Mani Niall, owner of Oakland’s Sweet Bar Bakery, met Jackson in 1982 and later went on to hit the road with him during the massively popular Victory tour, and he recalls his spectacular level of superstardom during that time.
“I got to know him before Thriller was released,” Niall tells PEOPLE, “and watched the fame grow around him — it was pretty remarkable.”
While the world saw him as an untouchable pop phenomenon, Niall got to know him in a more humanizing way: through food.
“He was the type of person who could just go, go, go for hours without eating, and then be famished,” Niall says.
And when that time came, finding the right food to satisfy him wasn’t always the easiest thing. Niall says that Jackson had a “fairly limited diet” and was “a vegetarian who didn’t like vegetables.”
“He liked pizza, but he didn’t like pasta,” he continues.
Another difficult workaround: He had a major sweet tooth, but he didn’t eat sugar and didn’t like chocolate.
Niall did find some dishes that were a home run, though. Mexican food like spicy smoked red chile enchiladas were a staple, and the singer was also fond of grilled tofu shish kebabs with couscous and Moroccan sauce.
The commemorative menu, available at Sweet Bar starting Saturday and lasting through next week, includes a pizza with shiitake mushrooms and Japanese eggplant (what Niall calls the “perfect way to disguise vegetables”) and cookies made with pecans and sweetened with maple syrup, not sugar (which Jackson’s bodyguard used to affectionately call “ookies”).
Because Jackson was a Jehovah’s Witness during the time he was on tour with him, he never celebrated his birthday.
“Every year, his assistant would remind everybody: ‘Okay, Michael’s birthday’s coming up, but he doesn’t celebrate it,’ ” Niall remembers. “So this is also a really nice way, in retrospect, to celebrate his birthday since I couldn’t do it at the time.”
—Shay Spence, @chezspence