With more than 20 restaurants around the world, plus a host of books and TV appearances, Austrian-American chef to the stars, Wolfgang Puck is far from crossing the finish line. As he expands his empire further into this region with the recent opening of his Dubai restaurant, and more to come, he talks about why he is still excited by life.
Wolfgang Puck might be excused for wanting to slow down a little, especially as he approaches his mid-60s, so there is definitely some reordering of priorities. But, having come as far as he has, from his hometown in Austria, he is still raring to go. His early life in the small town of Sankt Veit an der Glan wasn’t happy. His father abandoned his mother before he was born and he disliked his stepfather, so much so that he left home as soon as he could, working almost five years in a kitchen. At that point his life changed – he realised this was the job he wanted for life and moved to the USA, beginning a starry rise up the industry in the mid-1970s.
The time was right for a young, ambitious chef and Puck’s bold reinvention of Californian food made it ideal for the glitzy LA celebrity audience that he cultivated – his bold, clean style is credited with helping redefine the fine dining scene in the US. The rest of the country watched and adopted much of the West Coast style and concepts. At the age of 26, he was chef and part owner at Ma Maison. His next move, opening Spago on Sunset Strip, sealed his success and combined modern cooking with Michelin star class – with a firm focus on produce, ingredients and simplicity. The mix was irresistible.
Then the empire building began – over 20 fine dining restaurants, 40 restaurants in the US premium catering services sector, more than 80 Wolfgang Puck Express operations, kitchen and food merchandise, cookbooks and canned foods. Now, with Cut by Wolfgang Puck at The Address Downtown already a hot seat in the city, a restaurant in the pipeline in Bahrain, and a Dubai airport outlet scheduled for 2015, he is set to take over this part of the world.
Excerpts from an interview:
Why do you think this was the right time to enter the Middle East market?
I was here about eight years ago as a guest of a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family to look at possibilities in the capital but the market wasn’t ready. I remember we stayed at Jumeirah Beach in a villa and the chef served quite ‘international’ food. Now I think the time is right and we’ll do what we always do which is do things better than anyone else. We expect lots of others to follow us here. I do believe that we change a market. Look at Cut in Singapore – we got all the details right and now it’s the number one restaurant for meat in Asia. Same in London – Cut is still the best.
What are the particular challenges here?
Well, produce of course. On my next visit, I’m going out to the farms and to Oman, I hear they have some wonderful organic farms – I’ll make a trip back just for that. Across the region, I think there is great potential, I remember being very excited by the fish market in Bahrain.
I grew up on a farm so vegetables and fruits have always been a big part of my life. When we opened Spago 32 years ago, the first thing I did was look for a farmer who could grow our produce, so I found the Chino farm. Hopefully, we’ll do the same thing in the Middle East.
But it’s very different from the produce scene in California, isn’t it?
You know, there are similar challenges everywhere. Look at Scandinavia and the whole shift to foraging - amazing food but there are no fresh vegetables in winter. Just like when I was growing up in Austria, my family had a cellar and stored food. Now we’re all so used to being able to get anything at any time…
So, what got you into food in the first place?
It seems like I was born a chef since my mother was one. It was a very easy decision for me to step into the same profession since I was always in the kitchen beginning around the time I was eight years old. But to be honest, it gave me an opportunity to get away from my stepfather. We did not have a good relationship.
It was really at Baumanière in the south of France where I found my mentor whose name was Raymond Thuilier. He was really the inspiration for me to open my own restaurant and to write books – he was someone I wanted to emulate. Plus, he loved the way I cooked.
What’s your chief characteristic, would you say, and how do you define your culinary philosophy?
Most of us have to be reactive in life, leaving it to the youngsters to take the risks. However, for me
I still like to take risks, as we did with Spago. In terms of philosophy, I believe in only buying the best ingredients and keeping it simple.
What is the secret of your success?
It’s all about repetition. In this business, it’s hard work and talent that work together to make success, but the more hard work the better. The more you’re able to replicate quality the better. Opening a new restaurant like this is like putting on a play with all the excitement, but we have to deliver service after service. It’s also important to have original ideas – I think, back in 1982, that we were about the first at Spago to have an open kitchen. I think my pizza with goat’s cheese was a game changer and so on.
What makes a celebrity chef? And how do you strike that balance between being a celebrity and being a chef?
