Vins of the Father

Chef Bruce Marder plays Godfather to Son Max’s New Restaurant Marvin, Which Opened Last Week in Los Angeles

Bruce Marder and his girlfriend, Shelly Kellogg, at Buvette.  May 23, 2014.

Bruce Marder and Shelly Kellogg, at Buvette restaurant, New York City. May 23, 2014. (photo © Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

NEW YORK, NY — A new restaurant called Marvin “officially” opened in Los Angeles last Wednesday, after quietly welcoming walk-ins for several days. According to co-owner/operator Max Marder, when we caught up with him a week ago today, despite some issues with the phone lines and website, the restaurant itself had been performing to his expectations.

Whether or not it is running according to another man’s expectations is another story: That man is Max’s father, Bruce Marder.  If you live and dine in LA then you probably know him as the man behind such fondly remembered restaurants as West Beach Cafe and Rebecca’s, and more recently Capo and Cora’s Coffee Shop in Santa Monica, as well as Brentwood restaurant and its adjacent cafe.  If you don’t reside in the City of Angels, then it’s quite possible you never heard of the guy.  That’s, in part, because Bruce is famously introverted (some would say antisocial) and completely uninterested in the PR/marketing game that has become de rigueur among professional chefs.

With no disrespect to Max, or any of the other investors and creatives involved, Toqueland’s interest in Marvin derives primarily from our interest in Bruce. I first met him last fall when I tracked him down to interview him for my book on the American chefs of the 70s and 80s. I didn’t know what to expect from this mystique-enshrouded figure:  some of his contemporaries plain don’t like him, though many have warmed to him in recent years; others such as Kazuto Matsusaka and Jeremiah Tower consider him an under-appreciated visionary. (Matsusaka told me that many chefs used to eat at West Beach Cafe to see what Bruce was up to; Tower frequently cites the restaurant as a game-changer of its time.)  And, days before I met him, two female peers of his had told me that they had a crush on him once upon a time, one of them describing him as “a man of taste.”

Bruce and I interviewed over dinner at the bar at Capo in October, then spent another three hours sipping wines and sampling pastas.  Sure, I’m a journalist, but there’s no point denying this:  We hit it off.  I appreciated his still-burning passion for his craft; for example, he spent several minutes dissecting the selections in Capo’s bread basket for me. (He’s also a partner in Red Rooster Bakery.)  I also admired his attention to front-of-house details, as evidenced by the explanation he gave me, late in our evening, of how a lighting master had once taught him about how to properly light artwork, by letting the light itself show without too much, if any, emphasis on its source.

Bruce and I were joined for that interview and extended evening by his girlfriend, Shelly Kellogg, a resolutely sunny personality, who was also with him in New York City two weeks ago when they visited to attend Bruce’s daughter Olivia’s graduation from NYU.  Bruce and Shelly spent most of the week eating and drinking at an impressive list of restaurants: Roberta’s (where Olivia helps run the dining room), Blanca, Minetta Tavern, Gramercy Tavern for drinks, to name but a few highlights.  They also found time to have drinks and charcuterie with me at Il Buco Alimentari, where we were joined by daughter Olivia.  During our visit, Bruce casually mentioned that he was involved with the opening of a new restaurant called Marvin in the space that formerly housed his House Cafe. I wondered if the name was a nod to Marvin Zeidler, his partner in other ventures.  Turns out, it’s not: Instead, Marvin is an arch way of blending Marder and Vin (or wine), and it’s a wine-focused restaurant that was conceived and will be run on a day-to-day basis by son Max.

I asked Bruce if we could meet again for a short interview about the project and we made plans to reconnect at Buvette for breakfast later that week.

RELATED:  AN INTERVIEW WITH BUVETTE’S JODY WILLIAMS

At breakfast, Bruce did what chefs on the road do: ordered up an embarrassment of riches so he could taste as much as possible: house-smoked salmon, a croque madame, avocado on toast, and on and on.  As he, Shelly, and I all sampled the food, we discussed the genesis of Marvin.

I had met Max Marder and his brother Dylan, both of whom worked the front of the house, when I dined at Capo last fall and found them both extremely personable.  Bruce confirms that it has always been thus:  “When he was in high school, everybody loved Max as a class clown. He wasn’t the best student.  He was a social A; an academic B-minus.”

“If I can be blunt, you’re not known as the most gregarious person,” I commented to Bruce.  “The way you’re describing your son is very different from the way people perceive you.  He’s more of an extrovert.  Is that surprising to you?”

“Well, I’ve known him all his life,” he deadpanned.

Just about everything Bruce says seems to be deadpanned: He’s unflappable, to the point that you suspect he could deceive a lie-detector, or an EKG.  When we first met, back in the fall, he disarmed and amused me with our first exchange. I thanked him for making the time to see me and he replied, “Well, I just thought this might be more fun than less.”

