Knives Out! How a Coterie of Chefs Reinvented L.A. Cuisine In the Early 80s

These renegade cooks overtook the city’s food scene, rethought the business and made food a thing of international fame

Wolfgang Puck sits in the airy, garage-like office just off of his test kitchen at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. It’s been almost 50 years since he first came to L.A. to help invent California cuisine, but he’s still futzing with recipes. He’s wearing jeans, blue-tinted Buddy Holly glasses, a clunky watch, and a form-fitting navy pullover that shows off his sculpted physique, impressive at the age of 73. And, of course, he still talks with that familiar Austrian accent, as if Professor Higgins had taken Arnold Schwarzenegger under his wing instead of Eliza Doolittle.

“Chefs in America were not respected,” he says of his early days in L.A.. “Nobody knew who the chef was. Everybody knew who the manager was, out there in front with the beautiful suit on. Nobody talked about the chefs.”

Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger at Border Grill. (Getty Images)

Puck would change all that, elevating the men and women at the ovens to rock-star levels of fame. A handful of others would help, of course, especially Michael McCarty, who made it hip to dine out when he opened Michael’s in Santa Monica in 1979. Also Bruce Marder, who brought sizzle through his groovy West Beach Cafe and his Mexican restaurant, Rebecca’s, and Michael Roberts, who did some of the same things at Trumps in 1980. Not to mention a young food writer named Ruth Reichl, who covered the emerging L.A. restaurant scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s for a California lifestyle magazine called New West.

But it was Puck who seemed to best understand that, in L.A., fame is the only calling card worth having. More than any of the others, he set out to transform himself into a culinary matinee idol, America’s first celebrity chef. He started that metamorphosis in the kitchen of Ma Maison, the French restaurant opened by Patrick Terrail in 1973.  With its outdoor seating (on AstroTurf!) and inventive, locally sourced offerings, it was a revolutionary concept in dining compared with the old-guard bistros that dominated Hollywood back then: Chasen’s, the Brown Derby, Musso & Frank Grill, Romanoff’s, Ciro’s. (Today, only Musso’s, still packing them in on hardscrabble Hollywood Boulevard, survives.) Their steaks-and-chops menus were as ponderous as their drapes, and for decades, the cuisine choices basically amounted to heavy, heavier, or heaviest.

But after toiling for six years at Ma Maison, where Puck owned a minority stake, he wanted to run his own place. He approached Terrail about backing him. Terrail agreed—if he controlled 51 percent. Puck balked and, in a move that jolted the dining world, announced in 1981 that he was bolting Ma Maison to open his own restaurant on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, a place that would change not only how Los Angeles cuisine was thought of by the outside world but also how the city thought about itself. It would be called Spago, and its calling card would be . . . haute pizza.

He could have announced he was doing Polish/Ethiopian fusion and attracted fewer raised eyebrows.

“There were a lot of people in the food community—writers and some other chefs—who said, ‘Why is he wasting his talent with pizza? He’s such a fine chef. It’s a shame.’ But he had a very firm idea of what he wanted to do,” says Colman Andrews, the longtime food writer and editor. “Wolf discovered he had a serious talent not only as a chef and a pizza maker but as a restaurateur.”

Michael McCarty’s original crew at Michael’s in Santa Monica in 1979. (Courtesy Border Grill)

“People thought I was crazy,” Puck says. And he sort of was. An editor at the tony food magazine Bon Appétit took the chef and his future wife, Barbara Lazaroff, to dinner to try to get them to abort the idea. “She told Barbara, ‘You have to stop him! Making pizzas? He makes this amazing French food! Ma Maison is one of the top ten restaurants in America!’ ” Puck recalls. She went on and on, acting as if he wasn’t present. “I just sat there and said, ‘You know what? This is what I want to do, and this is what I’m going to do.’ ”

His vision was simple: elevating pizza by infusing it with bold, fresh ingredients ranging from Santa Barbara shrimp, roasted peppers, and pesto to duck sausage, lobster, and prosciutto, , then rounding out the menu with a few other bells and whistles. “No other restaurant,” he says, “was serving raw tuna in a salad with onions and caviar.”

