Wolfgang Puck is perhaps the original celebrity chef and one of the first to build a global empire. But he remains humble and driven to evolve not just his brand but his food legacy.
Puck sat down with Life on the Wedge at his new restaurant CUT at the Mondrian Doha recently for an exclusive, wide-ranging and illuminating interview about his first venture in Qatar, his view on food trends and the recent sexual harassment scandals uncovered in the restaurant trade.
With an empire that spans the globe and includes some of the world’s best known restaurants and brands (and catering the yearly Governor’s Ball party at the Oscars), you would think that Wolfgang Puck would be ready to choose an easy life.
But here he is, directing traffic at the pass of one of his newest restaurants, CUT by Wolfgang Puck at the Mondrian Doha, inspecting dishes before they are sent out to diners, talking to chefs in the brigade and adding a finishing flourish.
“Here at CUT – we made almost a hybrid of (his flagship) Spago,” Puck tells me as we settle down inside the restaurant’s almost space age interior, chefs busy prepping for a busy dinner service still in earshot. “Which I think is a good way to go in the future this is people people like to have choices – like a pasta and some other things, not just the steakhouse.”
“This project just came to us organically,” he says of the first-time Mondrian and CUT collaboration. “It seems like a natural progression and there is such a synergy with the people here in London and Los Angeles. The people here in Qatar are familiar with our brand.”
Finding a home in the kitchen
Puck learned the basics of his craft by his mother’s side in his homeland of Austria, but the kitchen soon proved to be a refuge for him from his increasingly fraught home life.
“My parents were poor – we had meat maybe once a week and we didn’t have running water in the house. I always liked the kitchen because I used to spend the summer with my mother at her job,” he revealed. “My mother found me an apprenticeship in a restaurant at 14. I was just happy to be out of home. My father was impossible. He was a terrible guy. I found a place in the kitchen and at least I could eat.”
He worked in that kitchen for three years then, still a teenager, he moved to France to broaden his skills – fascinated by the technical aspects of the cuisine with its “wine and sauces”. After a year in France, he got himself a copy of the Michelin Guide and wrote letters to all of the two and three star restaurants listed in it. His persistence landed him a job at the Michelin three-starred L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence where he learned the basics of French cuisine from its temperamental head chef.
“I was happy to be away (in France). My mother was an angel but my father was an alcoholic and bipolar. When I was in France I didn’t write my parents for a year and a half. We didn’t have a telephone at the time,” he says. “Naturally my mother got grey hair because of me. Then they broadcast on the radio that I was missing. I didn’t hear it but somebody told me and said the Austrian Embassy put out a bulletin that they were looking for me. Then I wrote my parents and said everything is OK, I’m in Provence.”
As a young chef, he worked in some of France’s greatest restaurants, including Maxim’s in Paris, the Hotel de Paris in Monaco and at the age of 24, Puck left Europe for the United States. His first job in 1973 was at the now closed restaurant La Tour in Indianapolis.
“I had worked in Monte Carlo and loved auto racing so to me this had seemed obvious,” he said. Hungry for more, in 1975, he hopped on a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles and rapidly garnered the attention of the Hollywood elite as chef and eventually part owner of Ma Maison in West Hollywood.
The Original Celebrity Chef
In 1982, he went on to create his first flagship restaurant, Spago, originally located in West Hollywood on the Sunset Strip. His early signature dishes such as pizzas topped with smoked salmon and caviar, put him and Spago on the gourmet map, not just in Los Angeles but throughout the world and his creations were at the forefront of “Californian Cuisine”. It was also a mecca for celebrities, drawn to the unique market-driven menu and location.
“We have just done the best month we have ever done at Spago,” he revealed. “I think it’s the evolution and the change. I really believe if you do the same thing all the time, and stick with comfort and what you know, it becomes boring after while. You know you want to see something new. At Spago we have a very good balance so people can have comfort food but also an interesting and new menu.”
The rest, as they say in the classics, is history. Today, Wolfgang’s US$400 million empire encompasses three separate Wolfgang Puck entities: Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, Wolfgang Puck Catering (which includes catering for all the major awards shows in LA), and Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, Inc. He has a range of prepared meals sold in supermarkets, has appeared on TV shows including Masterchef, Top Chef and even The Simpsons
The key to his longetivity, he says, is innovation and evolution.
