This story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
In 1975, Wolfgang Puck, then 25 and a nobody in the food world, broke out as the hot new chef at French restaurateur Patrick Terrail‘s scrappy, struggling 2-year-old boite Ma Maison on Melrose Avenue, a scalpel’s toss from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Together Puck and Terrail, a member of a storied French hospitality family that owns the legendary 4-century-old Parisian landmark La Tour d’Argent, made Ma Maison the key industry restaurant of the next 10 years, stuffed with stars all frequently dining on the patio at once (Gabor! Nicholson! Astaire! Brando!) and notorious for its unlisted phone number and the epic line of Rolls-Royces parked out front. On the 40th anniversary of Puck’s debut, the chef and his onetime boss — frenemies who went through what Puck, 66, describes as a “really bad divorce” when he left in 1982 to open Spago — tell their shared story in separate THR sit-downs. They let loose about everything from the infamously ugly decor (Terrail, 72, who left Hollywood in the 1990s and now publishes a regional magazine in Georgia, admits to furnishing the restaurant on the cheap with chain-hotel castoffs) to their most frequent customer (“I always tried stuff out on Orson Welles,” says Puck, who now owns more than 20 fine-dining restaurants worldwide) while fricasseeing the love-hate relationship that spawned a new era in L.A. dining.
Puck’s Poulet a la Moutarde, a Ma Maison favorite, still is available on request at Spago.
Terrail: Before Ma Maison, there was no casual restaurant in L.A. with a terrace where you could sit down outside. Being French, I wanted a place where people could enjoy this beautiful weather. I’d just finished managing a hotel in Tahiti and had little to do, so I opened Ma Maison in 1973 for $40,000, raised in part from the actors Gene Kelly and Mel Stewart and the producer Fred Weintraub. Nobody was on Melrose at the time except for Fred Segal. Our only real competition was Le Bistro, Scandia, La Scala and Chasen’s.
Puck: Now we have a lot of Italian-influenced restaurants in L.A. At that time, it was mostly French.
Terrail: In those days, nobody knew what goat cheese or basil was. It was very hard to find high-quality butter. We knew about good products, but we had a hard time getting them.
Puck: When I came to L.A. in ’73, everything was imported in cans — white asparagus, peas. Now you can go to Whole Foods or Vons and get fresh, sourced arugula. Then, I was going down to the Chino Farm near San Diego — this was way before the Santa Monica Farmers Market began — to pick up fresh vegetables. I was surprised because I used to live in Provence. I said: “This is so crazy! We’re on the ocean, we’re in a climate where you can grow things, and you cannot find anything!”
Terrail: Through my family in Europe and contacts, I was told about Wolfgang Puck. He was living in downtown L.A. in a flophouse and worked in a restaurant at the ARCO Towers. I had very little money to offer.
Puck: My first paycheck from Ma Maison bounced. I was 25 when I came to the restaurant. There was this other French chef, and he was terrible. He had canned sardines on the menu. He had beef belly as a special. If you were the first one at 7 o’clock to get a beef belly, that was nice. But if you were the eighth one, it was sitting somewhere for two and a half hours. Still, the clientele was elegant. But the room wasn’t — at all. There were these plastic ducks with lights inside. That was part of the decor.
Terrail: My wallet determined all of my design decisions for the restaurant. When we first opened, I went to hotels like the Universal Sheraton — the manager went to Cornell’s hospitality school, as I did — and asked if they had any furniture that they wanted to get rid of. For the patio, we took cast-off folding chairs made out of wood from a party rental place. Then I went to the French liquor company Ricard, and they gave me umbrellas with their name on it. They paid for the awning, too. The parking lot, where we put the patio, was dirt. And we certainly couldn’t afford to asphalt it, nor could we afford to cement it. So I came up with the idea of leveling it and putting AstroTurf on it.
“The restaurant business is the same as producing a movie,” says Terrail of the thriving scene at Ma Maison, here during a 1980 event.
THE STARS MADE THE SCENE
As acclaim for Puck’s food and Terrail’s Hollywood-friendly hosting grew, entertainment luminaries and cultural icons not only lit up the dining room, but some also contributed to the menu and even the recipes.
Puck: Eventually Andy Warhol wanted to paint me. I was like, “No, no, no. Make me my menu cover.” [Warhol was one of several artists who created menu covers for Ma Maison.]
Terrail: Rauschenberg did a menu, Hockney did a menu. A lot of the artists who were not known then did some artwork for me for the menu covers. This was because we were close with the owner of [the famous graphics studio] Gemini, Sid Felsen. That shop was nearby. We changed the covers about six times a year.
