Les Anges Magazines

Olivier Said has led a most singular life, one that has mainly revolved around food and restaurants beginning in his native France and continuing here in the United States where he first emigrated in the 1980s. It has been a life marked by both wild success and disappointing failure and adventures that most of us could only imagine. Through it all he has managed to maintain a unique brand of humor and a sense of optimism that has often been at great odds with the reality of his situation. All in all it’s a fascinating and highly entertaining story. He has asked me to help chronicle that life, or perhaps more accurately, to translate his memories from what he so charmingly refers to as his English into something approaching American English in which I am practically fluent. Together we have completed working drafts of several chapters of what we intend to be a book about Olivier’s life, all of which can be found within this site. The following is an outline of that life, or at least that part of his life that involves working in restaurants here and abroad, and most importantly, the parts he remembers. He assures me, by the way, that practically all of it is true. (JAM)
  • We begin at the end, or at least the end so far (I’m being optimistic), at Kitchen on Fire (KoF), our cooking school in the heart of Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto.” After some very difficult financial hardships that are inherent in starting a new business, things are going well, the business is gaining recognition and popularity, and my future is looking bright, although admittedly, that could just be the sun in my eyes.

  • The business, 10 year now, is building a good name in the San Francisco Bay Area and particularly in the East Bay. After about 40 years in the food and restaurant business I am still alive in spite of many adventures that could have easily resulted otherwise. I have been able, without the benefit of actually having any money, other than what I need to live, to buy a house, have another son, loose said house, open a cooking school, take over the management of a wine bar for a year, divorce, remarry (not the same person), and much more. Amazingly, I am in excellent terms with my ex-wives. I now move back to the beginning

  • 15 years old and I travel all over Europe by train while intermittingly working in my mother’s restaurant, Le Trou des Halles (my family has roots in the restaurant business going back to 1750), a place that is frequented by the theater and TV people. I begin by washing dishes in a sink that is only slightly smaller than a small swimming pool, and from there learn to plate desserts and finally graduate to the exalted job of making salads.

  • 18 years old and I work in the south of France as a pizzaiolo, or pizza maker (in wood burning ovens, the only kind there were then), temporary dishwasher, and when the cook/chef/drunk/gambler gets fired, I become the cook/chef/drunk (gambling is not my thing) in a crazy kitchen all while going to school to become an airplane pilot. It is here that I get my first experience dealing with the mafia system at a very small level. Actually, it’s not a bad system if you ask me unless you cross the line. My problem, unfortunately, at 19 years old, is that even with magnifying glasses I can never see the line. I finally get my pilot’s license and decide it’s time to cross the pond and go see these Americans I have heard so much about.

  • I arrive in Los Angeles in 1982. I am 20 years old and I land a job at one of the best restaurants in the United States at the time, La Toque. Hopeful to work on my almost non-existent English, I find that the owner speaks perfect French and prefers to communicate with me that way. It will be weeks before anyone realizes I don’t speak English.

  • Once again, while still working at La Toque I simultaneously am going to pilot school in Santa Monica to become a professional pilot, where I discover the exhilaration of flying a plane without actually understanding what the control tower is saying. As I try to understand what the tower is telling me - which runway to come in on, the wind speed and direction, atmospheric pressure and other pilot stuff – I begin to notice that the other people in the plane are getting very nervous (I can tell by their white knuckles and green faces). I assure them I know exactly what I’m doing but they don’t understand what I’m saying because they don’t speak French. Once while flying with my brother the door opens during takeoff because we forget to lock it. I work transporting passengers back and forth between LA and San Francisco, Palm Springs and Las Vegas.

  • I attend sound & video engineering school and do work in three different recording studios. I’ve been at La Toque for about 2 and half years now, catering to lots of famous people in the music business. I get my first experience in a real bar with American cocktails, an extensive wine list, and a celebrity clientele. Because I can pronounce all the names of the French wines and spirits on the menu, everyone assumes I’m an expert. I meet with rising celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck when he had his first restaurant, start buying crazy cars, and even sell a car to my friend Eric who happens to be blind. I’m doing a lot of flying with many scary close calls and work for a while at Club 22 in Beverly Hills. For awhile I live in mansion formerly owned by Valentino with Dina and Cacou and Billy Preston.

