As he grills steaks and simmers corn soup for a family lunch, California-cuisine pioneer, Wolfgang Puck reflects on the 25th anniversary of his groundbreaking L.A. restaurant, Spago, and the future of his outrageously successful food empire.
On a hazy sunday morning in beverly Hills, Wolfgang Puck, dressed in expensive jeans and a souvenir T-shirt from St. Tropez, finds himself in a couple of places where he does not spend much time these days: at home and at the stove. Two white-smocked nannies are tending to his young boys, 21-month-old Oliver and four-month-old Alexander. His Ethiopian-born soon-to-be wife, handbag designer Gelila Assefa, is upstairs getting dressed. Having promised a simple family lunch with a nod to the Spago playbook, one of the world's most famous chefs uncorks a bottle of Mangiacane olive oil, pressed by a friend in Tuscany, and drizzles it with a flourish over a Wolfgang Puck Bistro collection electric grill. The oil hits the metal with a sizzle—and splatters all over his shirt.
"Now I'm cooking, for sure," Puck says merrily in his familiar Austrian accent. After a quick change of clothes, he dips a finger into a pot of simmering soup made with corn from nearby Chino Farms and diced bacon—and drips across his shirt again. Puck heads back to the closet one more time, but not before pronouncing the chowder, sweet and smoky and ready to be topped with a jalapeño-cilantro cream, fit for consumption. "I would eat it," he says, with characteristic understatement.
As he marks the 25th anniversary of Spago, the dining revolution he launched on a hillside above the Sunset Strip, the wunderkind of California cuisine is now the patriarch of America's first epicurean empire. Puck, or simply WP, has become a master of what marketers call "brand extension." He controls 14 restaurants, including four Spago locations (Californian), two Chinoises (Cal-Asian), two Postrios (contemporary American) and one Cut (steak house). He has more than 80 Wolfgang Puck Gourmet Express locations in 23 states and produces frozen pizza, canned soup and estate-grown coffee. He hawks his own line of cookware and appliances on the Home Shopping Network and runs catering venues from Los Angeles's Staples Center to the Georgia Aquarium. He employs some 4,500 workers, and last year, he fed an estimated 10 million people.
As he has grown richer, and his double-breasted chef whites have grown a bit snugger, Puck the cook has gradually been eclipsed by Puck the entrepreneur. He figures that he spends 200 days a year on the road, visiting his properties, meeting vendors and making media appearances. "Every year, I say I'm going to cut it down," says Puck, who is 58 and recently underwent hip-replacement surgery. "Then it's more." Like most big names in the culinary world, Puck hardly ever actually cooks. Or at least not according to the conventional notion of standing behind a stove, as he is now, making a spicy, hoisin-spiked sauce for the steaks he's preparing for lunch. By hiring good people, constructing a replicable system, then investing it with his charisma and discipline, Puck has helped redefine the role of the modern chef. "I'm more like a coach," he says, comparing Spago Beverly Hills's executive chef, Lee Hefter (an F&W Best New Chef 1998), to L.A. Lakers' guard Kobe Bryant and himself to the Lakers' Phil Jackson. "I do the cooking with my head."When Spago premiered in 1982, with its unobstructed dining room and open kitchen, there was no doubt about whose hands were cooking the house-made duck sausage or white asparagus—two of the hallmarks of the playful but meticulously prepared menu that helped make California the most famous food state in the country. Puck was informal, theatrical, generous; overnight, his restaurant became Hollywood's clubhouse, the perfect intersection of food, sex, fame and hype. If he did not invent all the innovations credited to Spago, he probably did more than anyone to popularize them: the warm salads, the wood-fired designer pizzas, the shift from classical French to casual Italian—daring ideas now solidly in the mainstream. A generation of protégés would go on to apply Puck's formula to their own restaurants. "He really took his cooks under his wing," says Puck acolyte Nancy Silverton, whose Pizzeria Mozza is the hottest table in L.A. right now. "He was in for dinner at Mozza last night—that's the best sort of flattery I can have."