Puck: Patrick was the showman out front. He kissed the women and made the flower arrangements. I learned from him not to be shy with the customers.
Terrail: There were practical reasons for everything we did, but it was taken as snob appeal. People magazine was going to come out with a story on Ma Maison, and I was worried that we would be overwhelmed. So I said, “The best way to stop that is to unlist our phone number,” and we kept it unlisted. People published the number anyway. The concierge at the Beverly Wilshire was selling the number for $5. And all of those Rolls-Royces parked out front? I told my valet parkers, “If you have any expensive cars, put them in front because this way you can watch them.” We put the inexpensive cars in the back because if they got scratched, we could afford to fix them.
Puck: It was a different time. Everybody was drinking. Jack Lemmon used to come a half-hour before lunch and sit at the bar and have two martinis at 11:30 and then sit down and maybe have two more.
“I didn’t focus on the celebrities,” says Terrail, with Suzanne Somers in 1980. “Many nights, unless Moshe Dayan or Elizabeth Taylor walked in, my objective was just to make sure that the evening went off smoothly.”
Terrail: The business soon got so successful that we were sold out for 10 years straight. All of the heavyweights used to play gin rummy on Friday afternoon upstairs. Then they’d stay there to 6 or 7 p.m., and their wives would join them. They would have been there all afternoon: Greg Bautzer, Victor Drai, Bert Fields, David Janssen. It was a rotating group. The thing was, you could get there from MGM, Universal or Warners in 15 minutes in those days. There was no traffic. That’s why Ma Maison today would not be possible. Today, to go from Sony to Ma Maison would take you a day and a half.
Puck: Susie Pleshette used to come back for dinner when she wasn’t filming and would have scrambled eggs. One day, all of a sudden, she calls me out into the dining room. She said, “Why the f— did you put chives on my scrambled eggs?!” It was just the way she talked. She didn’t say, you know, “I don’t like chives, can you make me another one?” “Why the f— did you put chives on?!” Orson Welles also was very much into the food. He used to come early for lunch, like at 11, and he used to ask me, “What is the special today?” I always tried stuff out on Orson Welles, like sausage with truffles inside, or a warm lobster salad, which became very popular afterward.
Terrail: Orson Welles ate at Ma Maison every day. I’d get his mail and his phone calls. He’d sit inside, next to the restroom. He liked the intimacy of the corner. And it was a big table, and nobody bothered him.
Puck: He was the only one of the regulars who didn’t later come to Spago because he couldn’t walk up the steps since it was on the hill there on Sunset. I called him. He said he tried getting out of the car — he had somebody drive him — but couldn’t. So he went back to Ma Maison.
Terrail: I don’t have many pictures inside the restaurant. Otherwise I’d be a millionaire. Our philosophy was privacy. We protected it like high security. That’s why people liked the place. We were known for being one of the most discreet restaurants in L.A. at the time.
Puck: One day we did a dinner, and at the end I was sitting with Dinah Shore. By then, I was not so shy anymore. So when she said, “Why do you always say no when I ask Patrick for you to come on my cooking show?” I said, “Well, you never asked.” She said, “Patrick, that son of a bitch! I ask him all the time and he said you don’t want to do TV.”
From left: Ray Sharkey, Margot Kidder and Michael Ontkean in 1980.
THE ‘REALLY BAD DIVORCE’
Puck and Terrail cite different causes for the bitter split that sent the hot chef out the door to launch Spago in 1982.
Puck: With Spago, I told Patrick, “I found this location, I want to do another restaurant and make pizzas because there’s no good pizza here in Los Angeles.” I told him we have to create a new company and make it 50-50. He looked at me and said, “I am always going to own 51 percent.”
Terrail: I was never upset with Wolfgang specifically. I’m not going to talk about the breakup. But the issue was not Wolfgang. It was with someone else who was with him. Who’s no longer there. [Puck met his first wife, Barbara Lazaroff, in 1979 and married her in 1984. She went on to be closely involved in many of his restaurants. They divorced in 2002.]
Puck: Ma Maison certainly gave me the visibility to go my own way. And the restaurant was the beginning of my journey into California cuisine, which led to Spago. Thank God Patrick said no to 50-50. I left. Billy Wilder, Freddie de Cordova, Sidney Poitier — they all came right away. We got so busy, so crazy. Ma Maison was never even close to it.
Terrail: Does Spago today get the same kind of clientele or celebrity — the same level of cachet — that it did 15 years ago? Probably not. Restaurants have their moments.
