Wolfgang Puck's Culinary Adventure
With zest for cooking and a loyal following, this top chef has helped foster a first-rate American cuisine and become a successful restaurateur
BOSTON — GOSH, it's almost as if Wolfgang Puck reinvented the meal. He brought us gourmet pizza. He rendered casual dining chic. He caters to the stars. If he's not the king of California cuisine, he certainly gets credit for catapulting it to fame.
This year marks a decade of success for Chef Puck, a celebrity among celebrities. In 10 years he has opened five restaurants to critical acclaim, and they continue to do phenomenally well. Puck recently visited the Monitor to talk about "Adventures in the Kitchen" (Random House, $30), his third and newest cookbook.
He is a casual talker with a boyish smile. He has been described as having a shape like a fireplug; today, he looks especially artist-like, with his black turtleneck and combed-back hair. He speaks in a German accent similar to that of his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger (they are both from Austria) and is as affable in person as he is on "Good Morning, America" or "The David Letterman Show."
One of Puck's secrets, it appears, is simply that he loves to cook. Cooking is his vocation and his avocation, he says. But with his passion to please others through cooking comes a sense of insecurity: "I could have 300 happy customers and one complains about something for right or for wrong, I go home and I am so miserable. I cannot sleep," he says. "It drives me crazy."
Puck's talent for cookery has been compared to that of a musician with perfect pitch. His cuisine has been described as inventive, interpretive, free-spirited, Californian, new-worldly, even "Puckish." But when asked how he would describe his cuisine, Puck cocks his head and answers: "I think it's - myself."
"I cook what I like to eat," he says, as he thumbs through some photos in "Adventures." A sampling of the recipes includes Puck's Pizza, Pasta Rounds With Spinach-Ricotta Mousse, Tempura Sashimi with Uni Sauce, Shrimp Skewers With Almond Pesto, Chicken Lasagne, Pork Loin with Thai Sauce, Three-Chocolate Frozen Mousse, and even chocolate chip cookies.
Given such cross-cultural creations, Puck might be considered a showoff if it weren't for his humble demeanor and his extensive classical training. Puck started working in a restaurant in Austria at age 14; his mother was a hotel chef. Later, he cooked around France, including Maxim's in Paris. In 1973 he moved to the United States and Indianapolis's La Tour. He wound up in California, starring at Ma Maison before venturing out on his own.
California cooking has evolved into a top-notch cuisine, says Puck - a first for America. Before, American cuisine and restaurants were considered second-rate overseas. Even in America the first-rate restaurants were not "American," they were French, Italian, or maybe Chinese, he explains. An American 'first'
But California-style has changed all that. "I think it's the first time - except maybe the golden arches, the burger franchises - that we actually exported a style of restaurant to other countries," says Puck. "We now have people come from Europe to learn in California."
He refers to not only the style of food - including a lot of fresh greens, fruit, not-too-heavy sauces - but also the style of restaurant. "Generally, the restaurants are very airy, very bright, not stuffy at all," he says. Barbara Lazaroff, his wife and partner, lends her interior design and architectural expertise to Puck's restaurants. California-style eateries have popped up in New York, Chicago, and even Japan.
"We opened a Spago in Tokyo," Puck notes. "Even the Japanese, who are so Francophile, and they're really dreamy about French food; little by little they look at California and come and say 'Oh, we want to do restaurants like in California.
How did a first-rate American cuisine come about? "Finally, chefs in America started to own their own restaurants. And that's what happened in France: When chefs started to own their own restaurants, they could make up the food they really wanted to cook, not what somebody else told them to cook.... [Ownership] is a very important part because it gives you freedom."
Choosing food and inventing dishes is a very democratic process, says Puck, at least in his restaurants. There is some structure, but spontaneity and improvisation are key. Some dishes even come about by mistake, he unabashedly admits. One time they made "shrimpcakes" because they ran out of crab for crabcakes, for example.
For a menu to work, Puck and his staff must strike a balance between keeping the selection of dishes bubbling and offering the favorites or "classics" people have come to expect.
At Chinois, for example, they still offer dishes they served at the beginning: tempura sashimi, "a very Chinese lobster risotto," and Mongolian lamb chops. If Puck takes them off the menu, customers ask why. "And I tell them, 'Listen: I'm tired of cooking the same thing.' They say: 'Listen, we are not tired of eating it. Since a restaurant is a business, the customer is always right.
One of Puck's own favorite foods is potatoes. "I remember when my mother used to cook something, if she didn't make mashed potatoes with it, I didn't even eat the main course. To me, the mashed potatoes were more important than the main course. Still I love them today.
"We have customers like [filmmaker] Billy Wilder," Puck says, "who also grew up in Austria. And when he comes he wants something, he wants potatoes with it.... One day - I still remember - I love mashed potatoes with truffles, so one day I cooked up potatoes, made him mashed potatoes with truffles.
"He sent it back and said 'You know, just make me simple mashed potatoes.' I made mashed potatoes which cost me $50!"
Keeping people happy - both clientele and staff - has been a principle part of Puck's career. What Americans want
"He is a marvelous chef, both technically and just in terms of ideas," says Ruth Reichl, food editor and restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times. "The thing that made him so important in the food community in America was that he was the first person in America to put his finger on what it was Americans wanted. He developed an American-style restaurant that was distinct from the European-style restaurant," she says. Puck found that Americans not only wanted simple food, they wanted to have fun and vie w a restaurant as not just a special-occasion place.
"The other thing that has really been his brilliance is he understands that the success of the restaurant depends on the people on his staff," Ms. Reichl continues. Many chefs and waiters have been with him for years. "It is almost impossible to find anyone who will say anything bad about him," she says.
Puck's view is consistent: "If you hire really intelligent people who stay with you for a while, you have to give them some freedom and let them do what they like to do," he says. He often refers to his restaurants and staff as he would a family. (He and his wife have one child, a son, Cameron.)
Is he hard to work for? "I don't know. I told my wife I'm very easy to live with, but she says 'No,' so I don't know," Puck says, and laughs.
"I'm demanding because I like a certain way, certain things. I'm not very difficult; I'm not really a pain in the neck with anybody or try to scream around or get crazy or something like that, but I am demanding and I want people really to work hard...."
For him, that means at least 12-hour day, six days a week. "If they don't want that, they have to go somewhere else," the master chef concludes. "We find enough people to do that, really."