Los Angeles’ Ma Maison Was Noteworthy for Many Things, Including an Early Prototype for One of Today’s Most Popular Dining Trends
This mention of a new pop up on Kickstarter reminded me of a little nugget I’ve been looking for an excuse to share. In interviewing Ken Frank, the Napa-based chef of La Toque who came to prominence in 1970s LA, for my forthcoming book on the 70s and 80s, he recounted how he was recruited to go along with Ma Maison owner Patrick Terrail and Ma Maison’s chef Wolfgang Puck, to open a temporary French branch of Ma Maison at the Cannes Film Festival way back in 1980.
Frank was supposed to be doing other things just about then, but life interfered. Here is how it went down, in his own words:
In April of ’79, the restaurant [I was planning to open next] burned. The partner forgot to extinguish a candle in the dining room when he closed up at night and the restaurant burned to the ground. Well, not to the ground, but damn near. I finally got a chance to look at the books and I didn’t know anything about bookkeeping. I was the cook. It turns out the partner hadn’t been paying the waiters their tips and we were really in debt so I threw the partner out.
In the meantime, because the restaurant was closed for remodeling . .. Patrick and Wolfgang invited me to go open Ma Maison Cannes at the Cannes film festival in May of 1980. We went over to Cannes and we opened a Ma Maison for two weeks . .. we went over there and . .. we had a blast in this gorgeous chateau right on the point. And of course all of Patrick’s Hollywood customers that were in Cannes for the film festival came and ate with us every night, and we went out after dinner every night and we just had a blast.
As you can see, Frank doesn’t use the term “pop up,” because it wasn’t part of the vernacular. I’m not yet 100% sure this was the first restaurant that would fall, retroactively, into that category, but it’s the first instance that I’m aware of.
I look forward to learning more details about this episode as I continue interviewing people for the book. In the meantime, I recently came across this nugget from the great Roger Ebert’s archives, in which he related his impressions of Ma Maison Cannes as part of his mid-festival wrap up at the time. (The Ma Maison stuff is eight paragraphs in.) There are some fun details, including the fact that Terrail flew in 800 pounds of New York strip steaks. Money quote: “Their [the French] thoughts about an American flying in to open his own festival restaurant are unprintable.”
Fascinatingly, there’s no mention of Puck in Ebert’s account. Chefs weren’t celebrities then; though Puck was a known quantity to some, a Hollywood executive who lunched at Ma Maison multiple times a week, told me that “we never knew there was a Wolfgang.” That would all change shortly after the Cannes adventure, of course, when Puck opened Spago.
PS If you worked in a major American restaurant in the 1970s or 1980s (kitchen or front of house), I'd love to hear from you and possibly interview you for my forthcoming oral history of that era. Please reach me at email@example.com.