At Buvette, I asked him about his reputation as a guy who doesn’t play the marketing game, and couldn’t give a hang about what other people think.

“Well, that’s true,” he said.  “Colman [Andrews] has a pretty good take on me in his new book, about how I was,” says Bruce. “What I was like at West Beach Cafe.  ‘First, you thought he was a jerk, and then when you get to know him, he’s really quite funny.’  I think that’s pretty accurate.”

“That’s very accurate!” said Shelly. “I thought you were a jerk the first time I met you.”

“And today,” he drawled, smiling.

I asked him about his seeming disdain for the marketing grind.  Had he ever stuck his toe in that water, enlisted an agency, and all that jazz?

Turns out that three or four years ago, he briefly worked with a pr firm, but “it was a lot of work.  They wanted to me to feed them recipes.  They didn’t really have any ideas.”

Bruce then waxed philosophical about the nature of his business and why he’s been in it so long: “The image I have in my mind is of the guy who was the owner of Taillevent, [the late Jean-Claude] Vrinat. I met him in Burgundy at a winery.  He wanted to be in his restaurant and he wanted to take care of his customers.  That’s who I am.  All these stars, you go to their restaurant and they’re not in their restaurant; they’re just not there.  I don’t feel that anybody’s as passionate about what I do as I am.”

Max Marder and Bruce Marder.  May 27, 2014. (photo courtesy Bruce Marder)

Max Marder and Bruce Marder, at an investors part at Marvin. May 27, 2014. (photo courtesy Bruce Marder)

As we continued to taste, Bruce ran down Max’s hospitality learning curve:  “He started as a runner at Capo, then learned the menu, and then he was working in the restaurant business. I  discovered that he had a rapport with my customers. He was able to talk to people and withstand the customer onslaught.  I ended up moving him to the maitre d’ position at Brentwood restaurant, then back to Capo.”

Max sums it up pretty succinctly:  “I got a job and I enjoyed it.”

According to Bruce, Max became consumed with wine and started developing a network of local cork dorks, attending wine-focused lunches, and so on. When Capo’s maitre d’ gave his notice, Bruce moved Max into the job.  “That day, my business went up twenty percent,” says the proud father.  “I get compliments on Max all the time.  He was the maitre d’ at Capo for three years, and business continued to go up.”

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About the time that Bruce was getting ready to shutter his House Cafe on Beverly Boulevard, Max started saying, “I want to do something.”  He wanted to open a wine bar, which aren’t as plentiful in LA as they are in, say, New York City.  He also wanted to focus more on European wines–especially Italy, France, and Germany–than he feels many California restaurants do, choosing instead to emphasize the grapes of the state.

During his time at Capo, Max purchased a great deal of wine fitting what would become the Marvin profile, and his dad has moved a lot of it over to the new venture. Bruce also put together a general partnership and one of his partners, Ricky Moreno, of Capo, who’s been with Bruce since 1992, collaborated with him on the menu. Steven Arroyo created the design.

And what’s Bruce’s role in Marvin?  “I’m the godfather, so to speak,” he says.

“The Capo?” I joked.

“Exactly.”

When Max decided that he wanted to open what would eventually become Marvin, Bruce took him on an eating and drinking trip.  “The restaurant that he and I both like best anywhere in the world is L’Ami Louis,” says Bruce.  That makes sense:  The menu at Marvin is “French-style” and wine-friendly, with small plates developed by Bruce and Moreno such as steak tartare, duck liver, cassoulet, a 40-ounce côte du bouef, and, for dessert, pot de crème.

Max says that the first week saw a lot of industry people coming in, “wine salesmen, GMs of other restaurants, etc.  I think that an image as a place to go for good wine is going to get out.”

As for Bruce, when I texted him over the weekend to say that I hoped the first week had gone smoothly at the new joint, the answer came back succinctly: “Thx. It has.”

Andrew

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 andrew@toqueland.com.

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About the Author

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ANDREW FRIEDMAN has collaborated on more than 25 cookbooks and other projects with some of America’s finest and most well-known chefs including Michael White, Paul Liebrandt, Alfred Portale, and former White House Chef Walter Scheib. He co-edited the popular anthology Don’t Try This at Home and is a two-time winner of the IACP Award for Best Chef or Restaurant Cookbook. Andrew is an editor at large for TENNIS Magazine and the coauthor of American tennis star James Blake’s New York Times bestselling memoir Breaking Back. In 2009, he published his first nonfiction book, Knives at Dawn: America’s Quest for Culinary Glory at the Bocuse d’Or, the World’s Most Prestigious Cooking Competition. He is currently working on a cookbook with chefs Walker Stern and Joseph Ogrodnek of Brooklyn's Battersby restaurant, and is writing an oral history of the American chefs of the 1970s and 1980s, to be published by Ecco Press in 2015.