“I push them (my chefs) very hard – there has to be innovation. I think often chefs don’t change. Even now, I go to Paris and you go to one or two three star Michelin restaurants and I say “OK that’s it, I get it. There is not too much innovation.”
The rise of the diner
Puck agrees that television and the internet has changed the way people look at food.
“It’s totally crazy. Every chef has access to what they are doing in Turkey, South America and Japan,” he says. “When I was growing up, that didn’t happen, I remember a cookbook I used to buy – by Paul Bocuse. There were very few books out there. Now all you need is your computer or smartphone.
“Diners are more switched on now. They watch the television, and the internet. I think it’s a different experience if you see in a picture than just reading in a newspaper or book.”
But there are some innovations in the culinary world that don’t sit so comfortably with Puck.
“The power is in the smartphones everyone can inform. Everyone can take photos. Everyone can be a critic. I think that’s a weird thing in a way.”
But he doesn’t read online reviews – sticking instead to the dwindling food sections of the big city newspapers like the New York Times and the LA Times.
“They (diners) take a picture and instantly talk about it,” he says. “I always tell my people we have to be confident enough in what we do that we do the right thing and it tastes good.”
Forget food trends – he wants delicious food
He also doesn’t have much time for food trends be they avocados all year round (“they are big for breakfast now!) or food trucks (“I wouldn’t want one”). At the end of the day – the key for Puck is that the experience must be good and the food must be “delicious”.
“Sure, you get an experience, but if the food is not delicious, then what is the point? For me I’m not impressed because it looks so different or it’s served on a different plate, I want the food to taste delicious. There are many new restaurants (in LA) and many of them are good. But sometimes I get so disappointed because they are so popular for a short time,” he cautions.
“If you have a great concept and it’s interesting, it’s not enough. It has to be delicious to keep people coming back. It can’t be all about the gimmick. The media needs something new, I know this. But I think, if you are really good and you have good hospitality and you give people a great experience, they will come back over and over again. Everyone wants to go to a place where they know they will get good service, where they will get good hospitality and good food.”
Shining a light on the issues
A tastemaker and a leader in the culinary world, Puck says he is glad a “light is being shined” on sexual misconduct in kitchens. Some of the biggest names in the culinary world including Mario Batali have been exposed for sexist and demeaning behavior.
“I think it had to come out. We had to be aware of it. If a woman says no, it’s no,” he says.
Puck says language and behavior in kitchens had “always been a little rough” and this is in some cases exacerbated by alcohol.
“In the restaurant business it’s already hard enough for women.I think it’s a good thing that everyone is aware of it. And it will make it easier for women,” Puck says.
Designs on Doha
Puck says he is happy with the way CUT at the Mondrian Doha is evolving and responding to local tastes.
“It’s interesting to get the local flavor and adapt to the local taste,” he says. “When we did he menu here, we made it more flexible. If people want a pizza, we make them a pizza. If we don’t adapt, we don’t have enough time to change the people’s taste.”
The menu at CUT is not entirely what you would expect from a steakhouse – it features pastas, pizzas and local seafood. Puck says they adapted the meat they sourced, looking to cuts with marbling that can be served well done and still retain its flavor and tenderness. It also has a taste of Spago in the form of its smoked salmon pizza (resplendent with caviar).
“From the beginning we made it simpler. For example the bread service – we created some bread that is similar to Arabic bread. When you sit down you want something comfortable. Instead of just having butter, we added labneh and other dips. We make it a little bit different.”
“At the end of the day the partnership has to feel right. This is a good fit for us.”
CUT by Wolfgang Puck at the Mondrian Doha
West Bay Lagoon
Phone: 4045 5999
What to Order: Austrian Weiner schnitzel, Australian Black Platinum 100 percent Pure Wagyu and pizza with smoked
*Thank you to Wolfgang Puck for being so generous with his time. Thanks also to the team at Mondrian Doha and Qanect for the opportunity.