By the late '90s, Spago had become a victim of its own success. The building, a former Russian-Armenian supper club, was in need of a face-lift. Puck's marriage to business partner Barbara Lazaroff, the restaurant's brassy and flamboyant interior designer, was starting to suffer, too. In 1997, Puck opened Spago Beverly Hills, christening it his flagship. In 2001, he closed the original Spago, which still sits vacant, covered in tarps and padlocks. "I was so ready to get out of the old Spago," Puck says. "I remember standing there, in 1995 maybe, and I said, 'You know, if I'm going to be here when I'm 60, I'm going to jump out the window.' "
It's a line echoed by one of Puck's favorite autobiographical yarns—about how, at age 14, he left the Austrian village of St. Veit to become a chef's apprentice. His father, a coal miner, considered this a less-than-manly path and, as a parting shot, reminded young Wolf that he would never amount to anything. The chef at the Hotel Post in Villach soon concurred, ordering Puck out of the kitchen. Broke and alone, Puck found himself on the banks of the river Drau, staring at the murky waters. "If I have to go home," he remembers thinking, "I'm going to have to kill myself." Instead, he returned to the hotel and, surreptitiously, went back to peeling potatoes in the cellar; he would continue to do his learning on the job, never attending high school, college or cooking school. It would have been easy for Puck to stall out along the way. "He went to great effort not to spend his life behind a stove," writes Patric Kuh in The Last Days of Haute Cuisine, "because spending his life behind a stove was a very real possibility." After working in Michelin three-star restaurants, like Maxim's in Paris, he came to the United States and made his name in Los Angeles in the mid '70s, at the French institution Ma Maison. Soon after the debut of Spago, he became America's first celebrity chef.
To commemorate Spago's 25th anniversary, Puck has issued an unusual edict, one that is both visionary and calculated. He has instructed his entire operation—even the airport Express restaurants—to buy meat and eggs only from farms that adhere to strict humane standards, which means that signature dishes such as pastrami foie gras are now off the menu. A group called Farm Sanctuary, which had been prodding Puck through pickets and an Internet campaign, took credit for awakening him to the "cruelty in his restaurants." Puck, though, insists he was merely looking for a way to put better ingredients on the table. "It doesn't seem to me that what happened 25 years ago is really that important," he says. "What matters is what we do with our next 25 years, for the well-being of ourselves and the well-being of our kids."
Being a father to two young children (he also has two teenage sons, Cameron and Byron, who live with Lazaroff) seems to have rearranged Puck's priorities. His rustic Spanish-style villa in the flats of Beverly Hills is cluttered with the armaments of his young ones: Tonka, Radio Flyer, Fisher-Price. He and Assefa will marry this summer, on the Italian isle of Capri. "One of the things for the future: I try to balance my life a little better," Puck says. "As you get older, you get smarter, hopefully."
Still preparing lunch, Puck moves away from the steak sauce and begins frying crispy potato pancakes to top with crème fraîche, smoked salmon and caviar, a homey tribute to his best-known pizza. Then come grilled vegetables and crostini slathered in goat cheese, an iconic Spago ingredient that helped create a market for artisanal dairies in the '80s. Puck uncorks a bottle of 2004 J. Rochioli Rachael's Vineyard Chardonnay. "We can't cook without wine," he says. "It's not a good sign." His bride-to-be, draped in a gauzy gown of purples and pinks, joins him in the kitchen. The smoke and steam coming off the strip steaks he's grilling from Snake River Farms in Boise, Idaho—cut, one assumes, from happy cows—momentarily overwhelms her. "Ooh la la," she says. The chef smiles and pokes the beef with a calloused finger. "People who grill together," he says, "stay together."
The kids are up from their naps. The sun has burned off the fog. Wolfgang Puck is ready to feed his family. "You cook, I serve," Assefa says. "That's a good deal."
Jesse Katz, a senior writer for Los Angeles magazine, recently won a James Beard M.F.K. Fisher writing award for his piece "Wheels of Fortune," about L.A.'s taco trucks.