Friday, January 13, 2012

[EID Feature] A Conversation with Wolfgang Puck

He's been called "The Greatest Chef in the World." In contemporary culture, the name Wolfgang Puck is as familiar a household name as Tom Cruise and Barack Obama. He has had a long, illustrious career working in the finest restaurants in Paris and Monaco, before moving to America and eventually becoming the world's first true celebrity chef. His flagship restaurant Spago opened 30 years ago this year in West Hollywood (Spago Beverly Hills opened in 1997); it has been awarded Michelin stars, received a James Beard Award for Outstanding Service, and is in the Fine Dining Hall of Fame.

From the very beginning, Puck has been at the forefront of every major food trend that has spread to the masses: artisan pizza, farm-to-table dining, Asian fusion -- Puck, Puck, Puck. Puck has parlayed his fame in the kitchen to fame on the screen: he has had guest appearances on prime time shows like Frasier and Las Vegas; he's had his own show and plenty of cameos on the Food Network; he has won a Daytime Emmy Award for the show Wolfgang Puck. The man has done everything.

I had the chance to sit down with Mr. Puck earlier this week for an interview for the upcoming issue of Ambassador Magazine. He was in town hosting a big dinner at his restaurant inside the MGM Grand Detroit for the North American International Auto Show. I had free rein to ask him whatever I wanted ... but what the hell do you ask someone like Wolfgang Puck? After asking some of the more obligatory "what are your favorite places in Detroit" questions, I decided to ask the questions I was most interested in hearing the answers to ... I mean, when's the next time I'm going to get to sit down with Wolfgang Puck and ask him about his life, right?

What I found was a man with incredible insight into the last three decades of evolving American food culture, the very man who more or less spearheaded the movement and brought a whole new awareness of food to the average American table. I found a man who laughs at the cockiness and follies of his youth. A man from very humble beginnings who was told by everyone that he would never amount to anything. A man who once contemplated suicide.

The following are excerpts from our hour-long conversation. Other portions of the interview not included here will be in the spring issue of Ambassador.

Nicole Rupersburg: It wasn't all that long ago that the profession of a chef wasn't afforded a great deal of respect, especially not in America. You've been highly-regarded and well-respected for a long time, but still you've seen some very significant changes in the fine dining industry and celebrity chef culture. What has that experience been like for you?

Wolfgang Puck
Well I think it has changed a lot, obviously. I still remember when I started in Indianapolis first ... then I came to LA. I remember I went with a friend of mine who was a racecar driver. … We go to this club, and I ask a girl to dance … and we danced and she asked me what I do and I said, 'I’m a cook.' Because in France you say cuisinier, you don’t say you’re a chef you say you’re a cuisinier because that’s your craft. And so [I said I cooked]; as soon as the dance was over she left! I said if I invite another girl I’m going to tell them I’m a racecar driver! That would work much better!

By '86 I remember I had my first cookbook out -- I put my first cookbook out in '81 -- the second one I put out in '86, and I still remember I was at [Spago] and there was a famous agent at the time from the TAA which is the biggest agency in Hollywood. [He was a regular] and it was his wife’s birthday and I bring him my new cookbook, I said 'Here, let me give this to your wife for her birthday' and he said, 'How come I don’t know about this cookbook, I didn’t hear about it or see it on TV, where do you promote it?' I said 'Well I did AM Los Angeles,' which is a local show [broadcast] there and out of New York. So he said 'You have to promote it nationally,' and I said 'Well we tried to, we tried to get on Good Morning America but they already had Julia Child there and they didn’t want to' …so he said, 'What do you mean they didn’t want to do it, let me call them.' He called them up, two days later somebody from Good Morning America came to LA, talked to me and said, 'When do you want to go on the TV show?'

And from there it happened more and more and more … I did the Tonight Show and then I did David Letterman ... I was like the first chef on David Letterman, like a real professional chef, I’m not talking about Julia Child or somebody like that. And [these appearances] helped [promote the restaurant], a lot.

What made you decide to move to America, and to Indianapolis specifically?

