Making People Happy: Q&A with Wolfgang Puck

Before there was a Top Chef, before Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain took to the small screen to spread the gospel of good eating.

Before there was a Top Chef, before Rachael Ray, Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain took to the small screen to spread the gospel of good eating, there was Wolfgang Puck, the Austrian-born chef with a warm smile, a soft accent and yes, a puckish charm seemingly made for television.

Puck has been a regular guest on ABC’s “Good Morning America” since 1986, while his Emmy Award-winning television series, ”Wolfgang Puck,” debuted on The Food Network in 2000 and aired for five seasons. He has been a guest on countless shows, from late nights with David Letterman and Jay Leno to appearances on The Simpsons, Keeping Up With the Kardashians and even a cameo as himself on an episode of Tales From the Crypt.

While his celebrity has helped turn his name into a global brand, Puck earned his reputation the hard way, serving an exacting, if somewhat ad hoc apprenticeship before making his name at Ma Maison in West Hollywood. Spago, which he opened on the Sunset Strip in 1982 with his then-wife Barbara Lazaroff, firmly established Puck in the pantheon of California cuisine, alongside Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower and Mark Miller.

But more than any of those renowned chef/restaurateurs, Puck had ambitions to grow and diversify. In 1983 he and Lazaroff opened Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, which pioneered so-called fusion cuisine, and in 1989 they opened Postrio in San Francisco, which brought a dash of Hollywood glamour to the City by the Bay’s dining scene. In 1997, they moved Spago to an elegant new venue in Beverly Hills, and followed up with Spago Las Vegas, Spago Maui and Spago Beaver Creek. Many more restaurants followed, across the United States and abroad, in sites from London to Singapore.

The Wolfgang Puck Companies, a privately held corporation, now includes the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, Inc. and Wolfgang Puck Catering. The Wolfgang Puck Companies encompasses over 20 fine-dining restaurants, premium catering services, more than 80 Wolfgang Puck Express operations, and kitchen and food merchandise, including cookbooks and canned foods. Lazaroff remains Puck’s partner in the restaurants opened before their divorce in 2003. He is now married to Gelila Assefa, the Ethiopian-born fashion designer.

While it is not unprecedented for a star chef to lend his name to related products, Puck has stretched his brand further than most, perhaps too far. His frozen pizzas and canned soups taste just like frozen pizzas and canned soups usually do, and there is nothing to distinguish Wolfgang Puck steak knives, six for $19.95 on Home Shopping Network, from similar products without a celebrity endorsement. On the other hand, his Gourmet Express outlets provide a reliably better-than-expected airport dining experience. And as anyone who has eaten at one of Puck’s restaurants when the maestro is in the kitchen can happily attest, the man can really cook.

Briefings caught up with Puck at his flagship restaurant, Spago in Beverly Hills. The interview was conducted by Peri Hansen, Senior Client Partner, Los Angeles and Co-Lead of the Restaurant and Foodservice space within the Global Consumer Market, Korn Ferry.

Q: Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker writer, says that you need to put 10,000 hours into any art or craft to get really good. What were your 10,000 hours?

Puck: My 10,000 hours started really badly. I left home when I was 14 years old. My father, my stepfather, actually, was really crazy. All I wanted to do was get out of the house. He always told me I’m good for nothing. So I moved away. I didn’t go to high school. I found work in a hotel restaurant, when I was this little guy who barely came up to chest height on the stove. For three weeks I peeled potatoes, and then one day we ran out at lunch, and it was my fault. The chef said the same thing as my stepfather, “You’re good for nothing. Go back home and tell your mother we don’t want you here.”

But I couldn’t just go home. I was standing on a bridge, crying for an hour. And it was cold in December. But I went back the next day, and the others took me down to the vegetable cellar. I was peeling potatoes down there for 10 days, and then the chef comes down one day. And he says, “What the heck are you doing? I fired you.” But the owner was a little nicer, and he sent me to another hotel he had, and there I started doing O.K. They sent us to cooking school, three months out of the year, and I had straight A’s.

When I was 17, I moved to France, and worked in some of the best restaurants there—L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence, then Hotel de Paris in Monaco, and then Maxim’s in Paris. A friend of mine offered me a job in New York. I thought, “In New York—in America, everybody’s rich.” So I came to New York. But I didn’t like it, because I had been working in restaurants with Michelin stars, and here they just had me grilling steaks. I wanted to make something more fancy.

Then somebody offered me a job in Indianapolis, and all I knew about Indianapolis was they had a race there. So I said, “Why not? Maybe it’s like Monaco.” But I cooked more steak well done there than anything, because everybody there ate everything well done. But it was actually a good experience, to see America in a different way than I had expected, and because I got my green card. I came out here to Los Angeles; I went to work at Ma Maison, which at that time was basically bankrupt. My first paycheck bounced. They couldn’t pay me, so they gave me a share in the restaurant. I started to buy fresh fish and whatever good things we could afford. I used what I learned at the great restaurants in France.

I started there in ’75 and I left in ’81, but along the way, I met some amazing people, like Orson Welles. He used to come early, and he liked the same champagne I liked. Every morning I opened a bottle of champagne. I had a glass and Orson finished the bottle. It was good. I didn’t want to leave, really. But I wanted to open an Italian restaurant, a simple place where people from the neighborhood could stop in for a pizza and a glass of wine. So that was Spago in 1982, and it was an immediate hit.

Q: One key to having a premium brand is to keep demand greater than supply, to keep it special as you grow. How have you kept Wolfgang Puck special?