  • I get married, become a legal assistant and work for immigration, where I deal with doctors and maniacal lawyers, driving 1 ½ hours to Irvine every day. I work for Nucleus Nuance, the oldest jazz club in LA where people like Santana and Herbie Hancock play regularly. At the same time I become a limousine driver. My shift starts around 3 or 4 in the afternoon on Fridays and ends somewhere between 4 and 11 am on Sunday. Non-stop of course.

  • I go to work as a photographer for Les Anges magazine owned by crazy French guy. I frequently travel downtown LA at night with a trunk full of cheap wine and booze to shoot bums and hookers (with a camera). Our star burns bright for awhile and we cover all hip openings at restaurants, galleries, and social events.

  • I go all-out LA. I work at Le Petit Four on Sunset Plaza and Le Dome, waiting on people like Elizabeth Taylor. My “ride” alternates between a dune buggy and a motorcycle.

  • After the magazine folds I decide to leave LA to open a Tex-Mex restaurant back in Paris. Prior to leaving I am living in a small studio apartment for a month with my friend, his girlfriend and sister (not the same person), and my brother who has come to visit. My departure doesn’t come soon enough.

  • I arrive back in my hometown of Paris and begin to re-acclimate to Parisian style of life. I work in the restaurant that I soon buy. Soon after the remodeling and grand opening of Texas Coyote I have my first experience with corruption – from both the bad guys (Mafia) and the good guys (the cops). I go out every night to all the coolest clubs and restaurants to promote TC, one of the first Tex-Mex restaurant/bar in Paris (probably in all of Europe), serving margaritas, tacos, etc. I distribute flyers to thousands of people, anyone I meet, including all the top people in fashion industry (we are located in the Place des Victoire in the heart of the fashion district near Kenzo, Gautier, Yamamoto, Cacharel, etc.)  In six months I have become the hottest spot in Paris with clientele that includes fashion people, top models, television and film personalities, and rock stars. It’s 1989 and my first child, Archibald, is born. We are living on the rue de Rivoli in the Marais. I now have a newborn and a fledgling business. This won’t be the last time.

  • I find out about a trendy restaurant club that is having trouble and losing business quickly. My partner and I decide to buy it and open second, bigger Texas Coyote – three floors, each with its own bar, 6,000 square feet total. We get a loan and manage to open even though my partner turns out to be a crook and flee. I hold no hard feeling though because he leaves the safe behind when he leaves, empty but there. With a bigger place comes bigger trouble from thugs, police, corruption and fights.

  • We open Texas Coyote 2 at the beginning of the Gulf War and proudly hang a big American flag in the window despite the dangers (Lots of terrorist attack in Paris in that period). Our clientele, in addition to all the beautiful people listed above, is comprised of motorcycle gangs, gypsies, kids from the suburbs, and tourists from all over, including Americans who relish the tacos, guacamole and Corona beers. We have the highest sales of Cuervo Gold tequila in all of France, one of the few brands available at the time. We get the biggest bands to play in our club. I draw a map of the bar showing all the locations of weapons in case of trouble, mostly shotguns and baseball bats. We have lots of live radio and television broadcasts direct from TC.

  • I lose it all. The restaurant goes into foreclosure and is sold for $15,000, a fraction of the $1.5 million we have invested. A painful lesson in the concept of return on investment. I end up working at a taco stand for about $40 a day. If only I had known about Rachel Ray back then I could have lived quite well. Instead, I realize it’s time to get out and go back where I could have a good job and not worry about all the crap I’ve had to deal with in Paris. I decide to return to the United States.

  • I manage to put together $800, buy a ticket to Los Angeles, pack a few things – razor, French shaving cream, a week’s worth of socks and underwear and I am gone like the wind, only without the burning of Atlanta. I know I can stay with my friend Alex and his wife and kid. I arrive to find his house undergoing a complete renovation. I spend four months helping to remodel their house with Alex. I learn a lot about construction, a skill that will prove very handy, and discover true paradise, a magical place called Home Depot.

  • I get a job at Moonlight Tango and 2 weeks later, after I catch the bar manager stilling and get him fired, I take his place and soon become second in command to general manager wherein I receive valuable tips on things like how to catch the bartender stealing while drinking on the job. During the Christmas rush, where we get 300 to 400 people a day by a bus contracted by travel agency, the sous chef leaves and the chef threatens to quit if I don’t come into the kitchen and work with him through the entire end of the insane season. A very old man dies on the dance floor in the arms of a beautiful young woman on the night of his birthday. How great is that?  It was kind of funny, even for him I bet. I take an apartment with my friend Herve, hairdresser to the stars at Jose Ebert on Beverly Drive. We play backgammon every night before and after we go out to parties or the clubs until 4 or 5 in the morning.