Puck: People hated Patrick. Some of the famous ones liked him. But the others didn’t feel welcome. When the head of Fox came in, he made a huge fuss; his wife came, he let her wait 45 minutes. So then the wife would end up saying: “You know, I’m not going back there. He treats me like shit.” One thing I learned from that: You have to be nice to everyone. You cannot make somebody from out of town feel bad that made the reservation two months ago. If they have to wait, send them to the bar and send out a pizza. You never know who someone is. They might come in with jeans and a sweatshirt and sneakers on. They might be important anyway. You know, people like David Geffen.
Puck in the kitchen in 1980, five years into his tenure at Ma Maison. The restaurant’s traditional French menu (below) was remade by Puck, who ushered in the brand of California cuisine that he later would take to Spago. Of Ma Maison midday regular Orson Welles, Puck recalls: “He would say, ‘What is the special today for lunch?’ So I would give him a little plate to taste. And then after the fifth time he said, ‘Why is it so small?’ And so I brought him just a regular plate.”
Terrail: Every dollar is the same for me. But obviously you’re going to recognize the guy who’s going to be there four days a week rather than someone who’s in there for the first time. It would be totally lying if I didn’t say that. But the object was to make everybody a star and to treat everybody the same. Many nights, unless Moshe Dayan or Elizabeth Taylor walked in, my objective was just to make sure that the evening went off smoothly.
Puck: I still have people who come and say, “Can you make me the chicken from Ma Maison?” I used to make this chicken with mustard sauce. It was sweet and tangy because I deglazed it with port wine. And then put a little cream, put a little stock and finish it off with mustard. People still ask for it at Spago: Poulet a la Moutarde. It’s in their memories.
Terrail: I miss the electricity of the place. I also remember the stress. I always worried that nobody would show up for dinner the next day. The restaurant business is the same as producing a movie. We’d cast it, film it, edit it and distribute it — twice daily, at lunch and dinner. That’s why it’s so exciting. But you were always concerned about the returns. Neither Wolf nor I really had anything to do with the magic. We just provided an environment where the guests created their own magic because they all knew each other, and we were happy doing it.
MA MAISON, THE FLOPPED SEQUEL
With the departure of Puck and the voluntary manslaughter conviction in 1983 of one of its sous chefs in the death of his girlfriend, Dominique Dunne, Ma Maison lost its luster and closed in 1985. In 1988, Terrail was named the food and beverage director of the France-based Accor Corp.’s Ma Maison Sofitel on Beverly Boulevard, a concept that quickly fizzled.
Terrail: It was a bad call that I made, doing the restaurant again at the Sofitel.
Puck: Sofitel bought the name “Ma Maison” and put it in its hotel at the same address. In a way, it wasn’t a bad idea for Patrick to sell them the name and build a new Ma Maison. But it had the feeling of another restaurant. It didn’t have an identity.
Terrail: The developer didn’t get it, didn’t understand Ma Maison. He thought that if you had fancy carpets and chairs, you’d have success. And that’s not what it was about. Yes, people remember the AstroTurf and the uncomfortable chairs. But that was part of its charm: There was no pretension. I didn’t make it pretentious. The guests made it pretentious.
Puck: Patrick didn’t have the palate to hire the right chef or to hire the right guy to rescue it. He once tried a liver. I gave him the liver pink, and he sent it back. I cooked it more, and he sent it back again. So the next time I cooked it really well done and put Tabasco sauce on it, and he ate it and he said, “Oh, that’s delicious.”
Terrail: I was the cook at the beginning of Ma Maison. George Christy [then at Los Angeles magazine, he later became THR‘s society columnist and eventually left after a pay-to-play scandal] absolutely destroyed me, gave me the worst review of George Christy reviews. I won’t go into the details, but I don’t think I picked up the check. He liked to freeload, and I wasn’t of that ilk. That’s why I got a very bad review early on.
Puck: At Spago, I had told my hosts, “If you let Patrick in, you are gone.” One day I was up in San Francisco — this was maybe ’90 or ’91 — and my host, Daniel, called me and was like, “Patrick is here with Ed McMahon. What should I do?!”
Terrail: Ed McMahon was the best man at my wedding.
Puck: I said, “Daniel, you know what to do,” and hung up. He told them to leave. Ed was so pissed off at me. He was like, “I’ll never come to another one of your restaurants. How dare you do that!” I said, “It wasn’t you.” Patrick and I had a really bad divorce. You don’t want to have your ex-wife come over and just sue you for more money and have dinner with you. I don’t know why Patrick wanted to come to Spago so badly. Eventually, though, I said, “I’m going to bury the hatchet, and it’s OK.” And then I did his 70th birthday party at Spago for 25 to 30 people a few years ago. I invited him in from Atlanta.
Terrail: That was extremely kind and generous of him. We both became very successful and are happy with what we’ve got.