Michael McCarty has led a double life. No, he doesn’t have a family that no one knows about in the Midwest. Rather, the chef turned restaurateur is both a pioneer of farm-t0-table dining and of creating the power restaurant scene. All these years into an illustrious career, it’s hard to tell which came first: the affable chef who drew from California’s famed fresh produce to create exquisite seasonal cooking back in 1979 or the savvy front-of-house guy who knew where to seat everyone from the starlet to the studio head.
Either and both McCartys are set to be honored February 16 by C-CAP (Careers through Culinary Arts Program) at a gala in New York City. The $500-$1000 per head event (you can buy tickets here) will help support the not-for-profit group, which provides scholarships, education and more for underserved youth, but it’s also an overdue tribute to a man who managed to create power dining spots first in Santa Monica, California in 1979 and then a decade later in Midtown Manhattan. And what a tribute it’ll be, with a roster of chefs preparing dishes that reads like an all-star program, including Food Republic co-founder Marcus Samuelsson, Missy Robbins, George Mendes, Dan Barber, Tom Colicchio, Alfred Portale, John Fraser, Shaun Hergatt and many more.
McCarty, clearly touched by the honor, met with Food Republic in the famed front room at the Manhattan location of Michael’s on a recent day to talk about the C-CAP honor, hanging with Julia Child and everything else from seating celebrities to fighting the California foie gras ban. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
How does it feel getting the C-CAP Honors Award?
Well, I’ve known [C-CAP founder and chairman] Richard [Grausman] since about 1972. I was at Cordon Bleu in Paris, the original Cordon Bleu with Madame Brassart, if you saw the movie Julie and Julia. That’s when I met her [Julia Child] as well. She happened to be over there visiting, and she and Madame Brassart had made peace…. But I’m a big fan of education. I’ve known Richard for years and as a restaurant we’ve always supported C-CAP.
After studying and cooking in France, you lived, studied and taught in Colorado. How did you wind up in California?
My parents had moved out to California [from the East Coast], and I had never been to California, and it was January and 70 degrees. It was stunning and I said this is it.
You opened Michael’s in Santa Monica in 1979?
Was there much else out that way?
No, no. There was nothing in Santa Monica. I made the decision to go to Santa Monica because I knew LA was a tough town for a lot of people and most of the restaurants in those days were in Beverly Hills or West Hollywood. But I wanted to live in Malibu, and I didn’t want to drive.
How did you settle on a style that became known as “California cuisine”?
My parents entertained a lot. They had great friends, there was always wonderful food, whether we were on the beach in Rhode Island or in Vermont in the wintertime. And unlike today, they didn’t really intellectualize about the food. But it was always known that the quality of the food was high. And so, I wanted to do an American restaurant. I didn’t want to do a French restaurant. I had been in Paris all of those years. I enjoyed Paris. California was not a formal place, especially LA. I wanted an indoor/outdoor restaurant. There were no outdoor restaurants! It was really weird in Southern California.
What about the food though?
I wanted to accomplish several things. Part of my studies in doing my degree was to analyze where the restaurants were and seeing where things were, and the lack of ingredients in America.
I had a duck farm. We created the first foie gras in America; that’s the other reason why I settled in Santa Monica, but I drove there every week from Malibu. So the idea was to create an American restaurant that was founded on my French experience. You studied the classical French cooking, but it was right in the middle of the nouveau cuisine revolution, so you saw a shift going on, and I saw the next generation of chefs coming up. Even though we knew the foundations of French cooking were so important, like learning Latin, there was room to explore.
It was a menu that was using the ingredients. Ventura County, right north of us, is one of the five best growing regions in the world. Phenomenal seasons there. We have a farmers market right next to us on Third Street that is phenomenal…. Then word got out, so young Americans came to work for me. They didn’t want to work in French kitchens. Everyone was under 28, Jonathan Waxman, Mark Peel, Ken Frank. And I knew, at age 25, that I was never going to be able to have a restaurant where people said, “Ah, I’ve worked here for 40 years.” So we created it like a school. So it really became an educational phenomenon, which is why I support C-CAP in a big way.
Let’s digress to the foie gras ban in California, since you once owned a duck farm there…
Well you know what, it’s kicking in big. It’s in July of this year in LA. I don’t know. It’s a shame. They ran rabid on Wolfgang [Puck], big time. You know how [labor unions] do the [big inflatable] rat around here [in NYC] when they strike. They did that in front of his restaurant in Beverly Hills. They were really brutal to him. He made a corporate decision to [drop foie gras from his menus], so now he’s one of their spokespersons. It’s a shame because [foie gras] is good; it’s fabulous and it’s not brutal. I can tell you because I owned a duck farm.
Okay, back to Michael’s. In Santa Monica, you attracted Hollywood’s power players and kept them, and then 10 years later, you open here on 55th Street in Manhattan, and it’s also Hollywood, but then New York’s media elite settled in here as well. How do you do it?
It was very fortunate that, when I opened here, I saw a lot of my LA people here. William Morris agency was in the MGM building on the corner of 6th and 55th. ICM was one block north. CAA didn’t have an office here but they used the [nearby] St. Regis up until just a few years ago, so all of the sudden, all my guys in LA and girls in LA would come in here. Now what was here which wasn’t out there was the literary side. There were all of these book agents and Harper Collins and book publishers — and the advertising business was all in Midtown. The music business was here. So again, this sort of interesting little mixture.
As a chef and restaurateur who has been so influential in food and wine circles, does it dismay you that this restaurant has become known for its scene — there’s even a website that tracks who sits where at lunch — than for its food?
It’s sort of like the unsung secret [for food]. We took a lot of hits. I mean, I got two stars from The New York Times three times over. [Then] we got nailed by Frank Bruni. If you go on and listen to his online little two minute speech, he says, “and then they marched me right back to Siberia.” What? It’s so funny, and so the point is that we’re like any other restaurant. I would say that my chef today here is as good as 90% of the chefs in this city. People come in here and if you watch this, today we’ll get about 185 people for lunch, and we did 120 for breakfast. We got 120 for dinner. It’s like a three-ring circus.
OK, let’s end on a family note. You and your wife Kim, an artist, and your two children, must have some nice dinners. What’s your go-to meal when you’re cooking at home?
Depends on the season. But for example, my little Christmas program, I do an oyster stew that my mother made. We do fabulous oysters and we do a rack of lamb for Christmas Eve and I buy that from my friend in Pennsylvania. And we always do a white truffles and black truffles combo. I do scallops, the Nantuckets as one of my appetizers, pan-seared on one side just with shaven black truffles. I do the risotto with the white truffles with the lamb, fresh thyme, and the next day we do beautifully done scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and great caviar.
I’m a believer in locavore but I’m a really big believer in ingredients. I’m not going to miss out on my white truffles, my black truffles or my jumbo white asparagus. I’ll take the jumbo white asparagus and serve that with the favas and the morels when they come in season, all from California, Oregon, Washington — and that blows my mind. I go to Europe every year in the springtime for the exact same thing. We go to the Southwest of France every year to cook in the summertime. There’s nothing to do: no restaurants, no nothing, no scene. Just cook and eat.