in Washington, D.C., in the early ‘90s to help him clear Chapter 11 bankruptcy after he lost his investment in a proposed hotel project in Santa Monica.) His New York City outpost has become a see-and-must-be-seen media lunch spot, and his flagship in California “buzzes as insistently as it did in 1979,” according to a review in the June 1997 Los Angeles magazine. He’s rebuilt the home he lost in the great Malibu fire of 1993, surrounding it with vineyards that produce his own Malibu Vineyard wines.
“What I did in Santa Monica was show that a young American can be a chef and run a restaurant at a time when that didn’t exist, when that was a European thing to do,” McCarty says. “I think I showed that, even with all the heartaches, this is an excellent, acceptable career choice.”