Chez Melange brings garden-to-table to the local community

Seed to Plate is more than just fresh produce.

  • Category
    Eat & Drink
  • Written by
    Amber Klinck
  • Photographed by
    Lauren Pressey

As Angelenos it’s easy to take for granted the multitude of food options we have to choose from. Are you a gluten-free vegan with a sensitivity to soy? Don’t stress. This is Los Angeles; we’ve got you covered.

But it hasn’t always been like that—and certainly not in the Beach Cities. There was a time when daily menus and garden-to-table specials were a revolutionary idea. That is until 1982, when Michael Franks and Robert Bell opened the doors of Chez Melange.

However it was the opportunity to open another restaurant—Café Courtney in Hermosa Beach—that initially brought Michael to California. “I’d heard of L.A., but it was all the Sunset Strip,” Michael explains. “I wasn’t even really cognizant there were beaches—it was all Hollywood.”

Moving from London to Hermosa Beach in 1976, Michael was introduced to a lifestyle that was quite different from home. And he liked it. “The London scene was crazy, high-action and a lot of people. Here it was kick-back and I’d walk to work, and people would say good morning to you. And of course the weather—it was just something I fell in love with.”

That was also the year Michael met Robert. “Very quickly Robert took over as [Café Courtney’s] chef. I was the front of the house, Robert was the back of the house … that’s how it worked out. We were on point, the timing was perfect, and it was huge success.”

The restaurant expanded to include five locations, but Michael and Robert were ready to branch out on their own. In 1982 they opened the doors of Chez Melange inside the Palos Verdes Inn Hotel.

“Our goal was a French café, very simple,” Michael notes. “As we developed, we realized that we had an audience that was really interested in food. And we had been influenced by a culture that was led by Alice Waters from Chez Panisse, which was in Berkeley. Her philosophy was fresh, daily changing, creative and influenced by France but also influenced by the world,” he adds.

So Michael and Robert decided to do what no one around them was doing: creating daily menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “Certainly what we were doing was challenging and demanding and difficult, but it was really amazing and rewarding because the customers in the South Bay took to it immediately.”

“My place of many things”—that’s what Chez Melange means. And it was. The new restaurant boasted a sushi bar, breakfast, lunch and dinner with a menu that changed daily, and wine by the glass—all of which were new concepts for the area at the time. “It was a monster, but it was our monster,” Michael says.

Adding to the truly unique Chez Melange experience was Chef Robert’s desire to bring a garden-to-table element to the restaurant. “Robert wanted to go local as much as he could, and he wanted to have his own garden,” Michael notes. “He met with Lynne Busia, who at the time was the [director of pupil services for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District] and a foodie as well. She gave him the connections by which we could start this off.”

So in 2001 the Seed to Plate program began at Palos Verdes High School in an area that was converted into a garden. “Our part of the deal was we would buy everything that was produced. And that’s how it has maintained itself. It’s a self-sustaining program through which we buy all the vegetables—we still get our deliveries every Monday. And of course there are donations that come through the school,” Michael notes.

And while having the freshest ingredients in your kitchen is a chef’s dream, what’s most incredible about the Seed to Plate program are the special needs students who participate in maintaining the garden. “At the moment our special education kids are 18 to 22,” Michael notes. “And the program is a little bit different. [The garden is now] at the Valmonte preschool, which is in PV. But it’s still the same philosophy; it’s actually better than ever. It’s been a very exciting project throughout the years.”

In 2008 Chez Melange evolved into what it is today, with a new location on Catalina Avenue in Redondo Beach and a three-restaurant experience that includes their Bouzy Gastropub “inspired by a French brasserie, an English pub and an American bar and grill,” an oyster bar, and the Sea Change—a “seafood-centric restaurant.” The menu still boasts some of the freshest, locally grown ingredients around, thanks to the Seed to Plate program.