Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck talks success, champagne and his Oscar-winning Mac & Cheese
Gentleman’s Journal join the 68-year-old icon in his kitchen to learn the ropes and recipes that have made Puck’s career
Wolfgang Puck is not only America’s most famous celebrity chef, he is also chef to America’s most famous celebrities. The Austrian-born 69-year-old has cheffed for the Oscars every year for the last 24, lining the stomach of every gong-hungry star to have sashayed the red carpet, from Elizabeth Taylor to Barbara Streisand, John Travolta to Jennifer Lawrence.
His empire now encompasses a couple of dozen fine-dining restaurants – including the legendary Spago in Beverly Hills, Chinois in Santa Monica, The Hotel Bel Air and CUT in LA and London (among other cities) – a score of airport lounge “dining locations” and his own range of branded cookware.
And, last year, he became only the second chef in history to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In short, the man knows fine dining like Dionysus knew how to party. We sat down with him at his restaurant CUT, at 45 Park Lane, in London, to chew over his life, his work and his tips to becoming a better cook.
I got the cooking bug from my mother. I grew up in a small Austrian town where she was a hotel chef and spent much of my childhood in the kitchen with her. My stepdad was a coal miner and a boxer. A tough guy, and such an asshole. He thought beating up his kids would make them better. My mother should have shot him.
My first job was in a kitchen peeling vegetables. The chef there was as crazy as my dad. One day we ran out of potatoes. Naturally it was my fault. But I was 14; I didn’t know how many potatoes we needed each day. The chef screamed at me and called me good for nothing and told me to go home to my mother.
At 18, I moved to France, where Raymond Thuilier, the owner of Provence’s famous Baumanière, hired me. He became my mentor – town mayor, painter, and a great chef who cooked from the heart without recipes – a real Renaissance man.
When I was 24, I moved to LA. And nine years later, in 1982, I opened my first restaurant, Spago. I have opened many restaurants in the years since, but Spago is the longest-standing. Last year, in fact, was it’s best year ever.
Sometimes the best ideas come by accident. When we opened Spago, for example, we offered smoked salmon and caviar on brioche. Then, one night, we ran out of brioche just before Joan Rivers came in and ordered it. I wasn’t going to go out at 11pm to buy bread, so I made a pizza dough and put the toppings on that. I cut it into triangles and sent it out to her. She ate it all without a word. It gave me an idea. Smoked salmon and caviar pizza is now one of my most famous dishes.
I’ve come to know most of Hollywood’s celebrities. I remember when Barbara Streisand came up to me at the Bel Air Hotel and said, “Wolfgang, are you doing the Oscars again?” I said I was, and she replied, “Just be sure to make me my chicken pot pie.” So now we make the chicken pot pie every year now. Hundreds of them. And Mac & Cheese with truffles (John Travolta’s favourite). Comfort food – that’s what stars really want.
Puck’s signature (and ever-so-delicious) Mac & Cheese
My most memorable moment? When I catered for one of (bon-vivant Hollywood agent) Swifty Lazar’s legendary Oscars parties in the 80s. All the Old Hollywood were there – Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Nicholson. Then, in comes Madonna with Michael Jackson. I still remember the moment they came in. But to have all the establishment in Hollywood in my restaurant, eating my food… that was a special night.
My biggest mistake? Opening a restaurant with its own brand of beer in 1989. It was a $20m project and all my best customers had invested, from Bruce Springsteen to Jack Nicholson and Barbara Streisand. The restaurant did very well. We did a birthday for Sean Connery and a movie opening for Julia Roberts. But the brewery didn’t put in the key ingredient that pasteurises the beer. So it went bad as soon as it went into the bottle. It was a disaster and all the beer got sent back. So instead of selling a million cases a year, the most we sold was 30,000.
The worst crime a chef can commit in the kitchen is cheating on the quality of the ingredients. For me quality is the most important thing, from beginning to end. People say, “Oh well, nobody will know.” Well, I know. And if I know it’s not right, a diner might too.
A little seasoning for Puck’s world famous steak
The one thing my fridge is never without? Champagne. I love it, in case somebody comes over. If you’re a single guy it’s useful if a girl comes round, too. But it has to be good champagne. For me, I’m very spoiled, so it has to be a vintage Lanson, or Krug.
Old is just a state of mind. I’m 68 and I don’t feel old. You can be old when you’re 55 or when you’re 80. I still go skiing, play with the kids and play singles tennis. People who retire at 65 and get their pension might say, “OK, now I’m old.” But if you continue, it is just a continuation of your life. You don’t get old so fast.
Wolfgang’s CUTcakes & Tea is served at at Dorchester Collection’s Mayfair hotel, 45 Park Lane, on Monday to Saturday at 2.30pm and at 3.30pm, priced from £55 per person.