Wolfgang Puck

F&W Star Chef

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Chef: Wolfgang Puck

Restaurants: Spago, Chinois on Main, and more (Nationwide)

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Well, there are two people. My mother was a professional pastry chef in Austria. She taught me to cook whatever is fresh in your garden. She was the first one who taught me to cook farm-to-table, because I grew up on a farm!

The second was Raymond Thuilier. He was my biggest mentor. He was the chef at a restaurant called L'Oustau de Baumanière, in Les Baux-de-Provence, where I apprenticed. The cooking at a three-star Michelin restaurant was much more complex than on a farm in Austria. But it was also all about the ingredients. He used to get baby lambs, fresh fish from the Mediterranean, local vegetables, and everything was cooked to order. He also taught me about passion. He was passionate about everything he did. And he was 72 years old when I got there.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
When I was about 14 and had just started apprenticing at a hotel, I made a birthday cake for my grandmother’s 60th birthday. I got a recipe from the pastry chef. But because he was doing production work for the hotel, the recipe he gave me made four chocolate cakes. I went out and bought a crazy amount of stuff, like 48 eggs and three pounds of butter. My grandmother even asked me, “What the heck are you doing?” But I told her, “Don’t worry, you’re going to get the best birthday cake ever.” I messed it up so badly, because I didn’t have a bowl big enough to mix it. I had to throw half of the stuff away. I put what was left in a mold and baked it. It came out like a rock. My grandmother soaked it in some rum and sugar like a baba au rhum. We had it after lunch with some whipped cream. My sister and I fell asleep because there was so much rum in it.

What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
It’s better to try something simpler, and to read the recipe really well!

Favorite cookbook of all time?
I like books by writers like Curnonsky, MFK Fisher, Ruth Reichl—books that tell stories about food.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
We’re so versatile. We make pizza and Chinese food and a lot in between. Thirty years ago, I opened Chinois on Main, the first fusion restaurant. I’ve always been interested in diversifying and learning about new things. That’s really my main mission: I always want to learn about something I don’t know. Without imitating it, I want to make it in my own style.

Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
Well, there’s the Chinois lobster, which is still so popular, or the smoked salmon pizza, which we had for 15 years at Spago. But it’s not a precise story, and I’d rather look at cooking as an evolution. A lot of our guests love no change, but I love change. At Spago, the most popular dish was Wiener schnitzel, so I took it off the menu. Otherwise I was going to be cooking it to my grave.

What is a dish that captures your approach today?
I like to look at how to cook a specific ingredient in the best possible way. Like seafood—if I get some wild Alaskan king salmon, how do I make it delicious? I decided to cook it for 12 minutes at very low temperature, then 2 minutes over charcoal wood-burning grill.

I love the flavor of the wood-fired grill; it typifies ancient California cooking before we had induction, electricity or gas, when everybody used oak. Then the modern technique is to cook it in the circulator. I like combining the old and the new.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
There are a lot left to master. I would love to have a great Indian restaurant, and modernize it, adapt it to my style.

What are your talents besides cooking?
I love tennis, and skiing. I’m going to go to Switzerland for skiing in January. We have a Spago in Vail, so I can go there, and ski in and out straight from the restaurant. I can have a bowl of pasta with white truffles, a glass of good Barolo and just hang out.

Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
For me, the biggest secret weapon is to have good wine with any dish.

What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
I don’t like beer. I like Pinot the most. A great Burgundy is my favorite wine. My favorite champagne is Krug. It has finesse and flavor, and it with almost everything. I like to drink Krug and kobe steak, K & K. The bubbles remove the fat from your tongue, and lighten your palate.

If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
I’d get some Wolfgang Puck brand cans of soup! If you keep the can in the sun long enough, it will heat up, and I’ll have a warm soup with a lot of flavor. So I’ll bring my canned soups and a can opener.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I keep chocolate truffles in the freezer. Della [Gossett] makes them for me at Spago. And François Payard makes good ones in New York. I like them really cold so they melt really slowly. I also love raspberries, and always have them in the fridge. They’re best at room temperature, but I can’t keep them outside, they get too soft too fast because it’s warm in Southern California.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
The tape I made with my mother in the house where I grew up. I recorded it for a show on the Food Network. She passed away two or three years after we recorded it. We play a few recordings on a loop at the Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill at the MGM in Vegas, one of me with Julia Child when I did my show with her, and that one of me with my mother in Austria. Each time I see it I get goose bumps.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years and why?
More and more, all the young chefs today are using more modernist cooking methods. I think in five years we’ll go back to our roots, where the ingredient is the main star, and we cook without complicating it.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I’d love to be able to open an airport place where you could get something really good for you, really tasty and really fast to take it on a plane. I’d also like to do a really exciting Indian restaurant with a great cocktail bar.