Wolfgang Puck's rags to riches tale has been well documented — he left his Austrian village home at the age of 14 to be a cooking apprentice at a hotel, left for Paris at the age of 17 and came to America when he was 24.
At the age of 32, his career blew up when he opened Spago on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard in 1982. A James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef of the Year followed in 1991, and again in 1998 shortly after Puck opened his second Spago, and current flagship, in Beverley Hills. His empire includes scores of fine dining restaurants and casual eateries, a food line, his signature brand of appliances and cookware and a thriving catering business. I sat down with the energetic, business-minded, 69-year-old chef during the opening of his Disney Springs restaurant — Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill — and talked about everything from fusion cuisine and cultural appropriation to free love and the legacy he wants to leave.
Faiyaz Kara: You were one of the first chefs to introduce fusion cooking to the masses. As you know, there's a debate taking place in this country about the cultural appropriation of food. What are your thoughts on the debate?
Wolfgang Puck: Cooking is an expression like art. You have to study it and you have to learn about it. You do not have to cook exact recipes — you can make up your own. Musicians have to compose their own music and write their own lyrics. In cooking it’s the same. You have to develop your own style. There’s nothing wrong in doing exact recipes of what the grandmother used to do in Italy or China or wherever. But there’s also nothing wrong with continuing to have an evolution. There’s a space for everything. There’s nothing wrong with tradition and there’s nothing wrong with innovation. When I opened Chinois on Main in 1983 I said I don’t want to do a Chinese restaurant like the Chinese people have already. I want to do my own version of it. It was more a pan-Asian restaurant — Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai influences and I created my own style and it became hugely successful. For me it's always about experimenting, pushing the envelope and trying to do new things. I was never happy just following a recipe.
FK: A related question then: What's your approach when formulating a dish that's of a different culture than your own?WP: I tell everybody that I don’t care what you call the dish, it has to be delicious. I don’t care what techniques you use, if it’s not delicious it doesn’t really matter.
WP: Good question. Hopefully they won’t tax my fusion dishes [LAUGHS]. I don’t think cooking should be politically involved. It should be the opposite. If Xi Jinping, Macron, May and Trump can sit together and have a great meal and a good glass of wine, I believe they can work out their issues easier. I think they’re so standoffish. Sitting down at the table, enjoying a meal it’s really one of the most important things we have. As far as fusion cuisine, it’s like skin color. One day we’re all going to be light brown — maybe like you! Maybe like my children! [Puck's current wife Gelila Assefa is of Ethiopian descent and they have two children together]. You know, variety is the spice of life, but change for the sake of change is not good. If you ask yourself how can I make a dish better, then it’s okay to combine different flavors. If you go to France today, so many restaurants now use ginger, soy sauce, star anise – they use all these ingredients in French cooking all of a sudden.
FK: So what would you cook for Trump if you had the chance?
WP: A steak well done. That’s the one thing he and Obama have in common [LAUGHS]FK:You chose not to make your name alongside the greats of Europe and opted, instead, to come to the United States. What drew you to this country initially?
WP: When I watched American movies, everybody seemed like they were rich. They were driving these huge cars — Cadillacs and Chevrolets and everything. I was intrigued by the cowboy movies, but I was intrigued the most by the hippies in the '60s in San Francisco where they were smoking weed and having free love and I said I want to go there! Also, when I worked at Maxim’s in Paris, the pastry chef helped open Maxim’s in Chicago and he said to me 'If I were you, I would go to America. You make more money and you have bigger opportunities than in Paris.'
FK: What are your favorite food cities and why?
WP: I love Tokyo because I love the Japanese sensibility. I'll always love Paris but, for food, London is more interesting. I love Marrakesh because of how exotic it is — the way the city smells, the spices they use ... I find it very interesting.
FK: What will distinguish Orlando's Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grills from the others around the world?
WP: Each one has its own sense of place. Here we'll use a lot of local ingredients – the chicken, the burrata. So we use local ingredients and prepare it to our style. Here in Disney, it’s like a melting pot of everything – you can have people who are from a royal family and then you have people who saved up for a whole year to bring their family here. It’s a melting pot of cultures. I think we’re still at the beginning, so we’ll see how we go with it exactly. I don’t know yet. It’s still a work in progress in a way.
FK: What's your take on Orlando's food scene? Have you eaten anywhere outside the theme parks? What Orlando restaurants are on your list to visit?
WP: You know, now that I’m here again...you know I’ve been going to the Home Shopping Network [in St. Petersburg] for 20 years and it was difficult to find good restaurants there for years and years. But now in St. Pete and everywhere you can find really good restaurants. But with Orlando, I still don’t know [enough]. When you’re here in Disney, it’s almost like you’re on an island, so I haven’t experienced the real Orlando. But I already told Jeff [executive sous chef Jeff Thornsberry] and I said to him when I come back, let’s go out to dinner and see what the local scene is because I don’t do that enough. I don’t do that enough in L.A., I don’t do that enough when I go to New York, I don’t do that enough anymore in London. Wherever I open a restaurant, it’s like I go to that restaurant and I don’t go anywhere else.
FK: So when are you coming back to Orlando?
WP: In January.
FK: What chefs are you currently excited about?
WP: I think there are a lot of young chefs who are really good, but they don't really know how to run a business. So they go up and then they go down. They make interesting food. Every young chef wants to do a tasting menu and feed you 15 different things, but at the end, it's an experience for once in a while. In the U.S., we have a lot of really really talented chefs, but I admire people like Nobu [Matsuhisa] who started like me with not much and now he has a worldwide business.
FK: At this stage in your career, are you thinking about the sort of legacy you want to leave?
WP: I'm lucky because my son Byron went to the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and he loves to cook. I sent him to Spain to the Roca Brothers restaurant [El Celler de Can Roca] in Girona, I sent him to Guy Savoy in Paris, he worked with Grant [Achatz] in Chicago, he worked with Eric Ripert in New York. What I really want him to do is keep his imagination and try to see what's next. How can he influence. If he does exactly what I do, it won’t be good in 10 years. If he takes over, let’s say, in 10 years, he has to put his own stamp on [the business]. Yes, keep part of the tradition, but also have an evolution.
FK: What's the one item from the Wolfgang Puck Collection of cookware I absolutely must have in my kitchen?
WP: It’s hard to choose just one, but I would say the pressure oven. You can bake in it, toast in it, roast in it, it has everything.
FK: It's no secret you're a bit of an art collector. What's your most prized possession?
WP: Probably my Robert Rauschenberg. I opened a restaurant in San Francisco called Postrio in 1989 and I called him up, you know he lived on Captiva Island in the winter, and I called Bob and said 'Do you have any leftover paintings? I have this huge wall and I cannot find anything here in San Francisco's galleries.' And he said 'I don’t have any leftover paintings like you have no leftover food, but I can make you something' and I said alright. So I sent him pictures of the wall and measurements and everything, but I never talked money with him. I said 'Shit! What am I going to do?' So I called him 10 days later and asked Bob 'Did you get my pictures?' and he said, 'Yeah, I’m halfway finished with your piece.' Then I really had to do something, so I knew the president of Bank of America and I told him the story and said I might need some money because I don’t have any to buy this painting. He was an art collector too and he said, 'Okay, but I get the painting if you can’t repay the loan.' [LAUGHS]
FK: What's next for Wolfgang Puck?
WP: I’m only at the beginning! I just signed a 50-year lease for a new place on the beach in L.A. with [architect] Frank Gehry.
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