Nancy Meyers: When Cheesecake Paid the Bills

Before she was a famous filmmaker, the struggling screenwriter made ends meet by selling cheesecakes to the iconic restaurants Ma Maison and Mr. Chow: "I do remember seeing Orson Welles at his table and hoped he had a slice now and then."
Brian Bowen Smith
Nancy Meyers

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Nancy Meyers' early days selling cheesecake have been well-documented — the top female director baked and sold cheesecakes using “an old family recipe” to making a living in the mid-1970s while still a struggling screenwriter — but lesser known is that her creations were served up at L.A.’s fabled Ma Maison, the onetime hot property of partners Patrick Terrail and Wolfgang Puck.

Meyers tells THR: “Patrick Terrail at Ma Maison was my first and best customer. When I was in the cheesecake biz, I lived in a small apartment at Peck and Olympic with one oven. Once I was making cheesecakes for Ma Maison and Mr Chow and a few other places, I needed more ovens, so I used the ovens of my neighbors, had keys to all of their apartments and helped pay their gas bills. Pretty funny when you think about it.”

Also amusing is Meyers' fantasy of one particular Ma Maison regular enjoying her culinary creations. “I do remember once seeing Orson Welles at Ma Maison at his regular table inside and hoped he had a slice now and then.”

Fast forward to today, what’s her favorite thing to cook? “Not a cheesecake,” she says firmly. That said, Meyers, whose next movie The Intern hits theaters courtesy of Warner Bros. on Sept. 25, admits she last made her famous cheesecake a month ago for her youngest daughter’s birthday. “It’s always a hit, even after all these years.”

But wait, there's more. Here are a few other fun facts we learned from Meyers about her former profession:

The family secret: “It's just a crazy-great recipe that started with an aunt of mine. My grandmother made it, my mother made it. It's very creamy and not pasty like other cheesecakes. Sort of melts in your mouth. I used to always make it to take to people's homes for dinner parties, and at one dinner everyone insisted I turn it into a business. So I did. I called myself The Pacific Cheesecake Company and got so 'huge,' I had to hire an employee — my sister, Sally.”

What's the cook time?: “Each cake takes three hours to make — an hour in the oven, an hour in the oven with the oven off, and an hour to cool. So you can only make one when you know you're going to be home for a chunk of time."

What could’ve been: “One day, Patrick at Ma Maison told me he wanted to meet with me. I think that was the day I saw Orson Welles. It was toward the end of the day, and he sat me down near the kitchen and asked me how I made the cakes, what kind of equipment I had, etc. When I told him how I did it, he shook his head — until that moment I don't think he realized what a tiny operation I had going. He said he wanted to back me in the cheesecake business. He said we'd find a space, buy equipment, get some workers, etc. I told him I was really flattered but that I really wanted to be a writer and not a baker. He understood, but I think he was disappointed. But Meryl Streep in It's Complicated owned a bakery. ... I kind of always imagined her starting much like I did.”