About Robert Lambert
Unlikely as this path may seem, everything I have ever done has led me exactly here. 40 years ago, a week after I arrived in California from Wisconsin, the Los Angeles Times ran my picture with the caption, “This is Los Angeles.” It must have been my outfit.
I came to California with a group of fine artists of sorts. Conceptual Rock ’n’ Roll Correspondence Life Art could only begin to arc the shamelessness of our pretension, or our capacity for a good time. An un-band that rock writer Nick Kent called “the Los Angeles Satyricon…ambiguous buffoons whose specialty is posing in pop-star dressing rooms with a whip and making ornate greeting cards for their current fave-raves.” I was still young enough to be deeply flattered.
You might have seen me at that time in Interview or Newsweek, Rock Scene or that new magazine, People. By 1975 the self-published books chronicling my G-list exploits were in collections from the Beaubourg in Paris to MOMA in New York. I’d met Andy in the elevator at the Factory and spent the afternoon with my fan William Burroughs in his New York apartment as we went over my latest book.
I sat on stage for a Led Zeppelin concert and had to tell Robert Plant that No, he could not borrow my jacket for their next world tour. Feeding Hollywood Squares lines to Paul Lynde at Elton’s after-concert party for the new album Yellow Brick Road– “Paul, why do motorcyclists wear leather?” Paul: “’Cause chiffon crushes so easily!” Just imagining having heard “Candle in the Wind” only once, makes me misty.
In my life I had never so much as booked a bar for a birthday when we threw a bash for Iggy Pop and 200 guests at the Hyatt ballroom on Sunset Blvd., among the guests the lates Divine in full makeup, Lance Loud and his entire family from Santa Barbara, and Goddard Lieberson, Capitol records impressario who’d flown in from New York to see what the West Coast branch was up to. Claudia Linnear was supposed to jump out of a cake, but didn’t. This was, in a way, my introduction to catering.
My so-called career lost its luster in time, I outgrew the clothes and the prospect of my day job as a Macy’s stock boy approaching his 30’s held scant appeal. A move to the country north of San Francisco gave me a place to plant a garden, and that gave me something to cook. I’d never lifted a spoon—only a fork. But I had memories of people who’d never eaten a vegetable from a store in their lives, and I wanted back that quality of food, and of life. It was that simple.
English forbearers were strikers in a farm labor dispute in the 1870’s. When their wives protested they were arrested as well; a riot broke out and it took Queen Victoria herself to free them. Resentment simmered for another generation before Caleb and Mary Moss took their only chance to own land–in another country. My Grandmother was 10 when they left a Cottswald village for a log cabin in the wilderness of Northern Wisconsin.
By 13 she began as cook’s helper at the winter logging camps the locals worked when the newly cleared fields were fallow. As it happened, she loved it. She learned more as a cook at a nearby hotel, and by the time she left for her own family and farm nearby, an accomplished chef would spend the rest of her life growing and preparing all the food her family would ever eat.
Of all her sisters, my Mother was the only one to master the dreaded wood stove oven. So it was she alongside Grandma in the blistering heat of the kitchen, stoking her own life-long love of baking while her sisters instead worked in the heat of the fields. These were my role models, and my teachers. Others were James Beard, Craig Claibourne, MFK Fisher and the inimitable Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker in Joy of Cooking.
I landed a weekend gig at a new kind of restaurant–California–as a pastry chef, a subject about which I knew next to nothing. There I learned the basics that I would recombine endlessly, and would eventually become Fantasy Chocolate Desserts (Chronicle Books 1989. You can find them on eBay.). A friend of a waitress introduced me to the wife of an acquaintance who wanted to start a catering firm, and as she laid out her vision on our way to the first job, we missed the same left turn 8 times over. She watched me arrange the shrimp, she confided years later, and never questioned my judgment again.
What she wanted was edible art, and I wanted it too. Four years later Edible Art fed the Democratic Convention in San Francisco. This was not my business, nor was it hers for long, but it was my cooking school. Cherries in Merlot are descended from 200 pounds of grapes left over from a De Young Museum party. The syrups were born after I candied orange peels for the holidays, the fruitcakes trace their lineage to the peels that were left behind. “Take a day and make whatever you want.” And I did. And it sold.
What followed were years of catering, wedding cakes, cakes of buildings, building props for party displays, writing recipes for corporate clients, landscaping work, and a long and, in retrospect, somewhat disgraceful, since, truth be told, it can almost not be anything else, career as a food stylist for advertising, magazines and books. The chocolate book capped my catering career but I had another book in me I thought, one about the family farm I visited growing up, and where I still go. Journey Home brought me a top agent, but no one wanted the manuscript, they wanted celebrity chefs. So, I thought, I’ll just have to become one. I’ll start a business in my name, and once that’s settled…
I turned to the preserving I knew and loved. The goal all along was to find the thing I do best that others most want from me. Maybe I’m there. Twelve years later I ask no more, for the rest of my life, than to make memorable food as best I can, to honor those who came before me, and to inspire those who come behind.
My Best to You,
Read this article about Robert by editor Alexander Morozoff from the international chocolate magazine COCOAROMA. (RobertLambert_Cocoaroma.pdf)
Follow this link for the story of the Ascot Martyrs, Oxfordshire, England: Ascot Martyrs