Miles Thompson takes charge of the kitchen that invented California Cuisine

Chef Miles Thompson continues a tradition of experimentation at Michael’s Photo by Maria Martin

Chef Miles Thompson continues a tradition of experimentation at Michael’s
Photo by Maria Martin

By Richard Foss

Half a block north of the Third Street Promenade, where the neighborhood suddenly transitions from commercial to residential, is a restaurant that changed the way Los Angeles dines.

When Michael McCarty completed his chef’s training and moved to Santa Monica to open Michael’s in 1976, he encountered an environment vastly different than the dining scene we know today.

As he tells it: “It was a very simple world in Southern California back then; our Italian and Chinese restaurants were miserable, and we had no Thai or Southeast Asian places. We had this wonderful long growing season and fantastic produce, but no imagination when it came to what to do with it. The scene in France was much better, but you had to stick to the rulebook. What I did was say that we were going to take those classic recipes and modernize them. It was a new regional American food, and in time people in every state, every region, would create their own cuisine.”

McCarty gave that movement a name when he used the term “California Cuisine” on his menu, but first he had to get the materials to rival those he had been using in France. Despite our tradition of farming, this was harder than expected.

“One of the things that was lacking here was good ingredients — we had wonderful steak, but even though we were in the middle of this great growing region there were all sorts of things you couldn’t get,” he said. “I set up a partnership with Jean [Bertranou] from L’Hermitage to start a duck farm, because that was something you couldn’t get here. Through this process we started to meet farmers, and we started bringing them seeds and got them growing haricots verts, arugula, basil and thyme. You wouldn’t imagine it today with farmers markets on every corner, but then if you wanted herbs you went to the spice rack.”

As word of McCarty’s new venture got around, chefs who were excited by his ideas came to ask about working there. Jonathan Waxman of Chez Panisse showed up at the doorstep, and so did Ken Frank, who later took those ideas to Napa to help create wine country cuisine. Others followed, making a reputation at Michael’s before going out to start their own restaurants. Roy Yamaguchi (Roy’s), Nancy Silverton (Pizzeria Mozza), Mark Peel (Campanile), Sang Yoon (Father’s Office, Lukson) and Brooke Williamson (Playa Provisions, Hudson House) all passed through this kitchen on the way to becoming culinary royalty.

Unlike some restaurant owners, McCarty stayed on good terms with those who struck out on their own and even blessed their efforts. Part of his ideology was that everyone was at Michael’s to learn — from him and each other.

“I have sent many chefs to fly from the nest. It was part of the ritual, part of the process, and it was always exciting for both of us,” he said. “I think there are 195 restaurants owned by former chefs
at Michael’s — that’s what happens over 38 years. We always had the idea that both the front and back of the house were not only a kitchen and restaurant, they were a school, and there were things that we could all both learn and teach. Back in the early days, some of the Latino members of our kitchen staff brought in things that nobody had been using in French cooking, like cilantro and jalapeno.”

A New Protégé

The result of this open-minded attitude toward experimentation is that Michael’s has always been a work in progress. As McCarty put it, “One of our biggest mottoes is that change is good, but it must be evolution rather than mutation.”

The latest change was bigger than usual. After his previous chef gave notice in April, McCarty decided to close the restaurant for a few months for remodeling. Tapping connections developed over nearly four decades in the industry, he began the search for a new chef.

“I sent an email to 40 of the great chefs in Los Angeles and New York letting them know I was looking. Two chefs sent quick responses saying if you can find Miles Thompson, he’s your guy.”

Thompson, 28, had previously cooked at elite restaurants in Los Angeles and Napa, but at the time he was chef at a restaurant on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. Chance had it that Thompson was visiting Los Angeles when he got the message, and he and McCarty were able to meet the very next day.

Asked whether he was intimidated to be contacted by McCarty about running one of the most famous kitchens in America, Thompson was equivocal.

“Maybe a little,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t crippled by anxiety, but I knew I absolutely had to bring everything I had to the game. I was excited for the opportunity and knew I just had to go with it.”

The two men met not at the restaurant, but at the place where local chefs practice part of their craft: the Santa Monica Farmers Market. McCarty came to a decision very quickly.

“I watched him work the crowd and we bought everything for the restaurant that night. By the time we got back I said, ‘What do you think?’ And he said ‘This is it,” and we were done. I hired him without ever tasting his food. Knowing his reputation, knowing that he worked at Nobu and at Animal and Son of a Gun, and working in Sonoma at fantastic places, I just knew he could do it,” McCarty said.

Duck Tales

Thompson stared his tenure with an advantage that few new chefs have: Thanks to the tradition of experimentation at Michael’s, he didn’t have to learn the existing menu. This doesn’t mean he ignores the traditions of the place — far from it, in fact.

“Michael and I look at the old menus and sometimes reevaluate them, bringing some dishes back as they were and changing others to suit what we’re doing now. Duck is on the menu, as it has been since the early days, so we still serve both a confit and the seared breast. There is continuity stemming from the use of the California-centered farmers market products, a continuity mainly of attitude. That said, there isn’t a single thing on the menu that is still made exactly as it was when the place opened,” Thompson said.

Though the ideas of seasonal and local cuisine were shocking when Michael’s debuted, Thompson and McCarty aren’t consciously trying to provoke people.

As Thompson noted, it’s much harder to do that now.

“It’s not about weird innovations of technique the way they were doing in San Sebastian 10 years ago, it’s about refining flavors and execution,” he said. “We do combine flavors that people aren’t used to putting together. For instance, we use cape gooseberries that we get from Oxnard that we combine with chicken hearts, tiny Japanese eggplant and Roman beans that are braised in a very traditional style with tomato and white wine.”

Those ingredients may sound a bit odd together, but the combination is spectacular. Grilled marinated chicken hearts are a staple in the cuisine of Peru, where they are served alongside tart pickled onions. But putting them alongside delicate eggplant, slightly tart gooseberries and rich Romano beans in Italian sauce and then topping them with funky cheese is brilliant.

So is slicing pig ears wafer-thin and tossing them with seared baby broccoli and spicy peanuts, then topping them with a soft-cooked egg that somehow has a slightly crisp exterior. Pig ears are usually fried crisp or served slightly chewy, but these are soft and rich. It’s so unlike the usual texture that I checked the menu to be sure what I was actually eating.

As for that famous duck, a breed McCarty and his partners first bred, it’s cooked rare and served alongside slices of delicate squash over huckleberry-juniper pickle and topped with fried water spinach. No one ingredient is outlandish, but the combinations Thompson gets from them can be startling.

In case anybody worried that Michael’s was going to rest on its laurels, one meal proves there’s no danger of that happening any time soon.

Asked whether he thinks he would have fit in with the team that first cooked here in 1979, Thompson declared that there’s really no difference in intent.

“If there’s anything that is congruent with the original Michael’s it’s that we’re still cooking what we want to cook. I think that’s really beautiful, personally,” he said. “Having broccoli with pig ears now in Santa Monica is no stranger than serving shad roe was in 1982. It’s kind of forgotten because the rest of the dining scene has caught up.”