Gina Baksa meets celebrity chef and global entrepreneur Wolfgang Puck and chats food, celebrities, life and business over afternoon tea at CUT, his London restaurant at the 45 Park Lane hotel, Mayfair
Wolfgang Puck is one of the world’s most successful chef-entrepreneurs. From his early start peeling vegetables at a local restaurant in Austria (his mother was a chef) to creating iconic LA restaurants Spago and Chinois, as well as over 100 restaurants across world, consumer products, a TV series and syndicated column – the main is a phenomenon.
He is also the founder of Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, Wolfgang Puck Catering and Wolfgang Puck Worldwide. Widely recognised for his nurturing and encouragement of new chef talent (including CUT 45 Park lanes Executive Chef David McIntyre), Wolfgang recently received the exceptional Cateys 2018: International Outstanding Achievement Award.
He opened first flagship restaurant, Spago in LA back in 1982 and has been on the fast track to success ever since, catering for the Oscar’s Governor’s Ball for the last 24 years and only the second chef ever to receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
I met the 69-year-old phenomenon in London recently for his Chinois on Main Pop Up at CUT at 45 Park Lane. Marking the 35th birthday of his successful Santa Monica restaurant, Wolfgang brought his Asian Fusion cuisine to London.
We’re upstairs at Bar 45, a glamorous bar that has the largest selection of American wines in the UK, including Wolfgang’s own Wolfgang Puck-Schrader ‘Beckstoffer Georgess III Vineyard, Napa Valley, of which only 80 cases were made.
He’s in his whites, looking fresh, relaxed and has the energy of a man half his age. I’m a little intimated – the man is a culinary idol.
“My group is arriving at 12,” he tells me over tea. “My fellow classmates from my Harvard business course. About three years ago a journalist asked me if I had fulfilled all my dreams. And I told him I had always wanted to go to Harvard.
“Then a few days later, Harvard Business School calls me up and asks me when I want to start!”
Wolfgang joined the University’s Owner President’s Management Program (OPM) which is one month over three years.
“I panicked at first,” he reveals. “I didn’t know how to use a computer. But it’s been brilliant – you stay and sleep in a dorm – like being at boarding school” he smiles. “As I’ve got my pop-up here at CUT they are all coming for lunch here about 120 here from all over the world. Next March is the last month. Then we have a graduation ceremony.”
So what has he got out of the Harvard experience so far?
I’ve learnt how to look at the business from the outside more and get input from different people on how to manage my company better. Also how to give people a clearer vision of what I want. And how to structure the company more efficiently.
Who’s your main right hand man?
Alex (Resnik) runs the restaurants and he’s responsible for their performance. He’ll give me suggestions if anything needs tweaking. We always want positive sales growth, so we sit down and discuss what’s needed.
Which restaurant is his best performing?
Number one is Spago in Singapore – that’s our best right now. It has a huge bar and lounge with 166 seats and an amazing location on top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel. Our second best is Spago in Beverley Hills. And the third is CUT in Las Vegas.
Why Chinois so popular?
Chinois was the first fusion restaurant in Los Angeles – it gave people a taste of something completely different. In the beginning, I’d never cooked traditional Chinese food and never used a wok. So I built an island kitchen at the restaurant. On one side I had three woks, on the other a wood burning stove and six flames. So that meant if I couldn’t use a wok I still had the flame!
Did the West Coast Asian influences inspired him to develop fusion cuisine?
Totally! The West Coast has so many great Asian influences: we have China Town, Korea Town… I wanted to cook using local ingredients but with flavours from different cultures.
And express my take on Chinese rather than using traditional recipes. For example instead of thickening a sauce with corn starch I use butter. And in certain situations I use cream. I definitely didn’t want stir-fried beef – enough LA restaurants are doing this. So I decided to make a New York steak, which Americans love, and then add an Asian-tasting sauce with it. So I caramelised shallots with some chilli flakes, added some soy sauce, some mirin and stock and reduced it then finished with a little butter.
It was a whole new flavour! What was also good was that we didn’t have the history. It would be hard to do that in Italy for example with such a rich tradition. Much more adventurous cooking originated from the west coast.
Had you got bored with Spago?
I opened Spago in West Hollywood, then another in Japan, and I remember being jetlagged in Japan seeing the same chairs, plates etc. and thinking I can’t continue to do this – bring out one after the other. I was always interested in Chinese food, so I decided to open my own Chinese restaurants. We trained a little bit at Spago – I tried out a few things and did it my way. It worked and became hugely successful.