WP: It was an accident in a way, I lived in Paris and a friend of mine had a friend in America who was opening a restaurant in New York, and we always watched America movies and [would see] all the big cars. You think everyone is rich because they [drive] the Chevrolet and at that time in Europe it was more expensive than a Mercecdes, so I said well in America everybody is rich or they are cowboys, so I said okay, I’m going to go to New York. I was 23 or 24 years old. And he opened a shop in New York, I came to New York and I really didn’t like it, I used to work in all these [Michelin-rated] 3-star restaurants and at that time, I was very difficult when I was young, now I’m easy going! [I said], 'I’m not working in a restaurant like that, this is not what I’ve worked for for the last 7 years.'

And then a friend of mine who owned this restaurant  in New York, I knew him from Paris so I went to see him and I said, 'You know [I don’t want to work in this type of restaurant]' and he said 'No, you’re right, you worked in all these 3-star restaurants, you should go into a fine dining French restaurant.' And then he said 'If you would have come two months earlier, I have this sous chef and he just started and he seems good, so we don’t need [anybody here], but let me find out.' So he called this guy in Chicago [who worked with a national restaurant group], so they had one [restaurant] in Indianapolis. So they said 'You know, they need a chef in Indianapolis,' and I said, 'Oh fantastic, I want to go!' Because I lived in Monte Carlo, and they’re famous for the auto races! [Ed. note: Puck is implying his excitement for Indianapolis stemmed from his European perception of what auto racing cities look like, and his own inner car geek.]

So in the meantime I already spent the money, I had no money left, I had enough money to take the Greyhound Bus from New York to Indianapolis and it took like forever to get there, like a day and a half. And then I arrived in Indianapolis and was like, oh [shit.] I arrived in November, it was gray, I thought there must be something nice. The Speedway there is in a little town, so I went there and said, 'This is the Speedway where there is the famous races?' and yeah, that’s what it is; it is what it is!

The good thing is I started to work there [at the French restaurant La Tour] ... they had the silver, the service, really like in a French restaurant. They [had duck on the menu and no one was used to duck] so we overcooked it all the time … half of [the steaks] were ordered well done, and I tried to make them …in one year in Indianapolis I cooked more steaks well done than I did for the rest of my career!

I stayed there for a year, it was very easy to get a green card. The girls were very easy too, they figured [he’s foreign he must be different!] When I got my green card it was the eighth time [the company] lost the contract to the restaurant there, so they didn’t want me to stay because they wanted to take out as many people as possible so that the new company who would come in to manage the restaurant doesn’t have it too easy. So sure enough they got me a job at their restaurant in Los Angeles. So I took that, I bought a Cadillac, I put a U-Haul on my Cadillac and with a friend of mine, we drove to LA and worked in this restaurant downtown.

Through a friend we found this little bistro there called Ma Maison, which was almost bankrupt at the time and I started to work there in 1975. We had no guests, basically my first paycheck bounced, I left that restaurant downtown because they had this German manager there who thinks he knows everything and thinks he could write the menu of the restaurant where I was the chef and I got pissed off, 'you write it, you cook it.' Then I went to Ma Maison, I go to the bank and the paycheck bounced! And I said 'oh shit, I just quit my job,' which was I guess at least paid and everything and now here they don’t have any money. So I made a deal with Ma Maison, give me 10% of the restaurant ... it started out we used to do 30 dinners and 25 lunches and after about 6-8 months lunches [they more than doubled] … we [had some] good customers, like Orson Welles used to come there … Gene Kelly was an investor … then we got a REALLY good write-up in Gourmet Magazine, and it was a year into it, and they said 'What should we do?' [Ed. note: Puck explains the kitchen was very small and they couldn't handle a huge influx of customers without sacrificing service and quality, so he suggested they make the phone number unlisted.]

Tuna sashimi at Detroit's Wolfgang Puck Grille. Photo by Nicole Rupersburg.
And that made the opposite reaction, all of a sudden everybody wants to go, I got two pages [in a review] of the restaurant being so snobby and so chic that they wouldn’t list their phone number so naturally they printed it, and then like 6 months later I remodeled the kitchen and got a nicer kitchen … the restaurant became very well known but [I wanted to do things on my own]. I wanted a raise, I didn’t want to have to ask for a raise, every time I want a raise I have to go and ask and they say 'Why you want a raise,?' and I say 'Because you’re driving a Bentley and I’m driving a station wagon.' So then I said sooner or later I have to open my own restaurant, and I told them that at the beginning, I said 'As soon as I have $30,000 in the bank I’m going to open my own restaurant.' I didn’t know it was going to take a long time and it took years to get there.