The idea of reinvention carried over into the space itself, enhanced by Lazaroff’s eye for sleek design. The couple felt a restaurant should be playful. Reichl, the food writer who did much to create the mythology of the L.A. celebrity chef, says that Puck “understood that Americans did not want to dress up anymore, they did not want to be looked down on by French waiters. They wanted a restaurant to be fun. That was a new notion: fun at a fancy restaurant.”

Nancy Silverton, showing off her baking chops. (Courtesy Michael’s)

Spago’s waiters would wear aprons and T-shirts; the chefs would don baseball caps. The music would be turned up, creating the feeling of a cacophonous hive (and turning tables faster). “It was,” Puck says, “a completely different experience.”

Puck puffed out a fair amount of bravado before Spago’s official bow, but inside, he was a complete mess. “I used to wake up in the middle of the night, three or four in the morning, and say, ‘What if nobody comes?’ ” He ran out of money, holding off creditors and praying he wouldn’t overdraw his accounts before he could open the doors. “I was scared shitless that we were going to go bankrupt, and Patrick thought I would come and beg for my job back. That is what he told everybody at his employee meeting before we opened Spago. He told everybody, ‘Wolfgang doesn’t know how to run a restaurant. He will come back in three months, begging for a job.’ ” The outcome was a tad different. As if to put a fine point on it all, Puck subsequently banned Terrail from the restaurant.

Spago was a smash out of the gate, instantly becoming the see-and-be-seen spot where just getting a table telegraphed status. Celebrities poured in. “To be a part of that was thrilling,” says Nancy Silverton, whom Puck lured away from Michael’s to be his pastry chef and who would later open the famed La Brea Bakery, “to be at the restaurant that everybody wanted to eat in, that everybody wanted a reservation in, that everybody knew of.”

Bobby Flay, himself then a rising young chef in New York, heard about what Puck was doing and came west to check it out. He found the whimsical food brilliant, matched only by the fizzy atmosphere. “They were having the best time,” Flay says. “They were having more fun than anybody else. You’d walk up that ramp off the sidewalk, and there would be 40, 50 paparazzi just standing outside. It was crazy.”

Food writer Ruth Reichl in 1999. (Getty Images)

It’s a brisk Tuesday morning in Manhattan when Ruth Reichl breezes in and takes a seat at E.A.T. café, part of the Eli Zabar empire at 80th and Madison. She still sports the same black Medusa hair and angular face that wore a thousand disguises as a food critic. A force in American food writing for four decades, she was most notably the food editor of the Los Angeles Times and, later, editor-in-chief of the glossy magazine bible Gourmet. In a corner, the manager and a waiter confer, looking over cautiously to make sure her $4 jelly doughnut is the best to be offered. Reichl still commands mad respect in the kitchen, even if that kitchen is in an overpriced tourist trap on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Reichl’s groundbreaking approach to chronicling food—the sourcing of it, the people making it, and what it meant to the culture—was as responsible for the creation of the “celebrity chef” as much as anything that actually happened in the city’s kitchens. It is not lost on her that she was also the one who declared the entire celebrity-chef concept dead in a memorable 1989 Times essay that featured a photo of Puck in a red convertible, waving farewell. The piece’s money quote, on American restaurant customers: “They are no longer astonished by chefs who create wonderful new dishes, and they are certainly not ready to worship them.”

“I remember it now,” she says wryly, “because of how wrong I was.”

It all started when Andrews, then the food and wine editor of the weekly California culture periodical New West, dispatched Reichl, then a Berkeley food journalist, down to Santa Monica in 1978 for the better part of a year to document the opening of Michael’s. That’s where Reichl began to see what was coming.

With its clean, clever cuisine and beachy bonhomie, Michael’s would launch some of the biggest chefs in L.A. dining: Ken Frank, Jonathan Waxman, Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton, Roy Yamaguchi, Sang Yoon, and Brooke Williamson all rotated through its kitchen. But it was the aura enveloping Michael’s that made it truly unique. Michael McCarty, the new haute dining’s P. T. Barnum, “had a whole different notion of what an American restaurant would look like,” Reichl says. And perhaps, even more important, what it could feel like. He retained a rising young American fashion designer named Ralph Lauren to put his good-looking staff in snappy pink-and-white ensembles, hung good art on the walls and lit it well, served meals on gleaming white Villeroy & Boch plates.

