“My darling,” exclaimed the wonderful British actress Coral Browne (at the time not long married to charming, funny, brilliant, kind Vincent Price), “darling, if they served breakfast at ‘Ma Maison’, I’d eat breakfast,” she concluded in her resonant rolling voice.
That was 1980. I’d just returned to Los Angeles and was in the wine business. Soon thereafter I went in search of this mythic establishment where the crowds could not be contained, so wild they were for the ambrosial meals served by the wunderkind Chef, Wolfgang Puck. It was mid-morning when I went to my appointment to taste with owner, Patrick Terrail, Burgundies from Bouchard Pere et Fils I was representing. I drove by the address a few times. Perhaps I had the wrong address? But on my fourth try I saw the sign. There was no restaurant du Luxe facing me. Perhaps Coral was having one of her jokes? This “Ma Maison” was a shack in the middle of a vast parking lot. There were no valets in uniform. Only a plastic duck stood guard, and the canvas flaps that were the walls were blowing in winter’s morning breeze. But there, in the front, was a swanky vintage Rolls Royce, so I figured the duck had already received one guest.
Walking into the kitchen door, I looked to ask permission of the Chef. And there he was: the wunderkind.
Just seeing how cute he was I understood Coral’s infatuation. I was yet to taste the cuisine of dreams, however. Wolfgang put down a large spoon, introduced himself, and his sous-chef, and accompanied me into the restaurant-tent where I would conduct the tasting. We chatted, and, when Patrick arrived he bowed out, back to his waiting pianos. I could not help but notice that, sitting in a slight gloom, with a few plastic ducks around his feet, was Orson Welles. That was somewhat startling, but it confirmed I was really in Oz-land, Hollywood; and that ‘Ma Maison’ was decidedly part and parcel of California glamour.
Patrick Terrail himself was culinary royalty. He was nephew to Claude Terrail, proprietor and host-extraordinaire at Paris’s Tour d’Argent. Once I heard that I understood the plastic duck. Ducks, I should say, because the presence of plastic ducks marching around the walls, the floors, guarding every spot inside this plastic sheeted, astro-turfed haven of gastronomy called ‘Ma Maison’, was impossible to miss.
We were about to begin the tasting with Le Corton. Wolfgang fortuitously arrived bearing proper stemware and joined in. From his first remarks I knew he knew wine. After several such morning tastings, we three became friends. Ma Maison had many of my wines on the list, so frequently I took business clients, and certainly my company’s brass when in town, to Ma Maison. I was prepared at my first lunch there to test Coral Browne’s assertion that if “they served breakfast” she would begin eating breakfast. Coral was rarely wrong. But I was not the one who would prove her right. You see, over the bar there hung a sign which read: “Aimez vous le canard, ou aller vous faire voir;” “either you love duck, or get out of here.” Every time I went to Ma Maison to dine, Patrick took the orders at my table. And when he’d get to me, he’d pat me on the shoulder, saying: “and, for you, the duck.”
Fortunately for my gastronomic experiences, Wolfgang opened “Spago” soon thereafter, and, over all these years I have gotten to taste so many of the dishes he dreams up. Wolfgang is ever innovative and bubbly of personality. While he is a great chef, he also oversees a vast enterprise. Like Champagne he could not bubble so constantly, dreaming of new worlds, if he did not have a very Champagne personality: he allows all who work for him to blossom, doing their best. And therefore his empire functions in harmony.
Wolfgang remained throughout my wine and Champagne career a supportive friend. He poured thousands of cases of the Champagnes I represented, and we did many bubbly events together. He even invited me to bring Champagne Gosset on his TV program once, and served with it my favorite Wolfgang dish with Champagne, his Smoked Salmon pizza. When he introduced his frozen foods at a luncheon hosted by his friend, and mine, Jeremiah Tower at Stars in San Francisco, I happily joined the celebration, bringing Champagne Henriot’s Cuvee du Soleil to add billions more bubbles to this roof-raisingly joyous occasion.
Near me, pacing the floor as I type, is a nervous General. He wants to know when I will start saying more about him. “Soon, Caesar, soon.”
The Night Julius Caesar Invented Champagne.
12 12 2013