In the Kitchen With...robert Pastorelli

updated 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Robert Pastorelli, Murphy Brown's tireless housepainter, Eldin, has finally put down his paintbrush and picked up—can this be right?—a kitchen knife. After six years painting murals on Murphy's kitchen ceiling, does he think he can cook? Yeah, kinda.

Now gone from the show, Pastorelli, 39, a onetime short-order cook, has taken on a new role: as chef for a day at tony San Ysidro Ranch, near Santa Barbara, Calif. Dressed in a while chef's jacket, his trim black beard touched lightly with gray, he ducks into the kitchen of the resort's award-winning Stonehouse Restaurant to see how the four-course Italian dinner he has created with executive chef Gerard Thompson, as part of the Ranch's celebrity chef series, is progressing. "Give me a saber of some sort," he growls, sizing up a pile of dark green zucchini. Someone hands him a large, flat-bladed knife. Clutching a zucchini awkwardly with his left hand, he slashes through it like a deranged swashbuckler. "Whoa, did you see that?" he groans, holding up a hand with one finger folded under. The kitchen staff laughs appreciatively.

Obviously this is an actor, not a chef. This summer, following his departure from Murphy Brown, he is taking it easy—except for an appearance this month in the play Dice and Cards at L.A.'s Met Theatre—before starting work on his new CBS series, Double Rush, about a Manhattan bicycle-messenger service. Pastorelli's stock has risen considerably since his last turn as a chef: serving up cheeseburgers in a New Jersey bar in the early '70s. This time he has a trained staff of 27 to do his bidding at the 540-acre resort where John and Jacqueline Kennedy spent their honeymoon in 1953.

Pastorelli—who likes to be called Bobby—mixes easily, moving smoothly through the tumult. "It's like a jazz dance," he says. "It's noisy and efficient. If it's not noisy, nobody's making anything." One of the dishes—oven-roasted chicken with porcini mushroom sauce and pasta—had troubled him. Earlier that afternoon, touring the Ranch's garden with the chef, he was dismayed to learn that Thompson had ordered penne instead of his beloved rigatoni. ("We call 'em sewer pipes in Jersey," he says.) So Gerard dispatched a bellman for rigatoni. When Pastorelli sees the brand name, he crows, "De Cecco! That's my mother's maiden name!"

His mom provided the recipe for zucchini parmigiana, one of Bobby's favorites when he was growing up in Edison, N.J. A bowl of cooked rigatoni is set on the table, and he bursts into a chorus of "Volare" as he dips the "pipes" in grated cheese and pops them in his mouth. Then he lifts a wineglass filled with Coke and makes a toast: "This is all for Dotty Pastorelli and her recipe."

That night, in the softly lit dining room, Bobby, his diamond earring aglitter, greets the 70 or so guests at their tables in a black suit and white T. "I feel intrusive," he frets. "Maybe some guy is with his girlfriend, not his wife, and I come up and say, 'Hi! Who's the lady?' " But as he works the room, the diners, who will pay $45 each for the prix-fixe meal, are thrilled. They praise the dinner and grill him about his new show, which he describes as "Taxi on two wheels." "So, are you gonna put down the paintbrush?" asks one. "Yeah," Bobby jokes, "Eldin's gonna fall off a ladder."

Pastorelli isn't convinced that he's the attraction. When one group insists they've flown in from New York City just to see him, he says with a chuckle, "You never think people care that much about you. They must have been coming here anyway. I'm sure four people didn't go, 'Oh, look who's going to be in Santa Barbara! Let's go.' "

Though Pastorelli has lived in California since 1982, New Jersey is in his blood, his heart—and certainly his voice. First lured to the West Coast for an episode of Barney Miller, he planned a quick retreat back east, but the roles kept coming. Now he owns a house in the Hollywood Hills, which was heavily damaged in the earthquake, and an apartment in Manhattan, but his dream is to buy a beach house on the Jersey Shore.

Bobby no longer has to grill a little polenta with tomato sauce for a cheap dinner. "In my days struggling, I learned how to make meals out of basically nothing," he says. "Whatever is there, I can make it appear to be an Italian meal. I'm a blue-collar Italian cook."

He says he learned to cook "by osmosis," watching his mother at home in Edison, where his father worked as an insurance salesman. But his obsession, after a rebellious childhood, was acting. At 18, he moved to Manhattan to lake acting classes, supporting himself by working as a bartender in a fancy Madison Avenue restaurant three days a week, then driving back to Jersey to work in another bar, where he cooked for factory workers during their lunch break. "We always had a huge pot of meatballs goin', and I'd sauté some peppers and throw them on," he says. "I never wrote anything down. The bartender would yell in the order, and if I made a mistake and someone complained, we'd just throw 'em out." He laughs. "It wasn't on the same level as this place we're in now."

Pastorelli, who never married, doesn't cook much at home these days, though he has stashed away boxes of his favorite macaroni and cheese since the quake. His live-in girlfriend, Keri Ann Kimball, 23, a dimpled aspiring actress from New York City, is not even allowed in the kitchen. "Disaster strikes," Bobby explains. "Cabinet doors fly open and hit her in the head. Things break."

Relaxing the next day at his cottage overlooking the Pacific, Pastorelli is complaining that he ate too much the day before. Maybe a little hot oatmeal with fresh strawberries will compensate for yesterday's raw garlic cloves. But it was a gratifying dinner, he acknowledges, even for someone whose favorite restaurant is White Castle.

"I'm not snooty when it comes to food," Bobby says. "I appreciate it, but I tell you, I lake a stroll down the Jersey boardwalk, and I put that in front of all those gourmet restaurants. So it's each end of the spectrum for me. Here I am in this nice place, and I don't have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. But if I lost it all tomorrow, it would be exciting. I never like to feel too comfortable."

From Our Partners