It was “the rock-star photo,” as it’s now commonly called, that perhaps best summed up what was happening. Taken for Reichl’s story, the black-and-white portrait shows McCarty, in form-fitting chef’s whites and chic neck scarf, giving the pouty look of a Calvin Klein model. With him are Frank, replete with David Cassidy hair and hip-thrusting attitude, along with Peel and Waxman, each—despite hailing from L.A. and Berkeley, respectively—beaming out a faint European geniality and well-manicured facial hair.

They were super young, they had swagger. There was this air of rebellion.

“You know, we were pretty frisky in those days,” says McCarty, who at 69 still sports an impressively leonine mane, albeit one now bright silver. “We were pretty sure of ourselves and what we were doing. It was just a moment in time. No one had seen four American chefs like that.”

“They were super young, they had swagger. In L.A., you might go to a restaurant and the chef was wearing a T-shirt. They might even be wearing shorts,” says author Andrew Friedman, whose 2018 book, Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll, explores the birth of the celebrity chef era. “That was cool, especially in contrast to what was still going on in the old-guard places. There was this sort of harmless air of rebellion about it.”

Tom Cruise at Spago for a post-Oscar party in the early 1990s. (Rose Prouser/Reuters)

“The thing that’s important about L.A. is that L.A. is about the culture of fame,” Reichl says. As Michael’s, and then Spago, opened the floodgates to an entire new ecosystem of dining, the people doing the eating wanted closer proximity to the chefs doing the cooking: They paid good money to attend classes chefs taught, befriended them, invited them to their parties. Knowing the chef suddenly conveyed the most important collateral one could wield in the city: status. “It’s a very L.A. thing,” Reichl says. “New York people didn’t do that.”

Along with the late food critic Jonathan Gold, Reichl was there to document it all. “I think she had a huge effect,” says Susan Feniger, who had worked with Puck at Ma Maison and had opened what would become City Café with Mary Sue Milliken in 1981. “For many years, L.A. had felt shunned as a restaurant destination. As writers, they validated L.A. as a food city.”

“I think Ruth really had a lot to do with opening people’s eyes to how exciting the times were,” adds Milliken. “She was really creative at coming up with ways to make what we were doing accessible to people—readers who might be doctors or engineers, drawing them into this flurry of food and what was behind it.”

Other writers picked up the scent. By the mid-’80s it seemed like everyone was reporting on the emerging L.A. dining scene, in turn stoking even more curiosity—in effect, creating a feeding frenzy. The result was not only a change in the image of chefs, but in what it meant to eat out in L.A. “The receptiveness to new things, the absence of complaint, the willingness to be guinea pigs on the part of customers, made L.A. dining what it was,” says author Friedman. Customers, he says, became “almost like patrons of the arts.”

“Jonathan Waxman said to me, ‘It’s the most extraordinary atmosphere here.

I can feed people anything as long as it’s not what they had last night,’ ” Reichl recalls. “People were experimenting, they were excited about it, they were willing to eat anything.”

This was never more evident than at City Cafe, Feniger and Milliken’s scrappy little bistro next to L.A. Eyeworks on Melrose. Bartenders peeled onions and broke down crayfish; one of the Goth waitresses casually mentioned she would be unavailable on a particular day because that was the day she did heroin. With no ovens (they cooked on hot plates), no walk-ins (they had a few fridges in the parking lot), and a bathroom you had to walk through the kitchen to get to, the restaurant was the very definition of boho. That was reflected on its menu, one of the most eclectic in the city, where the two women mashed together cultural influences from Europe, India, Thailand, and everywhere in between to create dishes such as l b pickled tongue with lobster sauce and pears, eggplant spinach curry with confit of duck, and Chinese sausage salad.  “We were not really thinking, ‘What is the customer going to like?’ ” Feniger says. “It was what we were interested in.”