  • My career takes another turn and so does my income. I quit the restaurant I am working in because they decide to remodel the place in a way that I don’t trust that it will work. Their concept is great, but the timing is wrong. With no income I live with various friends, first with my friends Philipo and Valerie who had been married only a short time, then with friend Patrick and his wife, and later in a mansion with friend Guy. It is an incredible place, especially when he leaves for Europe for two months of summer and I have the place to myself. I get a job in a trattoria and work for remainder of summer before I realize that LA is no longer for me. I have a friend up north in Berkeley, Richard, with whom I have worked at my first restaurant in America, La Toque. He asks me if I want to come up to Bay Area and be part of a crazy team of guys opening a cool bar next to famed restaurant Chez Panisse.

  • I leave Los Angeles for good, running, or rather driving away to a place called Berkeley on January 6, 1998. I have an incredible feeling on first sight of San Francisco as I drive in on Highway 101. I know that I will do well here. I arrive in the East Bay and have my first meal at Denny’s in Emeryville right off the freeway. I go to meet Richard at his house and he wants to show me the bar right away even though it’s only 7 am.  He drives me to the place on Shattuck Avenue, only instead of a bar all I see is a temporary plywood fence with a small hole in it. I look through the hole and see an empty space that was formerly a dry cleaner. Where is the bar, I ask? We have to build it, he says.

  • Therein follows four months of construction through the worst and wettest “El Niño” in years. It pours rain every day while inside we hang sheet rock, lay tiles, install plumbing, and generally build a bar out of nothing. Kermit Lynch, famous Berkeley wine importer, keeps bringing us magnums of Bandol wine to keep us going. In response to an old woman’s question we inform her it is to be a tapas bar. She becomes incensed because she thinks we say “topless” bar.

  • César opens to instant success. The place becomes a madhouse after our first review from Michael Bauer in SF Chronicle. I work constantly for the first year. Then I receive a call from my parents that my sister is very sick and I need to come home right away. I return to France just a few days before my sister dies in my arms at the hospital. Instead of mourning we celebrate her life by throwing a large party just as she would have wanted. I begin wondering what else is going to happen before I can be content again (happiness is way too expensive; I will settle for contentment).

  • I return to California and go back to work at César. I work like crazy so I don’t have to think too much. Soon I meet Megan, we marry and we begin a life together. With friend and writer James Mellgren I publish César: Recipes from a Tapas Bar to great success. I get tired of working in a restaurant, and Cesar is my last, so far.  I decide to write another book, The Bar: A Spirited Guide to Cocktail Alchemy. The book is moderately successful in spite of there being a bunch of bar books at the time.

  • After eight years of good and loyal service at César, I meet my future business partner, a chef and talented cooking instructor, and we begin our first talks about doing a cooking school. In the meantime, I have a chance meeting with my friend Soheyl, a developer who is building a gourmet food court next door called Epicurious Garden. I had been working for two years with César to open a mercado, or Spanish food shop inside the Epicuious Garden but it hadn’t worked out.  He tells me he is trying to find someone to do something upstairs above the court and I jump on it. I leave César in January of 2006 and Megan and I buy a house with no money the same month my second child is born, a son named Finlay.

  • Kitchen on Fire opens in March of 2006. We struggle with finances at first but manage to get all of the equipment donated by manufacturers – appliances, cookware, dishes, etc. My marriage to Megan ends after being together 8 years and soon after I begin a new life, living happily ever after with my new wife Julia, Finlay and my business partner.

    Life is so good that sometimes I sit and, as my now fellow Americans say (I am now a citizen), wait for the other shoe to drop. Hopefully, it never will.

 

   

Olivier's Story:

A Life with Recipes,
or A Parisian in America

By Olivier Said
Translated into English by James Mellgren

Chapters

The Limo Driver
Racket Lesson
Now I have stayed
Live and Drive
Les Anges
Leaving LA
Coyote Ugly
Drinking in English
Outline




Olivier Said

Leaving Los Angeles...

I leave LA in the evening. I just got tired of it somehow. Maybe I know too many people in this city, or maybe I donít know enough. Or maybe this last year in the restaurant brought back too many memories of my own failed establishment in Paris, memories prompted by the fact that most of the people I know here acquired at least one hangover there.

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