Chef Serrano cherishes memories of Robin Williams

One special week stands out among chef Julian Serrano’s fondest memories of his 25-year friendship with Robin Williams.

Avid cyclists, they went to the 2002 Tour de France together to support their friend Lance Armstrong’s bid for a fourth consecutive title.

One night, the Williams-Serrano party was dining outdoors in a small town plaza in the French Pyrenees when they picked up a buzz. Something big was happening.

Word was spreading: Williams, one of the funniest men on the planet, was at the plaza. From every direction, the crowd was building by the minute.

“The whole town was coming to see him. They called him ‘Ro-bain!’ ” recalled Serrano. “He was very popular.”

The crowd grew so large and boisterous that the decision was made to head back to the hotel.

Every day that week started the same. Williams was a crowd magnet.

“He was so giving, giving, giving,” said Serrano. “He never turned anyone down. I got tired just watching him. He did that all day with everyone, and at night he would entertain us.”

Serrano and Williams met in 1989 in San Francisco, where the Spanish-born chef was a rising star at Masa restaurant. Williams and his then-wife, Marsha, were regulars.

When Williams won an Oscar in 1989 for Best Supporting Actor in “Good Will Hunting,” Serrano served as the chef at the celebratory party at the home of Hollywood director Chris Columbus, who later directed Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

Serrano cooked at Williams’ home on occasion, usually for a charity event.

After Serrano was recruited by Steve Wynn to operate Picasso at Bellagio, Williams and his wife occasionally stopped by.

During one of those visits by Williams, Armstrong was in town as well, and Serrano drove them out to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area so Armstrong could get in a training run.

As the bikes were being removed from the car, a park ranger offered some advice to the two cyclists: The early part of loop is uphill, so don’t go out too fast.

The ranger had no idea he was coaching a future seven-time Tour de France winner and didn’t recognize Williams, either, said Serrano, who had a foot problem and couldn’t join them.

In February 2002, during dinner at Nobu at the Hard Rock Hotel, Williams and Serrano were discussing the Tour de France.

Serrano told Williams it was on his “dream” list.

A couple of months later, Marsha Williams called Serrano and asked, “Do you still want to see the Tour de France?”

Serrano was all in. Meet them in New York City, Williams’ wife said, and a private plane would fly them to France. They left after Williams’ appearance on David Letterman’s show.

A few months after the Tour de France dream trip, Serrano was in for another surprise. Williams sent him an Italian-made Pinarello racing bike.

“He had it built for me,” said Serrano.

A photo shoot featuring Serrano was in progress at Picasso on Monday when maître ‘d Ryland Worrell delivered the shocking news. Williams had died at home. He was 63.

Serrano sat on a couch at his Canyongate home Thursday, sadly sorting through a box of photographs. Every so often he softly sighed and held up another photo of his friend like it was a winning lottery ticket.

“He was a great gentleman,” said Serrano. “He was a special person to me for the things he did for me and my family.”

SIGNS OF CONCERN

Moving quickly after news that Celine Dion’s show was being canceled until March, workers removed stage risers and props from her venue early Thursday morning.

They were loaded onto trucks behind the Colosseum.

There have been signs that something was amiss.

When I reported her throat problems two weeks ago, the official statement, which was released only if requested, said she would be sidelined for a week. Staffers at the Colosseum found that odd, since they had been told to take a two-week break.

Before that, colleague Mike Weatherford noted that she didn’t do the five-minute spontaneous chat with the crowd, but stuck to the script. That wasn’t like her.

Another sign of concern: Her husband and longtime manager, Rene Angelil, rarely returned calls over the past year. That wasn’t like him, either.

In her statement on Wednesday, Dion said she wanted to “devote every ounce of my strength and energy to my husband’s healing.”

He had stepped down as her manager in June after throat cancer surgery in December.

SIGHTINGS

“Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan, spotted Thursday walking multiple dogs down Flamingo Road, to the surprise of motorists. He is doing his live show tonight at The Pearl at the Palms. … U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, dining Wednesday at one of his favorite lunch spots, the Vintner Grill, with his wife, Landra. THE PUNCH LINE

“Rob Ford also said that he is committed to living a healthier life, and his days of going to the liquor store are over. Which would be great, if he weren’t addicted to crack.” — Jimmy Fallon

Norm Clarke’s column appears Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at 702-383-0244 or email him at norm@reviewjournal.com. Find more online at www.normclarke.com. Follow Norm on Twitter @Norm_Clarke. “Norm Clarke’s Vegas,” airs Thursdays on the “Morning Blend” on KTNV-TV, Channel 13.

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