Wolfgang Puck on Attending Harvard University, Dealing with Millennial Chefs and Rising Labor Costs
Nancy Luna | The Orange County Register | September 13, 2017 4:18pm
Sept. 12--When Tim Joseph and Chelsea Semaken learned Wolfgang Puck was making a rare appearance at South Coast Plaza, the couple changed their return flight home to Alaska so they could meet the culinary icon.
"He's no question one of the leading cooks in the world," Joseph said while waiting in line to meet Puck on a recent Saturday.
The ever energetic Puck didn't disappoint the millennial foodies, who crowded the recently renovated Wolfgang Puck Kitchen bistro at Macy's South Coast Plaza to meet the Austrian-born chef. Over his 44-year-career in the U.S., Puck founded a culinary empire in Los Angeles but now spans the globe. Hollywood's original celebrity chef, his standard of excellence and innovation is one that most chefs dream of emulating.
Yet he never takes his success for granted. At age 68, he continues to develop new restaurants, write cookbooks -- and most recently -- attend an Ivy League university.
"That's one of the things that makes him so terrific -- he stays relevant," said fan Branden Silks, 37 of Anaheim.
Relevance means taking risk.
In the spring, Puck opened The Rogue Experience in West Hollywood. The 12-course tasting table is limited to eight guests. They pay $155-$175 per person for an extravagant experimental menu created by Puck's team of fine dining chefs. Around the same time, he enrolled in an entrepreneurial management program at Harvard Business School.
"We don't sit on our laurels," Puck said during his Orange County visit.
He arrived solo at South Coast Plaza, dressed in jeans and a blue chef's coat.
Though he didn't have an entourage, one thing was clear.
He is a star.
As the staff learned of his arrival, everyone grew giddy and pulled out their phones, ready to snap photos. "He's here," someone shouted.
Melissa Higgins, dining with a friend and their two young daughters, said: "Oh my god! It's Wolfgang Puck!"
Employees set up a receiving line for the beloved chef, who received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in April. Next year, he'll cater the Governors Ball at the Academy Awards for the 24th time.
Striding into the restaurant, he beamed with pride as he checked out the new furniture, lights and bar.
"It looks wonderful," he said, his familiar Austrian accent as thick as ever.
After shaking hands with his staff, he immediately began working the room, a signature since his Hollywood nights at the original Spago. He chatted with customers dining on his famed wood-fired pizzas. They talked about everything from frustrating Los Angeles traffic to travels in China.
He gleefully posed for selfies, and insisted food be delivered to fans waiting in line for the book signing.
It's the part of the job he loves the most: making people happy.
"We're in the food business. If the chef goes to the table and checks on you, you feel good."
During our 30-minute interview, Puck talked about his success, his healthy eating habits, why he closed his Honda Center restaurant, and the huge labor costs facing the industry.
Here's what's on his mind.
Q: You look terrific. Very fit. What's your secret?
A: I never really sit down to eat, but I taste all day long. I exercise too. I think it is important to stay in shape especially now that I'm not so young anymore. Once you go over 50, if you don't exercise, it is very difficult.
Q: Is that why you wrote your cookbook, "Wolfgang Puck Makes it Healthy"?
A: About 10 years ago, I started to get heavier and heavier. It was hard for me to play tennis. It was hard for me to go skiing. So I said, 'I have to do something.' I just got married, and had two young kids. If I want to ski with them, I have to get in shape, and eat better and have the family eat better too.
Q: Why did you decide to renovate Wolfgang Puck Kitchen?
A: Restaurants are going to be a bigger and bigger part of these shopping malls because you always read that (retailers are) closing. I think they (malls) have to give more (reason) for people to come and bring their children and have something good to eat. Make it an experience. Some restaurants start and they still do the same thing. And little by little no one talks about them. To me, it's important to be creative and innovative. But we also have to keep some of the traditions. So to find that right marriage of tradition and innovation is important.
Q: Is that why you created Rogue. To offer a new experience?
A: It's all about change there. I have chefs there from all of our restaurants that come and cook. They have to make a 12-course dinner four nights a week. They have to cook something new. Nothing that we do in our restaurants. It's a lot of fun. It's great for the chefs.
Q: The rising cost of labor is impacting restaurants in California. How do you address that? Are you in favor of raising the minimum wage?