What came with it was a new sense of culinary community. With almost no refrigeration, the City Cafe owners had to buy produce in small quantities daily, causing suppliers to balk. In stepped Puck. “Wolfgang called and said, ‘These girls are going to be famous someday! You sell to them! You do what they tell you,’ ” Milliken says. “New York was so cutthroat in the ’80s and ’90s compared to L.A.; L.A. felt like, ‘We’re all in this together.’ ”

It all came together to create a starry new world where patrons got to feel they were as much a part of the show as the chefs. Open-air kitchens meant customers could ask questions as they watched their dishes taking shape; servers became hip translators bringing insider didacticism to the recitation of the daily menu. The celebrity class led the way, bringing their spotlights to the new, electric Los Angeles food scene.

Michael Jackson and Madonna at Spago for a post-Oscar event in 1991. (Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection Via Getty Images)

“It was almost like a Gertrude Stein salon—it was like being in the right place at the right time or being in Paris when Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound were all writing,” says Jill Sandin, a food publicist who served as a manager at City Cafe in those early days. “It was very, very eclectic and exciting.” The change went far beyond the menus. The jacket-and-tie, wear-your-pearls aesthetic that had defined the flashbulb era of Hollywood dining for the first 80 years of the twentieth century vanished almost overnight as the scene transitioned from the tableau of Preston Sturges to that of Roman Polanski. “You could walk into a glamorous restaurant in drawstring pants and flip-flops and sit down for a three-course meal without anyone batting an eye,” Sandin says.

The gilded restaurants of Hollywood’s golden age slowly died off as the new order welcomed a diamonds-and-denim clientele eager to see, be seen, and eat. “People went to these restaurants because they were fun, they were open, they looked good, they made them look good, and, in L.A., who was there always mattered,” Reichl says.

“The fact that our customers didn’t have to kiss up to a bunch of pompous Frenchmen, that some of these Americans were just as good, that was just earth-shattering,” adds Ken Frank, who didn’t last long at Michael’s but made a name for himself opening the celebrated La Toque on the Sunset Strip at the age of 23. “Not that our food was necessarily better. But it was certainly more liberated.”

Riechl may have overreached in 1989 with her declaration that the era of the celebrity chef was over, but there’s no doubt that what it means to be one has changed dramatically over time. Brandon Kida at Gunsmoke, Evan Funke at Mother Wolf, Maynard Llera at Kuya Lord, Manjunath Mural at Cali Chilli, Anthony Nguyen at Bar Sawa—all are among the hottest chefs cooking in Southern California right now.

And yet most Angelenos probably wouldn’t know any of them if they ran over them in their car.

The debut of the Food Network in 1993 and the advent of the social-media age 20 years later would upend the notion of the celebrity chef and create an entirely new orbit that allowed gastronomes from New Orleans, Philadelphia, Savannah, Miami, and other far-flung metropolises to step into the national spotlight. Suddenly, the guy working the hipster food truck in downtown Cincinnati could be a celebrity chef. “To me,” Reichl says, “that’s the moment when restaurants become part of popular culture.”

Raquel Welch and Nell Campbell at Spago in 1990. (Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection Via Getty Images)

The celebrity chef was one of the few culinary trends to drift west to east, as some of California’s star cooks planted flags in New York with varying degrees of success, though the rivalry between the coasts may be overplayed. “I think people get that perception because the media decides at one point or another that ‘L.A. is hotter than New York’ or ‘New York is hotter than L.A.,’ ” says Flay, who last year hosted a three- part Food Network series exploring L.A. cuisine. “It flip-flops constantly—it’s very cyclical. One decade, one place; one decade, the other. But they’re both incredibly influential.”

But it was in Los Angeles that the idea of chef as star of the show was combined with a vivacious aesthetic to create an entirely new, beguiling dining experience. For the first time, the klieg lights illuminated the kitchen rather than the dining room. “I felt it was like theater, and it was like being a Broadway producer,” McCarty says of those heady early days schmoozing his way from table to table. “Somebody’s got to be out there with the story.”

“One of the things that really bugs me is that L.A. never really got the credit it should for starting so many things,” adds Puck. “There are so many people saying, ‘It’s New York, it’s San Francisco,’ but all the new things—whether it was what we did at Spago or Chinois, or Nancy did at LaBrea Bakery, or Nobu did at Matsuhisa—we exported it worldwide.

“New York always had great restaurants,” he adds. “But invention came from L.A.”

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.