Michael’s Restaurant has been serving patrons in Santa Monica since 1979. In that time, a collective of accomplished chefs have cooked in Michael McCarty’s eponymous kitchen, creating memorable dishes that have endeared the restaurant to so many diners in its nearly forty years—and many of whom have gone on to make major contributions of their own to the food world.
In September 2016, Chef Miles Thompson assumed the mantle of executive chef, bringing his progressive style and unique experience to the storied location. This month, in celebration of his first full year at the helm and as part of the LA Food & Wine Festival, a few of the culinary talents that made Michael’s an iconic institution came together to commemorate Michael’s contribution to the rich culinary heritage of Southern California.
Each has their own memory of working at Michael’s, and as they cooked, shared stories of its importance—to their own careers, as well as the culinary community at large. And for McCarty himself, it was a moment of reflection on how those individuals have been invaluable in bringing his vision to a long, vibrant life.
Barbuto NYC / Adele’s Nashville / Waxman’s San Francisco
“The centerpiece of Michael’s is and has always been Michael McCarty. He is a maverick. He is quixotic, smart, gregarious and without a peer in our industry. Michael’s audacious opening in 1979 ushered in a new vision of what a restaurant could be. Michael’s was a paradigm shift in the culinary landscape. It was fresh, bold, sexy and fearless. We really had no rules that held us back. While we were staunchly entrenched in the French method, plus tailgating onto the nouvelle cuisine of the young Turks of France, we looked to California as our inspiration. The grill became our hearth, the wine list, an ode to both the old and new world. People flocked to Michael’s to savor all the new food, but they were also nurtured in the classics. Michael’s truly became the gathering spot for Los Angeles.”
Playa Provisions / The Hudson House / The Tripel / Da Kikokiko
“I joined the Michael’s team at the young age of nineteen. As a naïve, yet ambitious teen, I set my sights high on where I wanted my career to go, but had little understanding of the business, or the dedication that it would take to get there. But even at that point, I knew Michael’s was where I needed to be. The dreams of becoming one of the many iconic chefs to come out of Michael’s wasn’t even an image I could conjure up in my brain. I just knew I needed to be surrounded by people with potential and drive, and who could teach me. Today, I look back at my days there and understand the significance of being a part of the history of what Michael’s has built and I couldn’t be more thankful to have been even just a small part of that little pool.”
Lukshon / Father’s Office / Two Birds / One Stone
“Michael’s was the first kitchen I was put in charge of and what I still appreciate about the opportunity was the freedom to make—and learn from—a lot of mistakes. It absolutely made me a better leader and chef.”
Mozza Restaurant Group
“When I moved back to Los Angeles in 1979, Michael’s was the most thrilling restaurant in the city. There was an energy from the dining room to the kitchen that I hadn’t experienced. I wanted to work there so much that I accepted a position I really didn’t want. It might surprise some of you, but that position was in the pastry department. I guess they call those things ‘blessings in disguise;’ it was in that Michael’s pastry department, working with Jimmy Brinkley, that I found my true passion. Before, when someone went to a fancy restaurant they almost always offered a dessert that was very sweet and had a French name. Jimmy Brinkley taught me a whole new style of desserts that were driven by ingredients and flavor. My experience at Michael’s led to Spago and from there onto my own restaurants.”
“Michael’s has been a spectacular experience this past year. I’ve worked for and with some of the most influential chefs in Los Angeles and other cities, but the opportunity to develop both my craft and the idea of modern California cuisine at Michael’s has allowed me to re-approach ingredients with a new honesty and simplicity. It’s forced me to push for a purer representations of products, which will inevitably inform my future as a chef as I continue to evolve and grow.”
“It was fantastic to have everyone together and representing different generations of the restaurant’s history: Jonathan and Nancy from the beginning, Sang and Brooke from the middle years and Miles, our current chef. Was fun to see everyone back in the kitchen remembering where they used to work, particularly as Sang and Brooke were here together back in those days and Jonathan and Nancy overlapped as well.
I built the restaurant in 1978 when I was twenty-five years old, and I remember hearing these European restaurateurs talking about how long they’d been here. It really resonated that I had to create an environment that was akin to a university—essentially a restaurant that doubled as a learning institution and training ground for chefs to grow and evolve. I think this is part of why Michael’s has been around for so long and has attracted so many talented chefs.
Part of the education in those early days was that you could be a chef and own a restaurant. When we opened, chefs didn’t really own restaurants. The chef was just the employee and we blew the top off of that. These are all prime examples of chefs who forged their own path, creating their own institutions and legacies, and we support them in that because, ultimately, the culinary vision will always also be driven by the ingredients and what we are sourcing from the local farms. In the beginning, our relationship with those local farms created a new precedent for making small-scale farming a viable business because the awareness and demand for these great indigenous ingredients that was cultivated at Michael’s during those early years allowed these farmers the opportunity to begin selling direct to consumer through farmers’ markets.”