In 1996, chef Luis Arce Mota was a dishwasher and de-facto cook at Greenwich Village's now-shuttered French Roast. The brasserie was essentially a pillar of the neighborhood, and it commanded a pretty high-profile clientele. One of its frequent patrons in those days was David Bowie.
Bowie managed to have an unspoken agreement with Mota: He’d walk inside, nod to the hostess, and Mota would promptly get to work on Bowie’s favorite sandwich, a croque-madame made with Gruyère, eggs, and beer.
WATCH: How to Make a Croque-Madame with Kris Morningstar
Mota, an alum of Union Square Cafe and Bouley, soft-opened La Contenta Oeste—an extension of his beloved Lower East Side joint, La Contenta—last month near Union Square in Manhattan. It’s a nominally Mexican eatery with a menu of chilaquiles and torrejas, but Mota is also semi-secretly cooking up a $15 croque monsieur for anyone who asks for it, as a tribute to Bowie.
Mota arrived in New York from Mazatlán, Mexico in 1992, and he first saw Bowie in the flesh in 1996. “That was an exciting time to work at French Roast,” Mota told MUNCHIES over the phone on Friday. “It was a lot of famous people, people I used to see in the movies when I was in Mexico.”
Mota had initially seen Bowie in 1983’s Hunger, and later came to know Bowie through his music. “I was thinking, look at this skinny man getting all the ladies!” he said. He surmises that he served Bowie about three times. Bowie would always sit at the same round table, eating his sandwich.
“I never talked to him,” Mota says. “I just saw him and cooked for him.”
MAKE IT: Kris Morningstar's Croque Madame
The sandwich itself doesn’t take long for Mota to whip up; it’s practically muscle memory at this point. It involves mixing eggs, beer, and Gruyère so vigorously that it achieves the consistency of a gravy; he then cuts slices from a loaf of sourdough bread, adds Virginia ham, and sticks the whole thing in the oven until it’s browned and crispy.
You won’t find it on the menu of La Contenta Oeste, Mota says. You’ll have to ask for it—just like the Starman.