Early on after we opened Spago, we had all the big stars coming to our restaurant so we were known as a celebrity hangout. As for me becoming well known, though I hate the term ‘celebrity chef,’ I guess television has really helped chefs all over the world get recognition, but at the end, it’s about the food and hospitality.We are relatively well known today throughout the world but we are only as good as our last meal, so even today with many restaurants around the globe we’re building an experimental kitchen in LA so I can try and perfect new recipes – it’ll be a centre of innovation.
Tell us more about it!
We will be using lots of new technology, which will allow us to discover the absolute best way to cook anything. People ask is this like the elBulli research lab but it’s not really – don’t get me wrong, I love Ferran’s work and expertise but I couldn’t say which single dish of his I’d want to eat. What we’re doing instead, for example, is to take salmon and work out that the best way, the most consistent way to get quality is to cook it and then finish it on the grill.
So you’re getting back to what you love, the cooking?
Yes, nowadays you can’t be a chef without also being a businessman. If you haven’t got good numbers, then you’re out of business. What I do now is more complicated than the life I used to have, but I still love simple pleasures like going to a fish market or a farm. I have one rule, though – I go home every day at 5pm and cook for my children. That I really enjoy. Food for me is more enjoyable than being in the office, but the financial side is part of the deal and, frankly, I don’t hate it so much that I won’t do it.
Are you like most chefs, dreaming one day of a simple place on the beach, grilling fish and cooking barefoot?
Not exactly. I’d like a small restaurant that would only be for my friends. Invitation only.
Of the various brands and options, why did you decide on Cut for Dubai?
It’s perhaps the easiest concept to roll out to multiple locations – meat and fish kept simple but delivered with perfect execution. I’m a great fan of simplicity – young chefs tend to add to much, to overcomplicate. Give me a simple grill. It’s food that you can eat often, maybe several times a week. As food gets more and more complicated, you want to eat it less often. At the end of the day, you need to ask: is this food for the customer or the critic? I believe that customers are our greatest critics.
So customers are always right? What’s your take on the whole fad for social media?
Everybody now in some sense is a food critic – it’s a crazy thing but customers want it. As a young chef, I didn’t need the media; now, I’m on Twitter. But for me, personally, I’d rather read a newspaper!
What keeps you interested and excited?
The fact there’s always something new, I think. For instance, this outlet – I’ll probably be here six times in the first year and then reduce that. The thing to remember is that I’m not alone – I have a great team and they develop all the time. I do what I love to do but I realise I can’t keep up the pace. Now I’m 64, I need to reorder my life a little so, instead of making specific trips, now I’ll combine them, so maybe LA to London to Dubai to Singapore. A round-trip twice a year would let me spend more time with my family, which is important to me.
What would you have done if you hadn’t been a chef?
An artist. Art is something I love even though I don’t really do it. I think it’s important that when you do something, you do it well.
When you first moved to America after working in Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe, were you surprised by the state of the food?
Oh yes. I think the US has changed more in the last 30 years than anywhere else. When I arrived you couldn’t even get fresh basil. Napa Valley then had less than 40 vineyards – now there are more than 300. Nobody made fresh cheeses. People used to drink cocktails throughout a meal. And the ‘fine dining’ food was old school continental – it was really different.
And has American food as a whole gone too far down the unhealthy route to be saved?
Well, the good news is that many people are now paying more attention to what they eat and their nutrition, but the reality remains that good ingredients are expensive. Sugar is the easiest pacifier but I do believe we’re getting slowly better and real change will be down to the home cook.
I think one of the biggest changes to the food scene has been changes in work habits, though that’s as true of Europe as the US. People don’t know how to cook any more!
You’ve recently been evolving in the direction of ‘healthy eating’ quite a bit?
I believe in the saying – “show me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” So it’s really important that we use only the best ingredients, cook them the right way and moderation, above all, is important. I believe that eating right and exercising makes a healthy lifestyle. And for me personally, I feel I am in better shape today than I was 20 years ago!
You’re also very active in charity, tell me a bit more about what drives you to that?
We use only sustainable, organic or humanely-raised animals in our food preparations because I really believe we have to protect the environment. I personally feel lucky to be successful in this world, so to give back to the less fortunate is an important part of my life. Naturally we can’t participate in everything, but we support research, on Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer; help with feeding the elderly and infirm; and many children’s projects. So probably 30 days of my year are involved in charitable work.