Wolfgang Puck: Straight out of Hollywood

He is America's most famous chef. But can he work his celeb-friendly culinary magic on this side of the Atlantic? Guy Adams meets him

Guy Adams
Thursday 08 September 2011 00:00 BST

Wearing impeccable chef's whites, with the initials "WP" embroidered neatly above his left nipple, Wolfgang Puck arrives in the kitchen. Pots simmer, pans clatter, furnaces roar, and knives rattle against chopping boards. He says hello, casts an expert eye over proceedings, and begins talking about his newly opened London restaurant. Pretty soon – clang! – Chef Puck starts dropping names.

"If you have great food and great service, you still can be successful, but if you get the society coming in as well, that's really the perfect mix," he announces. "I want to see Cate Blanchett and Gordon Brown and Damien Hirst, and friends of mine such as Michael Caine and his wife Shakira, and Nick Mason, of Pink Floyd, there. If you see all these different people in one room when you walk in, you think, 'Wow, I am in the right place!' It just makes you feel better right away." Clang!

We are at Cut, a Michelin-starred steakhouse at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles. Puck, who is small, and younger-looking than his 62 years, is discussing ambitions for Cut's British sister outlet, which began trading at 45 Park Lane in Mayfair last week. If things go according to plan, the high-profile venture will launch his celeb-friendly brand on to the European market.

"Elton John told me once that Cut is really his favourite restaurant in America," Puck says, in trademark Germanic drawl. "When I first told him that I was planning opening a Cut in England, he said, 'Wow, I can't wait!'" Clang!

Messrs Caine, Mason, and John aren't the only acquaintances Chef Puck expects to see. "I also hope to see some of the younger people in London society there," he adds. "British soccer players, hopefully; David and Victoria Beckham sometimes eat at Cut in Los Angeles. They like good steak. I like football; we have become friendly." Clang! Clang!

In fairness, Wolfgang Puck has earned the right to drop names. Though relatively unknown to Europeans, he is probably the most famous chef in America, and certainly the wealthiest. Having lorded over Spago, Hollywood's most fashionable restaurant of the 1980s, the Austrian-born immigrant to the US became the first modern "celebrity" chef to leverage culinary fame into a business and media empire.

Today, his interests span 20 high-end restaurants, from Las Vegas to Tokyo, dozens of "Wolfgang Puck Bistros" and more than 80 "Wolfgang Puck Express" fast-food outlets. He sells packaged salads, soups, and frozen pizzas to America's supermarket shoppers, fronts television shows and writes newspaper columns. There's a range of Wolfgang Puck saucepans, bearing his loopy autograph, and he has even featured in an episode of The Simpsons.

Puck's catering company is meanwhile employed by everyone from Kim Kardashian to Jennifer Lopez, whose last weddings it catered. He has cooked for the past seven US Presidents and provided the meals at 18 Academy Awards, where each year he patrols the red carpet with a tray of chocolate Oscar statuettes. Altogether, he employs more than 1,000 people and turns over $350m a year. That success dwarfs Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, and any other member of the "cheferati" who followed in his footsteps.

Yet Chef Puck, who emigrated from Europe to the US in his twenties, has never attempted to make waves in Europe. Cut London will change all that. With just 70 seats it will bring his trademark razzmatazz to W1, in the guise of what Puck bills as a modern American steakhouse. Its menu is dominated by 15 cuts of beef, of various sizes, cooked on a wood-burning grill. Side dishes are plentiful and delicious, and there is an extensive tasting menu.

"Normally steakhouses look like a man's place, with banquettes and red leather, but we try to look different, so a lot of young women come," is how he explains the Cut concept. "We serve small steaks as well as large ones. And in London, we are offering quite a bit of fish, because Britain is an island."

In LA, you can spend almost $100 on one of the Cut's high-end steaks. Does he feel confident exporting this luxury to the recession-struck British capital? "If you give people what they want, there are still enough out there who have money and want to spend it. People are still buying Mercedes and Bentleys. In finance, they are making more than ever. So I think there is more than enough money there."

Puck's sunny optimism is perhaps a product of his life story, a textbook tale of star-spangled rags to riches. The son of a coal miner, who dealt him occasional beatings, he was brought up in an impoverished village in post-war Austria. At 14, he was sent to earn a crust in the kitchen of a local hotel. It was not an auspicious start.

"The chef was a little bit like my father. He drank a lot, and got very abusive. To him, I was this tiny little guy, and he just thought I was useless." Puck's job was to peel potatoes. "One day, the potatoes ran out, so chef called me into his office and told me to to go to hell, and that I was fired." Terrified about the prospect of going home jobless, Puck contemplated suicide. "I thought 'the best thing is probably to kill myself'." For an hour that night, he stood on a bridge, daring himself to jump. Then he an alternative presented itself. "I decided to just go back tomorrow and see what happens," he says. "Maybe the chef had been drunk, and would forget what had happened."

