In the 1980s, I owned a pastry shop at the corner of Third Street and Robertson Boulevard in Beverly Hills. We catered to a very affluent, stylish, often famous clientele, and to make them happy, I worked day and night and was always trying to catch up.
One day, a woman came in and hired us to cater a wedding for 200 people. Now, this was a quarter-century ago, and I cannot remember who the woman was, whether she was the bride, the mother of the bride, a bridesmaid or a friend. I don't even remember what she looked like.
I do remember, however, that she wanted the cake to be spectacular. In addition to it being big enough to serve 200 people, she insisted that the cake have two doves on top, instead of little bride and groom figurines. And not just any doves: blown-sugar doves. In those days, I was fond of blowing sugar, done the same way you blow glass -- by heating a quantity of it to the melting point, inserting a long, thin straw into the center and very carefully blowing, turning and manipulating the melted sugar with various tools to create the desired shape, then letting it cool and harden.
The wedding was held on a scorching hot Saturday afternoon, the kind of painfully bright and blistering day you only have in Southern California or the desert, where the sun mercilessly beats down on you.
I sent my staff ahead to the home where the wedding was taking place, loaded up with all of the food -- except for the cake. In those days, I had to do all special preparations myself; first, because my name was on the shop; and second, because there weren't any young cooks around in L.A. who could manage it. Today, sure. But then? No way. And I was so busy that I never had time to train anyone.
Carefully, I assembled the layers of the cake and decorated it with frosting, making it as special as I could, piping tiny white flourishes that were all the same size and perfectly spaced. Even though I was worried about arriving at the reception late, I took my time. It was heaven to be quietly decorating a cake in the privacy of my own shop.
Then I made the beautiful little doves, heating the sugar and blowing the shapes out of the blob. They were lovely, like big Christmas tree ornaments, and I delicately perched them atop the cake. Voila!
Finished, I packed the cake up in a big, shiny, white box, placed it in the back seat of my car and started driving to the wedding. Running late, as I always was in those days, I drove fast, scooting around the less-trafficked back streets. Hey, I was late for a wedding -- what cop would give me a hard time?
As I was heading into the heart of Beverly Hills, I took a sharp turn, and heard the cake slide across the back seat -- followed by a cracking sound, similar to shattering glass. One of the doves must have broken.
That's too bad, I thought. But at least I had another dove. Like with kidneys, I figured that I could survive with just one.
A little while later, I arrived at the beautiful estate, pulling into the enormous cul-de-sac out front. I couldn't see any of the wedding party because they were all out back. It was just me and my cake in the customer's driveway.
No sooner did I step out of the car than I was greeted by the wedding director, an officious, highly organized woman in business attire with a clipboard clasped under her arm.
"Bonjour, Chef Richard," she said, welcoming me in my native language.
"Good afternoon," I replied, trying to appear calm and not give her the slightest idea that there was a problem.
"I have the cake," I continued, forcing a big smile and pointing at the box in the back seat.
"Of course. We have a place for it." She directed me to the two-car garage where she said I would find a Sub-Zero refrigerator in which I could store the cake until the proper time.
You drive everywhere in L.A., even the shortest distances, so I got back in the car and drove to the far end of the driveway, pulling up in front of the garage. I hopped out again, opened the big, stainless-steel refrigerator to make sure it was empty, and picked up the cake box, lifting it carefully with both arms and being sure to keep it level.
I walked up to the refrigerator and tried to slide the cake inside. Wouldn't you know it -- it didn't fit. But it almost fit. So I pushed as hard as I could, forcing it, little by little, into the refrigerator, the box crumpling faintly at the sides.
No sooner did I squeeze the cake into the refrigerator than the shelf collapsed under the tremendous weight, and both the shelf and the cake crashed to the bottom of the refrigerator. I heard the distinctive tinkle of breaking glass again -- the second dove had been destroyed. With a sigh, I lifted the lid of the box. There they were, crystalline shards piled on top of the cake.
Even worse, the cake itself was hurt this time. Thanks to the impact of the landing, the frosting was dripping off the sides as though it were melting.
I had no idea how I was going to save the cake, or explain the poor broken doves, but I had other priorities at that moment, such as checking on my staff. Since the door to the refrigerator couldn't be shut, I closed it as far as I could and secured it by dragging over a big, heavy box from the side of the garage and pressing it up against the door.
Quickly, I circled the house, following the sounds of music and distant conversation until I found myself in an enormous back yard with a swimming pool. The guests were all standing around in their elegant sports coats and dresses, sipping Champagne and eating hors d'oeuvres. They seemed very happy and impressed with the food and my staff, laughing and enjoying
a lovely afternoon.
But as I stood there staring at the pleased reception, all I could think about were those sugar shards. How could I possibly fix them?
Shaking my head with frustration, I left the party and walked back out front, across the driveway and to the garage.
As I approached the door, I heard the clicking of my footsteps on the driveway mixed in with other footsteps.
I spun around and saw that the owner of the house had two big dogs, Doberman pinschers, who were following me out to the garage.
Normally, I might have been scared to have two Dobermans so close to me. But not this time, because my prayers had been answered. I knew how to get out of my predicament!
"Come here, doggies," I said. "Come here."
The dogs glanced at each other, then decided to follow me into the garage. I raced over to the refrigerator, shoved the heavy box aside, swung the door open and lifted the lid of the cake box.
"Bon appetit!" I said. As soon as the dogs got a scent of the food, they quickened their pace, dashing right for the cake and attacking it, snorting with joy. I pushed their paws into the cake.
I ran off calling for the wedding coordinator, who had just come out of the house and was approaching the garage.
"Madame! Madame! The dogs eat my beautiful wedding cake," I cried, sounding terribly upset. This was Hollywood, after all, and I was giving an Oscar-worthy performance.
"What?" she yelled, and we hurried over to the garage together. There were the dogs, munching away.
Horrified, the wedding coordinator chased the animals off, screaming at them. Then she turned to me. "Chef Richard," she said imploringly. "I'm so sorry. So sorry. Can you fix it?"
"Well," I said, trying to appear pensive.
"Okay. I know what to do," I said.
"Oh, thank you!" she said and gave me a big hug.
I drove to a nearby store, where I purchased strawberries, whipping cream and fresh mint. When I got back to the house, I dressed the battered cake with whipped cream, then topped it with the berries and mint. By the time I was done, it looked like a giant strawberry shortcake.
The coordinator and the happy couple thanked me for being so clever and saving the day. "You are such a quick thinker," the bride said when we were introduced.
She had no idea how right she was.
Michel Richard is owner and chef of Michel Richard Citronelle in Georgetown. This article is excerpted from Don't Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes From the World's Greatest Chefs, edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman, to be published by Bloomsbury in October.