So I started to get known first by the customers, and then the Times did a nice write up and some other magazines, so by 1980, I say 'It’s really time to go my own thing.' I said you know, I shouldn’t go and do exactly what I did before … to have an elaborate French restaurant type thing. I said you know LA is really different, we have different cultures, and it feels [like] in Italy, you know the climate, the countryside, and then so I said I want to open a restaurant which reflects that a little bit.

[In Europe] I had a friend who had a restaurant where they make pizzas, more traditional pizzas but good ones. The guy wasn’t really a chef, he was a bricklayer basically, his father wanted this restaurant so he opened it up ... I [wanted to do that] because there’s no good pizza in LA. I called the Fire Department and said 'I want to build a restaurant with a wood-burning stove' and at the beginning they said 'No, you can’t do that' … [I said, 'It’s not any different,' finally they said okay]. So we built Spago with a wood-burning oven and a wood-burning grill, everything of the highest quality, and by then I found somebody who raised lamb for us, so we had all this baby spring lamb, I had a farmer who had great [produce].

I used to go to the fish market where the Japanese chefs would go, I had a friend who had a Japanese restaurant and they used to go to the same market every day and I used to go to the same ones. They had all this beautiful tuna; at that time there was no Caucasian restaurant where they served raw fish, so by then I opened Spago and had a tuna sashimi … already at that time I said we should have a restaurant that shows the different influences of the culture of the city. You know we have the Little Tokyo, we have the Chinatown, we have the Koreatown, so I started to [play around with that], I was always very interested in things I didn’t know. And then a year after opening Spago we opened Chinois, which was really an Asian restaurant and really the first fusion restaurant, where I made Chinese-style food and some of them were more Chinese and some of them were influenced from SE Asia.

And really Spago was the first restaurant like with white tablecloths with an open kitchen. So you walked into the kitchen…you saw the kitchen in front of you and it was informal, it was fun, but the quality and what was serious was in what was on the plate. I would go to the fish market, met a farmer and would go down there to pick up vegetables, so it was really an exciting time and for me especially because at that time you could go to the local market and find fresh basil in October, November, December or anything, or get fresh tomatoes or get strawberries. They had everything at this [market], I was like blown away. [We had gardens at the restaurants in Europe] so for me it was like a dream. So anyway we started to make food that was really different but the quality was there, so we had lamb, I aged it for one week so it was really tender and light, we had fish or tuna right from the market everyday, we had vegetables from the farm, and I know right now it’s kind of a cliché when you say you go from the farm to the kitchen...

WP, NR and Wolfgang Puck Grille Executive Chef Marc Djozlija
NR: But you were kind of at the forefront of that!
WP: I know, well the funny thing is I grew up on a farm, so when my mother made vegetable soup, she went in the garden and she picked [vegetables], chopped them up and made soup and it always tasted wonderful because it was right from the garden and two hours later we ate it. So for me it was totally normal, you know I didn’t grow up in the big city where you had to go to the supermarket to get tomatoes and the zucchinis were like half a mile long, so it was just a normal thing to me so when I found this farm, it was like heaven on earth, I could go out on the field and pick strawberries … that were much better than anything you would get in the supermarket, they had melon, all different types of tomatoes -- what became famous as heirloom tomatoes -- it was really like, amazing, but it was normal. When I was at [in Paris] we had six farmers bringing us vegetables, bringing us green beans, like that long [gestures about 3 inches] and long ones like the haricot vert, we told them how we wanted them. It was the same thing, I told the family I want haricot vert and I want them that small and they said okay, whatever size you want. They had different kinds of chilies … and at that time that was fairly new, maybe ethnic markets had it but not if you lived in west LA. So it was really an exciting moment, and that was really when the whole cooking in America really started was in the early '80s.

