Who: Chef Mani Niall hosts a birthday dinner in honor of Michael Jackson, with surprise guests!
When: 7 p.m., Thursday, August 29th.
Where: Sweet Bar Bakery, 2355 Broadway, Oakland, CA
Info: www.sweetbarbarkery.com, 510-788-4997.
As a teenager and devout Michael Jackson Fan, I made a pilgrimage to his favorite hangouts, the Golden Temple vegetarian restaurant in Hollywood, CA. One blazing summer day, my best friend and I caught several busses just to catch a glimpse of the exotic building with the gleaming pointed dome where our idol regularly dined, but we never went in. Ironically, decades later, I had the privilege of meeting Mani Niall, who studied under chef Akasha Richmond at the Golden Temple, and later became Michael Jackson’s private chef during the time he was recording his iconic “Thriller” album in the early eighties.
I spoke with Niall during the grand opening of his Sweet Bar Bakery (located in downtown Oakland, a few blocks from the historic Paramount Theatre) in December as the hands on chef waited on customers and pulled his delicious creations from the oven. Niall shared fond and poignant memories of Jackson, who would have turned 55 this year.
In honor of the King of Pop’s birthday, Niall will host a birthday dinner at the Sweet Bar Bakery, featuring a variety of Jackson’s favorite entrees and desserts on Thursday August 29, creating magic with his food as Jackson did with his music.
Shelah Moody: As an award winning chef to the stars, what made you decide to open a bakery in the Bay Area?
Mani Niall: Well, I owned a bakery in Los Angeles for many years, and after moving to the Bay Area, I took a break from that world. But in the back of my mind, I wanted to own my own bakery again. I sold the bakery in LA to my partners, and it kept going for about another 10 years. If you open a good bakery in the right neighborhood, it has a life. I think bakeries are less competitive than restaurants. Bakeries are very heart and soul; they are very neighborhood. I was always on the lookout for finding the right place at the right time.
SM: When and how did you meet Michael Jackson?
MN: I was working at a little restaurant (the Golden Temple) in Hollywood, where Michael was eating when he was recording “Thriller.” He really liked the food. I came to work one day and the manager told me that Michael Jackson had been eating there and he loved the food and he wanted food brought to the studio. Since we were launching a catering department, the job fell in my lap. The next thing I knew, I was bringing food to the studio, and Michael would still come into the restaurant once in a while. When I would bring food to the studio, I would bring food to Michael and Quincy Jones and one day, Paul McCartney. I think Michael was very comfortable with me. It was an easy fit, an easy connection. He liked my food, and I wasn’t pushing it in his face. I was very comfortable feeding Michael and his guests, whether they were celebrities or his friends from his church. From there, Michael asked me to do more and more catering.
SM: Tell us about some of Michael Jackson’s favorite foods.
MN: Spicy, New Mexican enchiladas. That was a dish that we had on our menu that he loved. Occasionally, we did Moroccan shish kabobs. We did a vegetarian version of a Chinese chicken salad with tofu and roasted Portobello mushrooms, almonds and cashews and a miso lime dressing—very similar to something that we make here at Sweet Bar. Michael had a big sweet tooth! He liked his spicy ethnic foods and he liked his desserts. His favorite desserts were ice cream, sweet potato pie and cookies. I used to make these maple, almond and pecan shortbreads that we called “ookies.” Michael’s bodyguards teased him; here was no sugar or white flour, so they weren’t cookies, they were “ookies.”
SM: When was the last time that you saw Michael Jackson?
MN: Let me tell you the story--it is really amazing. I hadn’t worked for Michael for a couple of years. I used to have a long beard and long hair and I had shaved it all off. One of Michael’s bodyguards recognized me at a concert on the “Bad” tour. The bodyguard didn’t recognize me at first, but when he realized who I was, he yanked me out of the audience and we went backstage and he brought me right to Michael. Michael didn’t recognize me, and his bodyguard started laughing, and said, “Michael, this is Mani!” Michael ran his hand over my chin and said, “your beard is gone, your face is so smooth!” Michael gave me a big hug and said “it’s so good to see you!” We chatted for a minute. Then, Michael ran onto the stage, because the concert had started. I floated back to my seat, feeling like a million bucks! I got to see Michael performing on his own. When I was working with him, he was with his brothers on the “Victory” tour. This was Michael, doing Michael’s music, with his dancers, doing the video (routines) from “Thriller” “Beat it” and “Smooth Criminal.” I was on cloud nine. I had that connection with him backstage; that was the last moment.
SM: What do you think of the Michael Jackson fan community in the Bay Area?
MN: They are amazing! They are insane in a wonderful way! They’ve created these flash mobs, and they have the dances down to the very last moves. It’s nice that they are not just motivated by Michael; they are motivated to learn and share and bring that joy.