His restaurant expansion has been incredible…
Yes it has but it’s happened over a long period of time. We didn’t expand and explode in 3 years. We’ve also expanded in different areas: upscale dining, airport restaurants, appliances and stuff, in supermarket foods. All different industry sectors.
Where does he get his energy from? Does he work out?
I have a personal trainer who comes two or three times a week when I’m in LA – and I have a gym in my house. And a tennis court too so I play regularly. I think it’s important when you get to a certain age to keep on moving.
Does he enjoy cooking when he’s at home? Or does he let his wife Gelila take over?
Gelila’s (designer and creative director at Wolfgang Puck) is a very good cook too and if you ask my kids who makes the better pasta they’ll tell you mum makes the best Bolognese sauce and the best lasagne.
Have his sons followed him into the industry?
One of my sons, Byron has followed me into the business. He went to Cornell Management School and I sent him to different restaurants to learn the trade. He trained at Guy Savoy in Paris and also at Nobu here in London when he was at high school. I wanted him to work somewhere we he would be inspired.
Will he take over the reins of the company?
Yes, that’s what I am hoping. If he takes over the company, in say 10 years or so, it’s important that he’s a good cook. So he can tell the chefs his vision, what direction he’s taking.
Do you follow modern trends in cooking?
We create a blend of tradition and innovation. That’s what works. An example is our restaurant The Rogue Experience. It’s a tiny restaurant with a kitchen on one side; the customers sit at the counter. We do about 15 to 18 dishes. I’m very impatient so they have to move fast. Six dishes an hour for this tasting menu. I have two chefs there. Then I bring in chefs from different restaurants. So generally four chefs are cooking for 8 customers.
An amazing dining experience! And the chefs cannot do anything that they do in their own restaurant. They have to be creative. David McIntyre (Executive Chef at CUT 45 Park Lane) is very talented – he’s constantly reinventing. Once many chefs reach the age of 40 they get into a pattern and don’t want to change. I want them to continue to create.
Who has inspired him?
I got inspired at the age of 19 when I worked at Beaumanière (Provence) and I told myself I wanted to be like the owner-chef Raymond Thuilier. He was in his 70s at the time and still so passionate about food, about the ingredients and cooking. And also about hospitality. He owned the hotel and the restaurant. Picasso ate there, so did Queen Elizabeth it was a Micheln 3 star.
Why did he leave Europe for the States?
I was working at Maxim’s in Paris and everyone said to me: ‘You’re young. What are you gonna do?” My friend was the pastry chef there and he told me I’d make much more money and have a better life in the States.
So when the opportunity came, I went. I was living in Monaco and a motor racing fan, so when somebody offered me a job in Indianapolis I took it! At that time it was complete culinary backwater. From there I moved to California after I got my Green Card.
We lost Tony Bourdain and Paul Bocuse this year. Did he know them?
I was more friendly with Paul than with Tony. I did a TV show with Paul at his restaurant and at his country home. And he came to cook with us at Spago in Beverly Hills and Las Vegas; he was very generous and very sweet. And I’m good friends with his son Jérome.
Tony and I had a little disagreement about fois gras once. He was working at Les Halles in New York – way before he became famous. He chided me for caving in to public demand and taking fois gras off the menu. I told him I didn’t want people demonstrating outside my restaurant. And that when he was running a successful restaurant himself he’d be better qualified to give me advice!
Is fois gras still off the menu in California?
Yes, it is, but for the Chinois pop-up here in London it’s on. Fois gras is still in demand so we give the customers what they want. They love it. The pop up is very successful, it’s a good mix of old and modern. The signature dish is Chinois Lobster. People also love the sizzling fish, and the pineapple and fois gras.
What are the qualities of a good leader?
I think you have to really tell people your vision very clearly. Then train them over the years; establish a culture and hold people responsible. For example if David here at CUT 45 Park Lane wants to change the fish, he doesn’t have to call me and ask me if he can change it. He’s been with me 23 years. If he can’t do it alone then he shouldn’t be working with me.
I want each restaurant to be independent. They can play with the menu to a certain point, but they have to have clear guidelines. I want them to own their creation. The individual chef in each restaurant knows much better than head office what their customers want.
Many of your staff have been with you for years?
Yes, we have great continuity with our staff. I have two chefs – one in LA and the other in Vegas who have been with me many years who oversee the openings. They work with the local chefs who are ultimately responsible. They have autonomy.
Do you still source locally?
