MICHEL MARTIN / 1907-2008
Isle chef set standard for restaurant hospitality
Genial personality added to fame of lively local restaurateur
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Michel Martin founded four restaurants and set a standard for hospitality that is near legendary, but last April he achieved a milestone that truly made him proud: He turned 100.
"That was his great wish," said Peter Fithian, president of Greeters of Hawaii and Martin's friend for nearly 50 years. He did not want a big celebration, "but he wanted to be 100, and he went around and told everyone he was 100."
Martin, at various times the owner or part-owner of Michel's at the Colony Surf, the Patisserie and two incarnations of Chez Michel, died Tuesday. His friends say he simply succumbed to his age.
Up until the last few months, though, Martin had been active, even taking a fishing trip to Alaska in September.
"He had impaired hearing and some impaired sight," Fithian said, "but otherwise he was a gutsy buggah."
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He might have been 100 years old, but the salmon were running and Michel Martin was not giving up his annual trip to Alaska.
The visits to a rustic cabin in Kodiak had been a tradition for Martin and a group of friends for more than 30 years -- "a real boys club, no girls allowed," said Norman Brand, Martin's friend of 35 years. "He went last year, in fact, in September, and caught six big fish, so he was pretty active all the way to the end."
Martin -- who set the standard for gracious Old World hospitality at Chez Michel in Wahiawa, then Michel's at the Colony Surf and later at another Chez Michel, in Eaton Square -- died Tuesday.
Brand said he died peacefully at Straub Hospital after a "general deterioration ... old age catching up with him."
Martin was born April 3, 1907, and grew up in Nice, France, where he maintained a second home.
As a child he was exposed to fine food but also to the deprivations of World War I. "Of course, during the war I didn't have anything," he said in a 2003 interview. "I ate chestnuts until they were coming out of my ... And bread salad. A little bread and dressing -- dinner!"
He came to Hawaii as a teen and took a job at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. When World War II began, he went to work for the Army, feeding the troops.
In 1942 he opened Chez Michel in the unlikely location of Wahiawa, where he found a small restaurant space for lease. It was a burger joint, but soldiers from nearby Schofield Barracks started asking for dishes they had tasted overseas -- beginning with frog legs.
Soon those frog legs, along with Martin's cheesy onion soup and other French classics, were drawing an upscale clientele out to the country. But the food was only part of what made the restaurant popular, said Joan Rodby, whose husband, Dick, owned Kemoo Farm in Wahiawa.
"I think his personality, for one, drew the elite out there. It was just a little hole in the wall, but it was just so wonderful."
After 17 years in Wahiawa, Martin moved into town to open Michel's at the Colony Surf. His classic dishes were the stalwarts of the menu, but Martin's main job was as host. This continued a decade later when he moved on to open Chez Michel at Eaton Square.
"He was the ultimate showman, and he was very adamant about what he wanted and what he wanted to serve his guests," Brand said. "I think everyone who ever went there always felt like an old friend. He was very gracious that way."
In his semiretirement, Martin was a partner in the Patisserie chain of bakeries and continued to greet customers and clear tables at the Kahala Mall location until it was sold a few years ago. Rodby said she and a group of friends stopped at the Patisserie three times a week, after aerobics classes, and would visit with Martin.
"He was always a gentleman, always had a gleam in his eye," Rodby said. "He dressed beautifully, and he never missed a chick, a tomato. He used to call all women 'my sweet tomato.'"
When Martin turned 100, there was no celebration to match the big party that Brand organized for Martin's 90th birthday. He did not like that sort of fuss, Brand said. "He hadn't forgiven me for 10 years."
And so the services to mark Martin's passing will be private, Brand said, which is what he would have wanted. "He called himself a working stiff. He wasn't one for accolades or whatnot."
He said Martin had only distant family left, in France. Rodby said Martin's wife, Jean, died in the early 1960s.