With more than 50 restaurants, multiple Michelin stars and a lengthy list of high-profile television gigs, the celebrity chef is one of the biggest names in the food industry. Here, he discusses finding hope in challenging times, the US election and his go-to comfort dish
Wolfgang Puck is a force to be reckoned with. The Austrian-American restaurateur is one of the most recognisable names in the food industry. After leaving home at 14, Puck cut his teeth in some of France’s best restaurants before going to Los Angeles, where he opened Spago — which quickly garnered the attention of Hollywood’s elite and two Michelin stars.
Today, Puck’s empire covers more than 50 restaurants worldwide — and at 71, he shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to having catered the Academy Awards’ Governors Ball for 26 years, as well as Kim Kardashian’s 2011 wedding, Puck regularly appears as a guest judge on hit shows such as MasterChef and Hell’s Kitchen, teaches masterclasses, and co-runs the Puck-Lazaroff Charitable Foundation, which has raised more than $15m and benefits LA’s Meals on Wheels programme.
With a slew of accolades under his belt, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, who better to ask about the future of eating out than chef Wolfgang Puck? In a Zoom interview between Berlin and LA, he spoke candidly about politics, the power of fried chicken, and his go-to ‘quarantine’ dish.
This has been a challenging year in more ways than one. How are you feeling?
“Besides a bit of a back pain, I’m doing really well. I can’t complain.”
How have things changed for you since the start of the pandemic?
“We’ve had to learn how to operate in a completely different way. The most difficult thing for us is how many employees we’ve had to let go. In the US, the restaurant industry is the second biggest [private] employment sector, and it’s been hit hard. You’ve got hundreds of thousands of restaurants closing for good. What concerns me the most is how we can reopen safely around the world.”
It seems as though people are still worried about dining inside.
“People definitely feel safer outside, which is a real challenge. At least in southern California, we’re lucky with the weather. In New York and London, we’re building big terraces. But I think something good will come out of this. All of a sudden, in LA, you see people everywhere, not just cars. Another great thing is that more people have started cooking. I always say that families who cook together, stay together.”
Some industry insiders paint a bleak picture, and yet, you’re about to open two new restaurants in LA, Ospero and Merois — a ballsy move.
“We have to continue living. We can’t just stop and cry. I always see the glass as half full. It’s the perfect opportunity to reset. For instance, our new chef, Jamie, at London’s CUT, really got me into local ingredients. He knows the fishermen down in Cornwall. He’s also found a guy who raises cattle, and sells fantastic Wagyu beef. We visit the farmers and the fishermen, and support the local economy. Great cooking starts with great ingredients.”
What advice would you give an aspiring chef trying to establish a business now?
“It’s not just about what you eat, it’s about how we made you feel. Even if you’re serving a grilled cheese sandwich, if you’ve made your visitors feel good, they’ll be back. When we opened Spago in 1982, the kitchen was in the dining room. I’d wave to everyone who came in, and they would wave back. Talk to your customers, make yourself visible instead of hiding out in the back.”
Wolfgang Puck signs copy of his cookbook at Spago in Los Angeles, 1986.
You’ve been vocal about how difficult it has been for struggling restaurants to receive funding during the pandemic.
“Federal funding has come to a halt so now we have a duty to help people. The waiters, the kitchen staff, the bartenders, the valets… they’re all out of a job. Their kids need an education. Rent will be due. People have no money and no hope right now. Thankfully, with our two new restaurants and a handful of other venues opening later this year, we’ll be able to provide more than 200 people with a living.”
What can we do to support the industry?
“Support your local businesses as much as you can — they depend on you. [Safely, within your local area’s Covid-19 regulations] visit the farmers’ markets in your neighbourhood. Visit your local fishermen, your local bars and restaurants. Don’t worry about the big chains, they’ll survive.”
Some of your restaurants have pivoted their business models by offering fine-dining takeaway.
“Anyone who expects the same fine-dining feeling at home will inevitably be disappointed, so we started offering set meals at Spago that would mimic the restaurant experience. This was a huge success on weekends, but not during the week. So we decided to add something to the menu everybody loves: fried chicken. Turns out, we had people queuing around the block just to try the chicken!”
Have you thought about what you might do to ‘outsmart’ a potential second lockdown?
“We have to be smart and safe about things. If Trump were the health minister, he’d probably say: ‘Let’s just open everything up!’ We have to protect life, but we also have to protect the livelihood of the people. There are millions of people out of work, and the number of homeless people in LA is increasing. We have all these old men running this country without empathy. Female leaders seem to have a much better track record, so we should probably just put more women in charge.”
It looks as though the election [on 3 November] might bring change.
“It does look like that right now, but we were caught off-guard four years ago, so I’m still a little worried.”
On a lighter note, if you woke up tomorrow to a world in which the restaurant industry didn’t exist, what would you be doing instead?
“I would love to be an artist. I’m a big fan of contemporary art, so you’ll see pieces by John Baldessari, Damien Hirst and Ed Ruscha in our restaurants. I was friendly with Andy Warhol, and one of my biggest mistakes was that he wanted to paint my portrait, and I said no. When he died, I thought: ‘Shit! For $30,000, I could have had an original Warhol.’”
Speaking of Austria, are there any dishes you miss from back home?
“The great thing is that, if I crave it, I just make it myself. The Wiener schnitzel has become the most popular dish at Spago. I’m no snob about it because the simplest dishes are often the hardest to get right.”
What is the most exciting culinary city of the future?
“Tokyo is very exciting. Seoul has become exciting. Multicultural cities have so much to offer. England! Fifty years ago, who would have thought to hire an English chef? Or an American one? You no longer need to be French to cook great French food. All you need is passion.”
You opened Spago in 1982 and it’s still booming today. What’s the secret to longevity?
“Evolution. Restaurants that stay the same end up in the cemetery. You’ve got to find the right balance between tradition and innovation.”
What would you choose as your last supper?
“You ask me that at such a young age! How should I know? [laughs] I would choose something with white truffles. And a nice bottle of Barolo.”
What’s your go-to, quick-and-easy ‘quarantine’ dish?
“You can’t go wrong with pasta. Make a quick cacio e pepe. Add butter, pecorino cheese and pepper. Simple, delicious and inexpensive.”
If people learn how to become better cooks, will they still want to eat out?
“[laughs] Good question. We’re herd animals, after all. We’re supposed to be around other people. Eating out is a social experience. You just can’t get that same feeling at home.”