Yes, I love it. Even at home I go to the local markets. Every Sunday in Beverley Hills there’s a little farmer’s market in Santa Monica. I love the smells; same with the fish market. I tell all the chefs it’s all about the ingredients. You must know the produce inside out.
Did growing up on a farm help him hone his nose for good produce?
Yes, I was always close to the farmers. At Ma Maison in LA where I used to work I’d go to a farm south of LA and I’d get the perfect ripe strawberries; the perfect green beans. It was amazing. I learnt how to smell the produce. Just like where I grew up. When I was a boy my mother just went to the vegetable garden, picked 5 vegetables and made a soup.
Was your mother a chef in your home town? Did she inspire you to cook?
Not my home town but nearby at a resort hotel on a lake. She totally inspired me to cook. When I was 12 or 13 I would work at the hotel and spend time in the kitchen with the pastry chef. I loved sweets so it was perfect.
Did your mother live to see your success?
Yes, totally. And she was very proud of me. She was a quiet woman. My step father was another matter. Probably bi-polar and very boisterous but it wasn’t diagnosed in those days. He was crazy and used to drink a lot. Not good.
There’s the story that you were fired from your job and you went down to your local river to end it all?
Yup that’s true, I tried to jump into the river. But then I had the thought to go back to work. Maybe my boss was having a bad day and he’d let me stay. So I did. The apprentice above me hid me in the cellar and I peeled all the vegetables. A few weeks later the chef came down and ask me why I was there when I had been fired. I told him I wasn’t leaving and stood my ground. So I tell everyone now – never take no for an answer!
So what’s next for you – personally and professionally?
Right now, it’s exciting for me to see how Byron grows into the business. He’s cooking at Rogue now. He’s not yet an experienced chef but he has a great imagination. And he’s not afraid to ask for advice from the other chefs. He’s also great on TV – he’s appeared with me on the Shopping Channel and he’s not fazed by celebrities. When I was his age I was so shy. He’s very confident.
Right now I’m trying to find a balance between my professional and my private life. We only live once and are here for such a short time, So I’ve decided to take July off. Before, I used to take just 10 days’ vacation a year. Crazy. My wife is very happy about my decision.
What do you do when you take a break? Can you ever switch off?
You know I can compartmentalise everything really well. When I’m at work I concentrate on work. When I’m at home with the children I don’t have my phone with me. I don’t want to be interrupted. Even when I’m in a restaurant I don’t answer it.
My wife and I play tennis; we love art and go to the local galleries. You have to have common interests with your partner. My wife loves fashion so I’ll take her to Paris for the shows. She sees it with a friend and I hang out with my friends in a café. Perfect!
Fashion is a bit like our industry – we both have to constantly reinvent ourselves and be creative.
Is that the key to your fulfilment, being so creative?
Yes, and I always think I can do better. A perfectionist? I tell everyone that I’m easy-going as long as you do it the way that I want! Mostly I give positive feedback to my staff. I just tell them how I want them to do it without being mean. It’s so much better. I reward them so they feel good about it. It’s not good to hammer on someone.
Life is energy. If you do something good you get so much good energy back it makes you feel good and not tired. It’s like putting gas in a car.. and not running out, he smiles.
So for me to be in the kitchen, and to be with my customers feeds my energy. I meet so many fascinating people from Presidents to royalty to the Hollywood crowd.
How do you compartmentalise it all? How do you stay calm?
I sit and think. They think I’m daydreaming but I’m often thinking about what to do next. How to improve the business. It’s important not to sit still. This time next year the world will be a very different place. Everything is changing so fast. Who would have thought that everything we need is in our telephone? Each time I see a red phone booth in London I take a photo. Look what’s replaced it!
What does he think about the TV celebrity chef trend?
Much of the shouting and buffoonery is an act. You’d get sued for harassment in the States if you did that. In 1982 at Spago we had an open kitchen. So we had to.be nice as our guests could hear everything. The open kitchen is a good thing. Everyone has to look smart, shave and have good ingredients. And they have to cook it right as the customer can come up to the counter and tell you it’s not good! We are far more visible now.
I remember I cooked squab once for Lauren Bacall. She accosted me saying you don’t know how to cook this bird it’s still pink! And I told her yes, that’s the way you should eat it. She loved us but she was tough. She used to come to Chinois straight from the airport before she went to her hotel.
Will you continue to open more restaurants?
