"This won't make us money. It's not for that."
No matter how much you've accomplished, no matter how far you've ascended in your storied career, fear of becoming irrelevant can be one hell of a motivator.
"That was always my biggest worry, that one day I'm going to end up not doing anything anymore, not learning anymore, not being curious," chef Wolfgang Puck says. "I think, for me, curiosity is the most important thing."
So the all-conquering celebrity chef is working on his most experimental restaurant yet. He's turning his test kitchen and its eight-seat chef's counter into The Rogue Experience, where the tasting menu will change every couple weeks or so. Tickets for the two-and-half-to-three-hour dinners, which start April 19, went on sale today via Tock.
Puck, known for dishes like smoked salmon pizza and his classic wiener schnitzel, is embracing modernist cuisine at The Rogue Experience, which is located at his corporate headquarters in West Hollywood's Pacific Design Center. He's hired 2014 Food & Wine Best New Chef Dave Beran, who previously ran the kitchen at the Alinea Group's concept-changing Next in Chicago. Puck has purchased high-tech equipment like a centrifuge to play around with dishes. He's got a distiller he's already used to make a reduced carrot juice that was tested as a dressing.
"It came out so strong and so tasty," Puck says. "We're going to work on that. It's a learning process. We always want to learn and do more."
The Rogue Experience will be a place where Puck's chefs, like Spago's Tetsu Yahagi, Hotel Bel-Air's Hugo Bolanos, Wolfgang Puck Catering's Eric Klein (previously at the Las Vegas Spago) and regional culinary director of Los Angeles and Cut Concepts Ari Rosenson (previously at Cut in Beverly Hills) can really exit their comfort zones, create new dishes and collaborate without limitations. It's not just about avant-garde technique. It's about whatever is in the chefs' minds.
"This project won't make us money," Puck says of The Rogue Experience. "It's not for that. It's to stretch their imaginations. Everybody is like a songwriter or a painter. You're not going to tell them what to write or paint. I don't want to put boundaries on anything. I want them to be as creative and imaginative as possible."
And as impromptu as possible.
"If we go to the farmers market and find something really great, we use it that night, " Puck says. "At the end, it's about the quality of ingredients. We're really lucky with produce in L.A. Today at the Santa Monica farmers market, there were strawberries that I could do anything with, maybe sorbet or pastries. They're so fresh."
Depending on what Yahagi gets from the local Japanese fisherman he uses, there might be black cod, spiny lobster or Santa Barbara prawns on the menu. Puck, who was born in Austria, also wants to celebrate the cultures of food from around the world, including the cultures of his chefs.
"Tetsu has the Japanese sensibility, so he never overdoes things," says Puck, who's thinking about making Southeast Asian dishes with Japanese technique and presentation.
Puck has encouraged Bolanos to incorporate flavors from his Latino heritage in new ways.
"I don't want to see a quesadilla the way it usually is," Puck says.
Beyond the work of his veteran chefs, Puck also sees his test kitchen as a place where he can be inspired by his younger staff. In fact, 27-year-old catering chef Alan Latourelle has been deeply involved in developing The Rogue Experience.
Puck isn't one of those people who complains about lazy, entitled millennials. Quite the contrary, he loves the energy of the twentysomethings who work for him. And he know that his test kitchen is an important talent-retention tool for his restaurant group.
"It's amazing how interested the young cooks are about the test kitchen," Puck says. "Their eyes light up, and they have so much passion. To keep talent, if we don't progress, if there's not an evolution, we fall behind. The young chefs will go somewhere else they think is more modern. We have very talented people. I'm actually shocked at how talented and eager and open these young people are. I wish in a way I could be 25 again."
Puck truly admires the curiosity of his junior employees, their devotion to figuring out cooking techniques in the kitchen but also on the Internet. And he sees the same kind of fire in his 22-year-old son, Byron, who's graduating Cornell this year and has already spent time learning from chefs like Grant Achatz, Eric Ripert, Guy Savoy and the Roca brothers.
"My son doesn't want to cook like me," Puck says proudly. "He wants to create his own style. It's a very exciting time for young chefs. I can learn more from a 28-year-old than a 68-year-old."
Puck, by the way, turns 68 in July. He thinks about how pioneering chef peers like Bradley Ogden and Mark Miller are out of the restaurant spotlight. He thinks about Paul Prudhomme passing away. He knows that time has a way of catching up with everybody, and the only thing to do is keep moving forward and stay ahead. So he's just wrapped up his new Spago pop-up at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and is putting his head down to work on launching The Rogue Experience in a month. He also has plans for a Spago pop-up in London this summer.
"We're keeping ourselves busy," says Puck, who stresses that some dishes at The Rogue Experience will be big successes and others might fail at first, but he's fine with that. He opened Chinois on Main in 1983 and remembers how hard it was to perfect his Peking duck preparation.
"I threw away so many ducks until I got it right," Puck says.
Puck is making a big effort for his tiny test-kitchen restaurant, a concept he might eventually expand into something larger with maybe 24 seats. It's a new kind of challenge for a chef who's used to doing more than 200 covers a night at Spago. But because this is Wolfgang Puck, who's cooked at the Oscars for more than two decades and is friendly with so many A-listers, The Rogue Experience will still feel like a major Hollywood production.
"Everybody I talk to, even Steven Spielberg, says they can't wait to come," Puck says. "People like Justin Timberlake, Leo DiCaprio, they say, 'It's so exciting, I have to come.' I tell them, 'First, I have to open the restaurant.'"
It's clear by now that Puck is in this for the long haul.
"At Spago, we've been open 35 years and our best year was last year," he says. "How many restaurants can say that? Most of them don't live 10 years."
Puck knows that the longevity of his restaurants is based on quality food and consistency and attentive service and giving customers a total-package experience. He wants The Rogue Experience to revolve around the same principles even while it serves something that a chef might have just figured out that afternoon.
"What we want is to marry the new with what we do," Puck says.
Many L.A. restaurants, Puck has noticed, have somewhat figured out the food part of the equation but fall quite short beyond that.
"A lot of the restaurants we have downtown, they open for three years and they close," Puck says. "Many of these restaurants become these instant sensations. They don't even have time to build a clientele."
Puck mentions Alma, which opened downtown in 2012 and closed in 2015 before being reborn at a West Hollywood hotel.
"Bon Appetit said it was the best new restaurant," Puck says. "I was very excited to go. Then I went there for dinner and I said, 'You know what, it's not worth it.' If it had been $65, I would have said, 'OK, it's good for the price.'"
Puck says he would rather go to a restaurant like Matsuhisa, which has been open since 1987 and still gives him food and service that delights him every time he visits.
There's something deeply pleasing about knowing what to expect, of course. But The Rogue Experience is about the exact opposite of guests coming back for the same experience again and again. It's about guests being willing to spend a good amount of money to try something new each time they visit.
"We don't want to get to a place where it becomes a routine," Puck says.
Tickets for The Rogue Experience (located at 8687 Melrose Ave., Blue Building, West Hollywood) through May 13 are available for $155, not including tax and gratuity, with an optional $85 wine pairing or beverages available a la carte. Ticketed dinners are 7:30 on Wednesdays through Fridays each week. Saturdays are reserved for buy-outs, with the possibility of expanding to 10 seats. For inquiries, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.