No matter where you look, there’s Wolfgang Puck. Announcing plans to open his first restaurant in New York City, doing a cooking demonstration on a morning show, making a pitch on QVC for his latest product, guesting on The Simpsons, gracing a slew of cookbooks at Barnes & Noble, catering the Academy Awards Governors Ball, beaming back at you from products galore in the grocery store, making an appearance at one of his many restaurants around the world, including The Source in Washington, D.C., Cut in Las Vegas, or Chinois in Los Angeles. The man is everywhere.
This omnipresence is even more amazing given the fact that the Austrian-born toque has been headlining the celebrity chef circuit for three and a half decades – before that circuit even existed. In fact, he helped create it. Before Top Chef and the Food Network – both of which he later appeared on – Puck became a household name by becoming the forward-thinking face of California cuisine by debuting his now-iconic Spago on the Sunset Strip in 1982. Like Puck himself, it’s still going strong, though it’s now located in Beverly Hills, and there are spinoffs in Los Vegas, Maui, Singapore, Istanbul, and Avon, Colorado. That dazzling debut earned him a frenzied fan base, which helped launch a career as a restaurateur, television personality, cookbook author, and the face of dozens of products.
Over the course of more than 30 years in the spotlight, Puck has never been short of opinions. He’s always happy to share them in his practically trademarked Austrian accent. Here Wolfgang Puck talks trends, sharing his biggest likes and dislikes from over the course of his career.
Spice is Nice
“I enjoy spicier food than I used to. Whenever I go to an Italian restaurant, the first thing I ask for is crushed red pepper.”
“I love dark chocolate with minimum 70 percent cocoa. It can have a filling, but it can’t be too sweet. I don’t like sweet for sweet. I like sweet with flavor. If it’s overly sweet, you can’t taste anything. That’s why milk chocolate doesn’t taste like chocolate. So I always tell our pastry chefs that if you have caramel and salt, it’s better than caramel by itself.”
Learning to Cook Online
“I just published my last cookbook, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy: Light, Delicious Recipes and Easy Exercises for a Better Life. I don’t have time for them. The young people are all online these days anyway. So I’m launching Wolfgang Puck Cooking School in December or January. You sign up for $9 a month or $90 a year, and you can get any recipe you want on the website along with video tutorials from me.”
“I grew up on a farm, so farm-to-table is all I know. It’s not something someone invented. In the mid-Eighties, the Hotel Bel-Air asked me to cook a dinner, so I went to the farms outside Los Angeles for vegetables. Afterward, some of the guests sent the president of the hotel a complaint letter saying, ‘How disgusting that Hotel Bel-Air would use food coloring in its vegetables.’ I wondered what the heck they were talking about, so I went to the hotel’s chef to find out what they normally served. It was all canned, imported vegetables. Not very colorful at all. Stockton, California, is one of the biggest asparagus regions in the world, yet they were using canned asparagus.”
Your Parents’ Restaurant Food
“Even though they were all very popular, I didn’t have veal chops, filet mignon, or New York strip steak on my menu at Spago when we opened. I wanted to go 100 percent against. Instead, we offered chicken, pigeon, squab, lamb, fish, and quail. Also, I made pizza. People said, ‘Oh, a chef who trained in the best restaurants is making pizza? That’s not right.’ But we made them in our own style by using duck sausage, Santa Barbara shrimp, and smoked salmon. And it paid off.”
“I didn’t want my waiters at Spago in tuxedos. I had them wear black pants, a nice shirt, and an apron with the restaurant’s logo. I put one boule of bread on the table instead of serving it fancy. You could just rip a piece off. If you wanted butter, you had to ask for it. To this day, people still want high-quality products. White truffles and lobster are more popular than ever. But they want it in an informal way. They don’t want it to be fancy with a waiter in a tuxedo telling them the wine they chose doesn’t go well with their dish. I say, ‘Screw you. I drink what I want.’ Young people don’t want to be lectured when they go to a restaurant.”
“There are very few chefs – like Thomas Keller – who don’t do TV and are famous. But the most talented chefs didn’t do a lot of TV. Bobby Flay, Emeril, and Tom Colicchio are very good chefs, but they’re not at the top level and their restaurants were never at the top level. I did a show for Food Network and some other things, but I didn’t feel the need to keep doing it. I could do Good Morning America once a month if I wanted to, but I don’t. I’ve been asked to do Dancing With the Stars, but I can’t dance.”
“A company came to me in the Eighties and said, ‘We will pay you $250,000 a year for three years if you endorse our Champagne.’ That was a lot of money back then. My rent for the restaurant was $3,500 a month. However, they didn’t say the name of the product. It turns out it was André, a sweet, $3-a-bottle sparkling wine that was not Champagne. I told them no and that all the money in the world wouldn’t do me any good if I endorsed it.”
How many of Wolfgang Puck’s famous restaurants have you visited? Share your puckish dining experiences here or over on Facebook,
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell.