In 1979, when I was twenty-five years old, I founded MICHAEL?S, a restaurant near the beach in Santa Monica, California.
People who came to this new restaurant were knocked out by the bright, modern setting (actually a ramshackle old Thirties house that we cleaned up and painted a warm, rosy shade of cream); by the lush open-air garden; by the contemporary art collection; by the sharp young waiters; and by the food, which the critics labeled with a then-unheard-of term, ?California Cuisine.?
Actually, my food is based on French, Italian, Hispanic, Asian and American ingredients, techniques, presentation and philosophies. And that isn?t in any way meant to be confusing. The food I?ve created at MICHAEL?S reflects all these influences, because it?s a cuisine that as grown out of my own life, travels and training.
It?s American food because I am American, born and raised along the Hudson River in Briarcliff Manor, New York; educated in Pottstown, Pennsylvania; trained in the business and art of gastronomy at the University of Colorado. It?s American because it reflects the food I grew up eating ? the great American dishes that my parents cooked, from New England clam chowder to Lake Superior Whitefish, Hudson River Shad Roe to New York Steak Sandwiches, blueberry pancakes to cinnamon layer cake. It?s American because I prefer to use American ingredients whenever possible, and to show off the incredible variety of world-class foods now produced in this country ? caviars, oysters, cheeses, game birds, lamb, fruits and vegetables ? not to mention outstanding wines from California, the Pacific Northwest, and New York.
My food is also French, because I first acquired a taste for French provincial cooking as a high school exchange student, spending a year with Andover-Exeter School Year Abroad at the University of Rennes in Brittany, where I lived with a local family and learned firsthand the role the foods of that region played in their lives. It?s French because, after high school and before college, I lived in Paris and earned degrees in French Cooking, wines and restaurant management at the Cordon Bleu, the Academie du Vin, and the Ecole Hoteliere de Paris. That training gave me a sound foundation in cooking that still prevails in my kitchen ? in the stocks, reductions and sauces, in my refusal to use anything but the finest ingredients available, in the artful presentation of my food, and in the importance I place on the perfect marriage of food and wine.
My love of Italian, Hispanic and Asian foods and their respective cultures enhances and pushes my food to even higher levels.
And yes, the food at MICHAEL?S is both modern and Californian. Though these different cuisines, techniques, vast array of American ingredients and traditions may be my starting points, every dish on my menu has a contemporary emphasis on freshness, simplicity and lightness.
Almost all of my recipes are prepared quickly, showcasing the natural quality of the ingredients I use- many of which come from or have been popularized by the innovative food suppliers and cooks of California. My cooking is presented simply, dramatically, with none of the fussiness you find in many fancy kitchens. Even those dishes that contain butter and cream, I use the light hand modern sensibilities demand.
In the end, I think that my food and my philosophy of food and entertaining is now best defined New Modern American Cooking ? and creative American chefs throughout the country will tell you the same thing about what?s happening in their own kitchens.
The main reason I decided to become a restaurateur was that I live to entertain people, to show them a really wonderful time. And when things are going right at a party or in a restaurant ? great food and great service with the right mix of people in the perfect setting ? nothing beats it.
My wife, Kim and I entertain a lot at home, too, and we pay attention to the same details there that I do at MICHAEL?S. Yet many people don?t realize that the same basic principles apply whether you?re cooking for 6 people in your own kitchen or 150 in a restaurant. If you just give some careful thought and preparation to the same elements I concern myself with every day, you?ll find it easier to throw a truly memorable bash.