Michel Martin, 100, shared fine French cuisine with Isles
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
Michel Martin, whose name is still synonymous with French food and special occasions in Honolulu, died Tuesday at Straub Hospital. He was 100.
Martin, equally famed as a restaurateur and a raconteur, is said by his friends to have succumbed to old age, having lived an exceptionally full life.
He was born in Nice, France, on April 3, 1907, and moved to Hawai'i as a hopeful teenager, finding work as a hotel waiter. In recent years, he divided his time between his apartment in Waikiki and his home in Nice.
Martin founded his first Michel's restaurant in a tiny space in out-of-the-way Wahiawa during World War II and went on to own or part-own several other establishments, including The Patisserie, a wholesale and retail bakery.
The original Michel's restaurant operated from 1942 to 1959, before Martin moved into town to operate the restaurant at the then-new Colony Surf Hotel in Waikiki. (It still bears his name, though he long ago surrendered his interest in it.) After 11 years there, he opened a small bistro next to Canlis in Waikiki and later established the now defunct Chez Michel on Hobron Lane. He formed a partnership with baker Rolf Winkler to found The Patisserie in 1969.
His restaurants were a byword for fine dining, and his name, and those of his guests, were perennially in the city's three-dot columns. They were the place to see and be seen — and to eat food of a quality rare in Honolulu then.
Honoluluan Peter Fithian, who met Michel — everyone knew the charming host by his first name — more than 50 years ago when they were neighbors in Waikiki, said the distinguishing characteristic of a Michel's restaurant was the man's presence and his high standards.
"He had all the charm that Maurice Chevalier was famous for," recalled Fithian, and was known for greeting every return guest by name. He knew how to make guests purr with pleasure at his attentions, his little jokes and his memory of their preferences.
But behind the suave exterior was a firm worth ethic. "His motto was work," said Fithian.
Until shortly before his death, Martin could often be found at The Patisserie in Kahala, holding court at an outside table and being sure the restaurant lived up to his expectations.
At all of his eateries, one trademark was a simple French onion soup, a recipe he happily shared, but which never tasted so good as when a diner was sitting at Michel's. In a 2003 interview, Martin recalled that he learned to make the dish from his mother. He was 7 when World War I broke out and his family would often have to make do with an onion-and-water soup then; there was not even money for a bone to make a broth, he said.
When a reporter clucked in sympathy, he protested in his still-thick accent: "You do not understand, darling, we were soooo poor, we were grateful even for onions!"
The onion soup, with its cap of crisp bread and melting cheese, was placed on the original Michel's menu in part because it was doable for a host who was also the chef, ducking back and forth between dining room and kitchen. As he told the story, Martin took over the restaurant on Wilikina Drive without a sous. When a soldier gave him a $5 bill to pay for a Royal brand beer — the restaurant's first sale — he had to run next door to beg change.
But word of the restaurant's French country charm spread. Martin recalled how O'ahu's elite would squander scarce gas coupons to make the long drive through the cane fields during the wartime blackout in order to dine at Michel's.
Martin routinely put in 14-hour days and Fithian said that he kept at it long after the restaurateur's success and fame were assured. "He was a very, very hardworking man. At Michel's, I remember, he only took off one shift, Tuesday lunch, I think it was," said Fithian.
To the end of his life, which he confidently predicted would last 100 years, Martin said the secret of his longevity was hard work. "Nobody works enough. People don't seem to realize how helpful that is in keeping you going," he told Fithian.
Martin was predeceased by his wife and had no children and only distant relatives in France. Services are private.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.