Michael Jackson would have turned 54 today. At least some fans in the San Francisco Bay Area will celebrate with ‘Ookies, the pecan shortbread cookies you see here. They’re from Mani Niall, who’s working to launch a bakery and café in Oakland, California, called Sweet Bar Bakery—he’s holding a pop-up bake sale today, timed to MJ’s birthday.
In 1982, Niall was kitchen manager of a little health food restaurant at Third and Fairfax in Hollywood, a branch of the Golden Temple vegetarian restaurants run by an American spiritual community aligned with Sikhism. Jackson was recording the Thriller album in a studio nearby. One day he strolled into the Golden Temple, tasted Niall’s New Mexico red chile sauce, and became a fan.
“He strolled in all the time,” Niall recalls, even after the Thriller sessions wrapped. “There was this famous interview with Rolling Stone where Michael said he knew how to drive to three places: his studio, his church, and this little health food place. That was us.” In 1984, Jackson hired Niall to be his personal chef, a gig that lasted two years. Niall never knew whom he’d be cooking for: He’d go into the dining room and there could be a bunch of industry people around the table or just Diana Ross. The King of Pop loved what Niall calls “spicy ethnic vegetarian food”: enchiladas, Moroccan kebabs, a tofu version of Chinese chicken salad. And he had a major sweet tooth.
One day, Niall came up with a healthy version of pecan sandies, made with whole-wheat flour, maple sugar, and turbinado sugar. Bill Bray, a former LA cop who worked as Jackson’s bodyguard, looked at them and was like, “Really? No white flour? No sugar? Man, those aren’t cookies, those are ‘ookies.” Jackson laughed, and the name stuck.
Niall’s one regret, three decades later, has to do with MJ’s birthday. “He was a Jehovah’s Witness when I knew him, and they don’t celebrate birthdays. I never got to bake Michael a birthday cake.” Maybe a plate of ‘Ookies is enough.
Photo by John Birdsall