A: I'm all for it. A national (wage) might not be the right thing. What's good in Newport, might not be good in Iowa. You can buy a house in Iowa for $60,000; here, that is nothing. I think if we could have service (or hospitality) included in the price, I could spread it out to kitchen and dining room, so the salaries would be more even.
Q: Should hospitality be included?
A: I think it would be better if everyone does it. If I add 15 to 20 percent to the menu, all of a sudden it looks expensive. At Spago, something that is $50 goes to $60. It's looks like a lot more. Perception is important. I would love for the restaurant associations to get together, and say "Let's do that."
Q: Until then, will you raise prices?
A: We try and keep them at a certain level. Maybe if some things get too expensive, maybe we can find ingredients which are very good and make them really nice but it doesn't cost us as much. Lamp chops are so expensive. Maybe we put a (less expensive) lamb shank on the menu and braise it. You have to be creative.
Q: A lot of restaurants in Southern California are closing because landlords are raising rents. What's your take?
A: I think the landlords shouldn't raise the rent. They should have a percentage rent. So if I have a bad month, I can still pay my rent. If I do well, the landlord does well. If I don't do so well for a month, the landlord gets less. But if you have a few bad months (with a fixed rent), you fall behind.
Q: Speaking of closures, what happened to your restaurant, Puck's Tavern, at the Honda Center? (It opened in late 2013 as part of a major food overhaul at the Anaheim arena then closed a year later.)
A: They wanted to (run) it themselves. It was a weird arrangement. Because we are not based there, it is very difficult to open for three days a week and then the next week we are closed. It's too complicated to do a thing like that. I tried it out. Not everything works out all the time. I live and learn.
Q: Last time we talked you mentioned wanting to open a fine dining restaurant in Orange County. Will you ever?
A: I still think we should open an upscale restaurant down here. We have a lot of customers who come up to Los Angeles from here.
Q: What do you think about the new generation of celebrity chefs?
A: A lot of chefs are very good on TV, but it's about their personality not their cooking. They open a restaurant in their home town, but they are limited because they never learn the basics.
Q: Everyone wants to be a star straight out of culinary school. Does that make it challenging to find hard-working cooks?
A: It's very difficult today. First of all, most of the time, they have to work Friday and Saturday. The younger ones, they say, they are not in it for the money. 'We want to live better. We want to have a lifestyle.'
Q: What do you think about Millennials?
A: I'm raising one. My son is very passionate about food about cooking. He went to Cornell (University) and did well up there. I sent him last year to Paris, and the year before, Spain. He worked in the kitchen. He's very passionate about cooking. Mainly I want him to be creative.
Q: What do you tell young chefs when they start out?
A: I mainly tell them to be patient and learn. Keep your eyes and ears open and close your mouth. It's really important that they look at what's going on.
Q: What do you like at eat home?
A: My kids love it when my wife makes pasta. My kids say, 'Mamma makes the better pasta.'
Q: Are you a sweet or savory guy?
A: I have such a sweet tooth. It's the worst thing for me. Sometimes I eat a lot of chocolate because in Austria, for dinner, we have sweet stuff. I love bread. The bread in our restaurant is good. It's very difficult not to eat it. Instead of having it with butter, I put tzatziki on the bread. That's the way I eat it at home.
Q: What is your biggest fear?
A: Remaining relevant. That's why we change a lot. That's why we always want to do new things and move forward.
Q: Is that why you are taking business classes at Harvard?
A: Learning is the most important thing. Do I have to go? No. But it is an amazing experience.
Wolfgang Puck's Food Empire
Wolfgang Puck's dining empire includes more than 100 restaurants around the world.
These are some of his fine dining locations: Chinois (Santa Monica); Cucina by Wolfgang Puck (Las Vegas); CUT (Bahrain, Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, London, Singapore, New York City, Doha (fall 2017)); Five Sixty (Dallas); Spago (Beverly Hills, Istanbul, Las Vegas, Maui and Singapore); The Source by Wolfgang Puck (Washington, DC); Lupo by Wolfgang Puck (Las Vegas); Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air (Los Angeles); re/Asian Cuisine (Bahrain); Wolfgang Puck American Grille (Atlantic City); Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill (Las Vegas, Summerlin and Los Angeles); Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria & Cucina (Detroit); Wolfgang Puck Steak (Detroit); and WP24 (Los Angeles).