The trick worked. After completing his apprenticeship, Puck travelled to France, where he found work at the Oustau de Baumanière, Raymond Thuillier's world-famous Provençal restaurant. Under Thuillier's wing, he blossomed into a talented but headstrong young chef, before spending time at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco and several Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris. At 24, on the advice of a friend, he relocated to the USA.

Puck's first job Stateside was in the industrial sprawl of Indianapolis. "I thought I'd turned up in Hell," he says. "It was a very high-end restaurant, and yet half of the customers ate steak well done. They wanted it cooked to bits; if there was any pink inside they sent it back. I thought, 'these guys are crazy, they don't know how to eat!'" He stuck it out for a year, until he'd earned a green card. Then, in 1975, he upped sticks to Los Angeles, where he landed a job in an almost bankrupt restaurant in West Hollywood called Ma Maison.

When his first paycheck bounced, he asked the owner for a share of the business. With that under his belt, he set about achieving fame.

"At that time there were fewer restaurants in Hollywood and the timing was right for it to take off. All these stars started coming for lunch – Orson Welles, Jack Lemmon, Billy Wilder – and we became friends. Orson used to come in every day and we would talk about food. He would tell me about the restaurants he liked in Paris, and so on." Clang!

In 1982, Puck opened his first flagship restaurant, Spago. Conceived as a buzzy neighbourhood Italian, it had revolutionary qualities. The tables revolved around an "open" kitchen, while its menu was designed to introduce local clientele to European haute cuisine. To this end, Puck created what became his signature dish: pizzas with high-end toppings, such as smoked salmon and caviar. "I didn't want to make pizza the way they do in Italy. We needed to give it our own twist. A lot of chefs are traditional and do it very well. But the ones who are the most successful are the ones who change things. That is why someone like Heston Blumenthal is a genius."

Overnight, Spago became LA's most fashionable restaurant. It stayed that way for more than a decade. Small, relatively cramped, and chock-full of famous diners, its regulars ranged from Liz Taylor to Sidney Poitier, and John Travolta. "It was crazy. One time Linda Evans came in. At the time she was one of the biggest stars on television, but even she had to wait for an hour. It was completely out of control." Another time, Jimmy Connors and Lionel Richie were forced to eat pizza on the stairs, because no tables were available. "I love tennis, I'm a tennis player, and I felt so bad." Clang! Clang!

A year later Puck opened a branch of Spago in Tokyo. The move convinced him that the future of his career lay in leveraging fame into a multi-faceted business empire. He began opening restaurants across the US, and acting as a culinary "consultant" to airlines and major sports stadiums.

The relentless commercialisation has spawned its share of critics, and it's fair to say that not every Puck outlet does justice to the standards of Spago or Cut, which he launched as a concept in 2006. Indeed, the food writer Jay Rayner once declared that there ought to be a law against the Caesar Salad served at Puck's airport fast-food joints. Other high-end chefs sometimes mutter that they find it hard to take seriously a man who puts his name to frozen pizzas.

"They might be right and they might be wrong," he says in response. "With the pizzas, it's like saying a Chevrolet's never any good. Well sure, if you compare it to a Bentley, that's right. But it's not meant to be the same. Frozen pizza will never be as good as the ones you get at a restaurant, but then you're not going to go out every night."

Besides, Puck adds, there are limits to his commercialism. "I once refused to work with Marriott, because I felt they care about money and not food. I actually had a meeting with Phil Marriott, who was opening a hotel here, and wanted us to do the restaurant. I said, 'Mr Marriott, I will put a restaurant in there, but you can't call it a Marriott Hotel, you have to give it another name.' I thought it was good advice. But, oh my God, he was so pissed off, he said I was the most arrogant guy he'd ever met."

In the UK, he's backed by a more gold-chip hotel partner: the Sultan of Brunei's Dorchester Collection. Head chef David McIntyre has relocated from the Beverly Hills Cut, and Puck will be in town overseeing operations for a month or two as things bed down. After that, he'll be back to his six-day working weeks in Los Angeles, where he lives with his second wife and their two children, a stone's throw from the Beverly Wilshire.

"Restaurants are like having children: it's fun to make them, maybe, but then you have them for good and bad. You are going to have to raise them and if something goes wrong when they are 30 years old, they will still be your little boy. So it is very important it is for us to get things right in London."

With that, Chef Puck bids me farewell. Evening service is approaching, and they have bookings from some major Hollywoood players. Clang! Clang! Goodbye!

Swapping plates: Transatlantic culinary exchanges

They're sending us:

Balthazar The big-time New York institution is due to land in London's Covent Garden this winter, serving slap-up bistro grub from brunch to lunch and beyond.

The French Laundry With no expense spared, the celebrated American Thomas Keller will be recreating his Californian restaurant in pop-up form, for just 10 days in Harrods from 1 to 10 October

And we've sent them:

The Spotted Pig It's been springtime for April Bloomfield ever since the British chef brought the gastropub concept to Manhattan – to great acclaim.

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution Not content simply snatching sweets from British schoolkids, the indomitable Essex charmer headed west to grab some candy instead.

Will Coldwell

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