The year: 1929. The place: A shaded bungalow apartment on residential, rustic Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. A Hungarian immigrant called Papa Weiss has lost everything.
He once built custom furniture for estates like Pickfair, the palatial home of Hollywood royalty Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, but the Depression has decimated his business. It seems that the American dream is slipping through his family's fingers. But there is an indomitable innovator in the household.
Her name is Francesca "Mama" Weiss.
Never has a fearless trailblazer come in such an unthreatening package. Mama Weiss was a round, cuddly, cheerful woman who stood only five feet tall. Raised in rural Hungary, she spent her first years in America as a housewife and mother. When the Depression hit, she went to work as a cook for a screenwriter. After the screenwriter moved back to New York, Mama was inspired by the wayside inns, called "czadras," that dotted the countryside of her native Hungary. She opened up the front rooms of her apartment and using her tiny personal kitchen, and her three sons as assistants, she opened a makeshift restaurant.
Call her Los Angeles's first pop-up impresario.
Success came quickly. In 1930, the actress Mary Miles Minter helped the family move to a larger bungalow across the street. Mama prepared the simple, hearty Hungarian fare that had grown out of the itinerant lifestyles of Hungary's cowboys, or "guyas." Paprika, pepper and salt could be carried in saddle bags and then thrown into an iron pot with slowly simmered meat and vegetables. A dollop of sour cream and the meal was complete. Mama also baked the sophisticated coffee cakes and blintzes of pre-war Budapest and Vienna.
But the real reason for the restaurant's success was its homey, unpretentious family atmosphere. Mama sang while she cooked and late in the evening would come into the dining area and serenade customers with folk songs. The restaurant had a European café atmosphere where celebrities like Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lancaster stayed for hours sipping cognac and smoking cigars while chatting with other patrons.
As the years passed European refugees like Peter Lorre and Billy Wilder flocked to the restaurant. John Barrymore would pad in wearing a silk robe for matzo ball soup and Marilyn Monroe would come to Mama for advice over her latest love disaster. If the restaurant was closed, actresses Miriam Hopkins and Myrna Loy would throw pebbles at the family's upstairs rooms until they trooped downstairs to cook a meal and chat till daylight. Mike Romanoff secured investors for his famous restaurant while sitting at Mama's four-stool bar. Soon the Brown Derby, Romanoff's and other famous eateries joined Mama on Rodeo Drive.
In the 1950s Mama became one of the first celebrity chefs, with her very own live TV show on Los Angeles station KHG. Her warm manner and genuine love of cooking ensured a successful four-year run. She also published a cookbook, which her son reproduced in his 2001 memoir "Star Grazing in Hollywood." In late 1954 Mama and Papa closed the restaurant and settled into a comfortable retirement.
For all her firsts and successes Mama never went "Beverly Hills," even as the city gentrified and glamorized around her. She truly adored simply being in the kitchen, and encouraged everyone to become their own favorite chef.
"Good cooks are not born," she wrote. "They get that way by cooking and tasting, by smelling and touching and listening. It's a wonderful adventure -- so hum your favorite melody and come follow me..."
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