NR: It must be interesting to you to see how the food culture has evolved.
WP: It's totally different [than it was 30 years ago]. I remember …Americans think of the bright red cherries so I used to have to buy the bright red cherries for my Chinese duck. At that time goat cheese was something new so when I put goat cheese on a pizza it was like 'Oh my God, you put goat cheese on a pizza, you’re crazy, why would you do that?'

Things today that are completely mainstream and completely normal, at the time it was like 'oh my God,' like sundried tomatoes or something like that. I mean, the simplest things like having fresh herbs, anything like that was like unheard of it only because it was fresh and people were not used to having that. I remember the best thing was in 1987, I was doing consulting then ... so I did consulting at the Bel Air Hotel, they wanted to expand the hotel by 30 rooms… to do that in the residential neighborhood, and the residential neighborhood in Bel Air is the most expensive neighborhood in LA, they had to get approval from the homeowners ... so they invited all the homeowners to a dinner, and I went and made the dinner for them. I went to the farm and picked the best green beans and carrots and everything and cooked them in what I thought was the right way. And a week later the president of the hotel came to me with a letter and said 'Look at this letter.' I said 'Okay, what.'

The head of the homeowner association wrote that they never saw a thing like the Bel Air Hotel serving vegetables with food coloring in them. I went over to the hotel [kitchen] and I opened the [pantry]. They had vegetables in cans! They had haricot vert in cans, they had all these vegetables in cans and they were all a gray color, so I had to do the dinner all over again. I said 'If you want me to do the dinner, I’m not showing up. You can put my name on it because I’m not going to open up cans and put canned green beans on because the neighbors don’t know what vegetables are.' And so they did the dinner again … these are people who could travel to Europe, who lived in the most expensive neighborhoods in America and thought canned vegetables were the ones to use. …

Wolfgang Puck and business partner Barbara Lazaroff
The following portion was Puck speaking candidly after the formal portion of the interview.

: When I was 10 my stepfather always would tell me I was good for nothing. My mother was a professional chef so she found me this job [at a restaurant], and naturally when I told my father 'I’m going to learn how to cook' he said 'You’re good for nothing, you’ll never be anything anyway so you might as well do that.' I was 14 years old.

[I rented a room from an older lady who’s husband had died], so I found a room and went to work at this hotel, it was a small hotel and the chef was crazy … like, a month into it on a Sunday, we ran out of potatoes, mashed potatoes, potatoes puree, we had no potatoes and naturally it was all my fault. And in the meantime they had like 15 apprentices in the kitchen, and they all [pointed at] the little guy over there, he was the one peeling potatoes, so he yelled at me, 'You’re good for nothing, you better go back to your mother's,' and I said, I’m not going back home to see my father, he already told me I’m good for nothing, now this guy is telling me the same thing. So at that time, I went to the river, I said I’m going to kill myself. I’m going to jump into the river and kill myself. I was standing on the river and I was thinking about jumping. [All of a sudden I came to] and then the next day I went back, I said maybe he was [wrong], maybe he didn’t mean it or whatever, I’m going to go back and see what happened.

So I arrived in the morning at the hotel and the apprentice was there ahead of me and saw me coming back and he was so excited that I’d come back so HE didn’t have to peel potatoes. He said 'Okay, come down to the vegetable cellar,' so I go down into the vegetable cellar, and I was peeling potatoes … [he would sneak me sandwiches] and maybe 10 days later, I was hiding down there, and the chef walks down into the vegetable cellar. He said 'What are you doing here?' I said 'Well I cannot go home, I will kill myself if I have to go home.' And then he called the owner and said 'Here’s this guy, I fired him two weeks ago but he’s still here' and then the owner had another hotel in the town and a smaller restaurant, he said 'You know if he’s so stuck on sticking it out, maybe we should give him a try at the other place.' So he gave me a job at the other place.

[Later, after Puck became famous] Then my father said, 'You know, if it hadn’t been for me being so tough on you, you would have amounted to nothing.' And then the old chef who fired me became the chef after in this restaurant where they put me, when I was already in France I came to visit … and he said 'The old style of apprenticeship was really the best thing.'

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