The office was small and crowded, but the man behind the lacquered slab of tree trunk that serves as a desk was relaxed and expansive as lunch was served one day last month.
"I'll hit threequarters of a century Saturday," Trader Vic said. "I've got one leg, one kidney and 22 restaurants,all doing good business. I started in 1934 and this has been the biggest year yet. I'm feeling damned good."
His guests sighed with relief. Victor J. Bergeron had gone a dangerously long time without uttering one of the mild curse words that punctuate his speech like toothpicks on an hors d'oeuvre tray. The old man might be slipping.
Not at all. In the course of two hours he managed to fire salvos of outrage at targets as diverse as French winemarkers and President Jimmy Carter (over what the Trader sees as "damned disgraceful" treatment of the elderly), hold forth on cooking, geology, art, hunting and the boyhood of Trader Vic., was a great performance, served up with several original culinary creations and a quartet of California wines.
There are Trader Vic's in 15 U.S. cities, including Washington, in London, Munich, Tokyo, Toronto and Vancouver. Two "Senor Pico" Mexican restaurants, one in San Franciaco, 'the other in Los Angeles, complete the "group". A staunch individualist, Bergeron rejects the word "chain," claiing his restaurants and the people who run them are not mechanical reproductions with interchangable parts.
A native of the Bay Area, he credits Doff the Beachcomber with influenceing him before World War II to capitalize on the romantic, escapist qualities of Polynesia in a restaurant actting. He became "Trader Vic," and Trader Vic's became an institution as military personnel best a path to his Oakland door during and after the war. In 1951, he opened a restaruant in San Francisco as well. The others followed as did a company manufacturing Trader Vic food products.
There have been ups and downs as talented management personnel have gone out on their own or economic situations have changed. A Trader Vic's in San Juan was closed in the mid 1960s due to labor difficulties and more recently Boston and Detroit. Bergeron's own diverse interest occupy him and it's said he is less involved in the restaurants than he was.
"At my age, you gotta organize the outfit for when you kick the bucket," he said. "I do a little creating and a little correcting. I'm 75 but I'm not gonna roll over."
That morning he had risen at 7:30 and worked for an hour on a piece of sculpture in the studio at his plush Hillsborough home before coming into the office. "I just play at it (sculptureing) during the weak," he said, "but Friday, Saturday, Sunday, BOOM, unless my wife wants to go somewhere. It's not a hobby, it's a business that runs close to $100,000 a year." His desk and the shelves of his office contain books and beautiful cullings from what really is his hobby: geology. "Here's a rock," he bellows. "About 1 billion, 800 million years olf."
Trader Vic doesn't go back quite that far, but there are few around today who would be able to challenge Bergeron's account of his boyhood. His parentage - a French mother and a French Canadian father - gives him license, he feels, to openly exercise his dislike of French pomp and pretension and put French wines in their place. "A lot of people in this country consider French wines the epitome of perfection," he says, then chooses two short words to formulate a forceful rebuttal.
"Traditional French cooking is archaic," he adds."It's not good for you. We're in America. Let's eat and drink what we've got here and enjoy it."
Among the foods he presented were smoked shark (which more than held its won against smoked salmon and smoke dsturgeon), an agaragar (seaweed) salad and fresh Dungeness crabs with a lightly curried sauce.
"You create cause you like it," he declared. "I've been eating sauerkraut and sausage all my life. You ought to try my Chinese sauerkraut and sausage. When I was cooking behind the stove (in his first restaurant, a tiny place he called Hinky Dink's) I'd do ham and eggs but serve it with fried banana or pineaple or some goofball thing. People loved it. You can create food anywhere. An idea came right this minute. I'm thinking about crab butter (roe). We'll do a new sauce. Hollandaise and crab butter on a piece of fried fish."
So much for the rumor that Trader Vic had become a devout vegetarian. He showed, however, detailed knowledge of the vitamins and nutrients in the foods he served and took pleasure in presenting bulghur, spaghetti squash and carrots cooked in coconut cream with the crab dish. "Vegetables can be fabulous or lousy," he said.
He denies planning any major innovations fro the Trader Vic restaurants. Thee was a menti evolution a year or so ago, with the introduction of "Chinese Country Cooky," dishes said to be lighter, more healthful and less complicated. According to Bergeron, the philosophy behind the decision was less esoteric. "Lots of young people want to go to a good restaurant now and then," he said. "They haven't got a lot of dough. The items on this menu are complete meals. They're not so expensive. The kids know what the whole ball of wax will cost. So we get some new customers and some day those young people will pay top dollar."
"I want to propose a toast," Trader Vic says suddenly, "Here's to the happliest moments of my life, spent with another man's wife: My mother."
Everyone laughs at the punchline. Trade Vic grins. "Tell me what's more fun thaneating and talking," he demands. "Hell, if you can't laugh, you can't live."
At 75, Trader Vic Bergeron's "helluva man" image is still very much intact.