Star power

Chef Wolfgang Puck spoke with Michael Jones about his own award-winning career, his restaurants and what it is to be a global brand


His given name of Wolfgang Johannes Topfschnig may not ring a bell but if you’ve never heard of his adopted moniker, then where have you been for the last 30 years? Such is the worldwide recognition that Wolfgang Puck affords, boasting over 20 fine-dining restaurants, more than 80 express cafés and heading up cookbooks, kitchen merchandise and a range of canned foods. There is a strong case to present Puck as the most high-profile chef in the world.

Earlier this year Puck was inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame. His flagship Spago Beverly Hills restaurant received a James Beard Foundation Outstanding Service award in 2005. It was also awarded two Michelin stars in the 2008 and 2009 Los Angeles Michelin Guide. Many thought the recognition was a long time coming for a chef whose restaurants in Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Las Vegas have attracted A-list celebrities and movie moguls for decades.

Star power is something the charismatic Puck has in spades himself – he’s funny, affable and comfortable working with the media. When we speak before the Oscars in late February, he is putting the final touches to the 50 imaginative dishes he is producing for the Governors Ball, the official post-Oscar celebration – 2013 marks the 19th consecutive year that Puck has created the menu for the ball.

Despite the stress, he seems resolutely unflappable and in great spirits. “I’m excellent, thank you,” he says when I enquire how he is, his accent a transatlantic hybrid of clipped Austrian and well-heeled Californian. “In Los Angeles it’s clear, a little chilly, 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Not bad. Almost as good as London,” he jokes.

Wolfgang Puck and his team in action
Wolfgang Puck and his team in action

“I’m ready for Sunday night,” says Puck. “We are doing the Oscars for the 19th time so we have it down and under control. The great thing is that I have such a good team and everybody has been with me for many years, such as Matt [Bencivenga] our catering chef who has been with been with me for 20 years and Sherry [Yard] our pastry chef has been with me 19 years.

“That makes it a little easier, so it’s not like I’m struggling to find chefs and teach them how to make mashed potatoes.”

The evening itself will see Puck running the rule over an army of 350 staff working in the kitchen and a further 600 stationed in the dining room. “We have 1,500 to 1,600 guests. Everybody is coming,” says Puck, shamelessly name-dropping celebrities such as Adele, John Travolta and Daniel Day-Lewis. “All the big movie stars – you name it, they all come for dinner. And they’re all hungry too,” he laughs.

The logistics of the whole thing are fascinating. So how does he plan for it and what’s the biggest challenge his team faces? “The secret is to cook as we would at the restaurant,” he says. “We cook the dinner and we segment it out so that we have, say, 10 chefs who do the pre-ceremony cocktail and they just make little appetisers and pass them around. Then I have 30 or so chefs doing little salads. They can go really fast. We basically set up assembly lines so that everything is put together at the last second. For the Kobe beef steaks, we mark them off and then we put them into a very hot oven.”

As well as his obligatory chocolate-covered Oscars and smoked-salmon Oscars on the menu, one particular Puck dish has gone down a storm at the awards for the last three years. For his chicken pot pie with black truffles the team cook the chicken the day before the event, then make the sauce and prepare the vegetables, put them in small ramekins and cover them with puff pastry. “We have these big ovens where you can roll in a whole rack or two and I can cook 200 chicken pot pies in less than 20 minutes,” says Puck. “Now the Board of Governors, and even Barbra Streisand, said ‘You know what, I want the chicken pot pie again.’ It’s a big favourite with people because it’s comfort food.”

Born and raised in Austria, Puck trained in Monaco and Paris before bursting onto the American cuisine scene in the early 1980s. Spago, his first restaurant opened on the Sunset Strip in 1982, serving California cuisine. With all the success he has experienced since then, I ask him what continues to drive him. “We [chefs] are very lucky,” he says. “It’s not like in sports where you have to retire at 35, or whatever. We can keep going if we renew ourselves. If there is an evolution. I look at people like [Giorgio] Armani. He is 80 years old or so and he has to present two new collections very year. If he would stop doing that, some of the others would take his place and nobody would talk about Armani any more. Now he has enough money and fame but I still think he enjoys what he’s doing and for me it’s the same thing.”

Clearly not one to rest on his laurels, Puck continues to open restaurants around the world and look at new ways of maximising the brand that bears his name. “Do you know, it’s a little easier to enjoy something when you’re successful?” he reflects. “I always feel that we can get better. I look at the positive side, rather than thinking ‘I’m not good enough’.”

Puck became a huge global brand many years ago and I ask him what that feels like. “To me, I love cooking,” he says. “I love to go to the farmer’s market, the fish market. I like to be in the dining room and say ‘hello’ to the guests. So to me it’s just as exciting as it was 30 years ago.”

Puck took a team of 350 to the Academy Awards
Puck took a team of 350 to the Awards

So has he ever lost count of how many restaurants he’s got? He laughs heartily. “It’s like having kids! Some of them I see often and some of them maybe not much. If you have 10 kids and someone asks ‘which is your favourite’ it’s always the one that behaves the most, that brings home great grades!” he jokes. “With restaurants it’s the same. If you get good critics and make money then they become a favourite.

“But for me it’s really Spago [in Beverley Hills] because that was really the ‘mother’ of all the restaurants. We just spent $4m renovating the whole restaurant. We’re very happy with the results and the guests are happy too.”

The new-look Spago has eschewed its previous European influences – all wood motifs and old world artworks – for a Waldo Fernandez-designed fusion of moodily backlit blacks and whites; while an open plan kitchen showcases Puck’s chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi and team.

Reinvention is certainly a quality that can be ascribed to Puck. I ask him how frequently the urge strikes him to move on and try something new. “Well I really think that cooking is an evolution and you have to reinvent yourself a lot – or a little bit at a time. With Spago I said, ‘we have to change everything’. Not just changing the menu a little bit but complete reinvention. So we changed the whole decor, made it completely different. Yet still comfortable and not fussy. I want people to have fun. The only thing serious should be on the plate.”

“I don’t want every restaurant to look the same” he says. “I want them to have their own identity.” Fernandez will design more restaurants for Puck in the Middle East, while world-renowned designer Tony Chi will probably work on his new ventures in Shanghai. “We have to have different people for different sensibilities. But first I have to like their taste. I don’t care if they’re famous or not. I’m still looking for new talent in design the same way I always look for new talent in cooking.”

I ask what he feels he has left to achieve and if he ever worries about standing still for too long in this industry. “I think there could be a danger of that, but we do so many new things,” he says. “Two years ago when we opened in London [with CUT Restaurant in Mayfair London at 45 Park Lane], that was a big step for us – to expand overseas and go to a market where there are a lot of great restaurants. To end up being successful was very exciting for me.

“Now I think we are going to open in Shanghai, in Dubai, maybe Doha, and so on. We’ll continue to grow our restaurants, but very slowly really. When you think that Spago is 31 years old and we have 22 fine-dining restaurants, we have really gone slow with the up-scale restaurants.”

Puck’s ambitions continue to burn brightly. “I want us to be a global brand so we have to open in important places. There are still some places in America where we can open, but obviously Asia is an incredibly fast-growing market.”

Rest-of-the-world domination will have to wait for at least a weekend however, until Puck has finished with the Oscars at least. With typically breezy charm he signs off the interview to go and check on how his own cast of hundreds are faring behind the scenes. One suspects that with Puck at centre stage in the kitchen, everything will go rather well on the night.

Michael Jones