Yes, for sure. Hopefully another one in London, I like it here. My sons may go to school here, so I’ll be coming more often. We are opening another restaurant in Orlando in September this year. Then another one by next March in DC. We have no plans to stop expanding. Some restaurants fall by the wayside; the leases expire. We try to move forward slowly. As long as I have the talent to work with me we will continue to expand.
Is it hard to find good chefs?
We have a lot of cooking schools in the States, but it’s still difficult to find a good chef. The CIA (Culinary Institute of America) is in Napa Valley and we also have Johnson & Wells which is part of the university in Providence RI. To find people who are passionate and people who want to work is not that easy.
Does the younger generation of chefs want a different lifestyle?
Yes for sure. They don’t care so much about the money but they want a lifestyle balance. When we were young we had to work as hard as possible to make money. We didn’t think about having a ‘lifestyle’. When I was 25 I knew I had to work two jobs so that one day I could open a restaurant. So I did. Now people want free time and a better work-life balance.
This change of lifestyle also gives the partners of chefs the chance to do something too. Not just look after the children. It used to be so one-sided for women it was like oppression. They had to stay at home and never had anything to show for it. Making your own money and being creative makes you feel good about yourself.
What advice do you have for young chefs now?
I think that today the way everything is going so fast. Just be patient and learn while you work for someone else. Make your mistakes at someone else’s expense before breaking out on your own. Come and work at CUT and you’ll know what to do when you leave.
A lot of people forget how to learn to do the basics. They might be able to cook 10 dishes really well but after a while it gets boring. Or they want to be celebrities and appear on TV.. Nobody wants to really put in the work anymore to get there. They want instant fame and instant riches.
I teach new chefs about hospitality. Cooking with food is one thing but how you treat your guests is just as important. That’s why the dining room staff and the cooking staff must have a good relationship. If not, the customers will sense it. They must be as proud as the chefs to bring the food to our guests. And to make our guests feel good.
You’ve cooked at the Governor’s Ball at the Oscars for the last 24 years…
We love it. And we are so organised its run like clockwork. It’s easy for me because I just decide what we’re gonna cook, and how we’re gonna do it and my team executes.
Do the celebrities usually want the same dish?
Some want the classic chicken pot pie with black truffle – Barbra Streisand always ask for it. As do the older board members. We make our pizzas, our smoked salmon Oscars, our golden chocolate Oscars. W mix tradition with new ideas.
You know once you know them they’re just people. Some are excellent at what they do. Some aren’t. Some are nice. Some not so nice. To me money doesn’t the man; man makes the money. Look at Federer.. he’s a very charming down-to-earth guy. He could be all pompous but he’s not.
What’s the key to success?
If you love what you do and you’re not afraid to work you can become successful. Hospitality is a tough job. I remember all those years ago when I started at Beaumaniere in Provence, Tuillier was already 72 years old. He was so passionate about the hotel and the cuisine. He was a great mentor. I was 19, he was 72.
One of my Harvard professors, Boris Groysberg told me that now I am older I have to get younger men on board. The Harvard course has younger guys too so I can learn so much.
So I ask my son what he would like to drink when he goes out. His group are in their early 20s… it’s very different. They don’t go out to eat one big meal. They might go to a lounge for a cocktail. Then meet some friends at another place. Then maybe go to another place for a meal. Go home at 2am and eat in three different places. It’s a new paradigm. They are future customers.
Who have you met in your life that has had a lasting impression?
One person from my Beaumanière days. He was a famous actor and had just made a movie and he was so handsome and he had a beautiful girlfriend. Now he’s the Godfather of our children. His name is Sidney Poitier. When Obama got in I told him: Sidney you have to go and teach Obama how to speak. He’s such a beautiful gracious man and a good friend.
He actually asked me if he could be my sons’ godfather. What an honour. He likes coconut sorbet so I often take him some. I was so lucky to be around at that time when Hollywood was a different place. I used to play tennis with Gene Kelly.
Do you have plans to write your memoir?
Well, I’m having a meeting in New York next week with Ruth Reichl, former editor in Chief of Gourmet Food magazine. She knows me very well. I have so many stories! Somehow I wasn’t intimated by these stars and they trusted me. I was always discrete.
How did you meet your wife?
Gelila was a customer. I just chatted her up. I talk to everybody. As well as being the company’s designer and creative director, my wife helps a school in Ethiopia – she supports 800 children there, and started with 20 children about 20 years ago. The kids have grown up and we went to their graduation ceremony. They are all such amazing children. It’s so important to give back. Especially when you have been given so much.