Puck: It’s like a marriage. If you want to keep it special after 25 years, you have to work on it really hard. To me, Spago is like my home. I’m here all the time. I still care. We try to improve all the time, to keep it fresh. To be successful, I have to work, and I have to change. Some people don’t want change; they want to keep the same thing. I think if you don’t want change, you know where you go.

In about 1995, when I was still up on Sunset, I said, “If I’m still here in the year 2000, I’m going to jump off the roof.” Because I couldn’t make the kitchen bigger. The whole building was falling apart. So we opened this one. It became successful. But to keep supply smaller than demand is not an easy thing when you open a big restaurant. If we would have 60 seats or 70 seats, you never could get a table, because we always would be sold out, every night, with a waiting list. Then it becomes a pain in the neck. It’s not good business.

Also, we have become international. When people come to L.A. from England or Italy or wherever, they know Spago more than any other restaurant in L.A. The only other one that is known is Nobu, which now is in many different cities. In the old days, we had the Oscar party at the old Spago, Swifty Lazar’s Oscar party, and we could really get international publicity for that like I never could pay for. Because everybody loves movie stars.

Q: You have Gourmet Express at airports. You have canned foods and frozen foods, cookware. How do you maintain a high standard?

Puck: Well, we tried. Take pizza—I sold my pizza business some years ago to ConAgra. I thought, they know better; I would have had to raise the money to expand. But that was one of the worst things I ever did. Because they put some guy in charge who never made a pizza, who never had any idea about pizza. All he knew is that you could make it like the other brands. So we made one like all the others in the supermarket, except it was expensive. So a few years ago, I bought the license back for $250,000. Now, if we do it, we’re going to do it right, from the packaging to what is in the box.

I don’t want to have anybody tell me anymore, “This is the way.” Because I had so many people in my company who claimed to know the way. We hired a guy who went to Harvard Business School, and he made projections on the table, like we would be a billion-dollar company in five years. But, you know, he knew how to do it on paper, but he didn’t know how to execute.

Q: As a leader who embraces change, who likes to do things different, how do you go about getting the right team?

Puck: I have a team who’s with me for many years. Lee Hefter, my right-hand man in the kitchen, is a very talented guy who could easily have his own restaurant, or two restaurants, really. I have a team of people I know very well, and they really supervise the fine dining. Then I have a team who do the catering business of the company, and one of them is with me since the old Spago. I still have all these anxieties when I wake up at night, that the business goes down, that I cannot feed the kids, that I have to sell the house. But I think everybody has these anxieties in the dark.

Q: Who do you see as your consumer?

Puck: We have people who are regular, who can afford lunch here every day or dinner every day if they want to, who are the locals. And everybody here knows us because we are here for so many years. And now we have an international following. Howard Stringer, the former chairman of Sony, came last night with the new Sony guy, from Japan. Then we have people who might come once a year for their birthday or somebody who might come from Nebraska, and they come to see their son going to school, and they really cannot afford a restaurant like that, but once a year, maybe, they splurge.

When I go in the dining room, I don’t just say hello to the people I know. I say hello to everybody and spend the same time with everybody. I say something to them, talk about what they’re going to eat or what they should eat—and so it makes them all feel special. We are not in the food business. We are in the hospitality business. I tell my people, to have a smile, to be polite, to be friendly doesn’t cost us any money. To buy fish, meat, vegetables—that’s very expensive. To make somebody feel good just with your words or with your attitude—that’s the least you can do.

Q: There is so much media attention on chefs. Have we lost track of the role the restaurateur plays? Clearly there’s an art to making people feel warm and welcome from the moment they walk in.

Puck: If you are great at the front door, you don’t need a super-talented chef, just somebody who can cook a really good meal, grill a really good steak, make a few good salads, a few good side dishes. You can be very successful, as long as you buy the best product. If you keep it simple, you can cook anything, but you have to buy the best quality ingredients. I have the same meat purveyor since Ma Maison. In the same way, do I have to go to the fish market myself? No. Do I want to? Yeah.

At the end of the day, we have to make people feel special. If it’s a special occasion for people to come here, they want to feel good. Somebody who comes all the time—they want to feel good, too. They want to feel appreciated, because there are too many other options.

Q: How do you balance a great culinary experience with everyone being so health- and diet-conscious these days?

Puck: I think if you go to a really good restaurant, generally, it’s healthier than at any other restaurant. The unhealthy ones are the cheap ones. We really don’t use a lot of butter. We use a lot of olive oil and vinaigrette and things like that, and keep the food really simple.

Is steak the healthiest thing? Maybe not, if you eat a lot of steak. But if you eat in moderation, you don’t have to eat a 12-ounce steak at 10 o’clock at night.

Q: What are the core values of Wolfgang Puck, the enterprise?

Puck: For the enterprise, I think our value really is that warm hospitality. I tell everybody, “You know, I’m not paying you. It’s the customers who pay your salary.” Whoever—a waiter, a busboy, a chef or a dishwasher—I try to teach everybody to be in the hospitality business. When you think like that, it’s also easier to be nice to the guy who works with you. You want to be treated the same way as you would treat a customer.

Q: How do you reinforce and perpetuate the enterprise’s values across a far-flung empire?

Puck: It’s really about the team you put together. If you have one restaurant, it doesn’t matter. But with so many, I cannot supervise everything. I cannot cook everything. We have to train people and instill in them the culture we have, which is really what keeps us going in different places. We don’t expand fast, because if we don’t have the talent, it’s silly. We could sign I don’t know how many deals. We could open in Delhi, in China, in Moscow, in God knows where. But I have to really gear up to that. I have to invest in talent, to hire expert people in each of the restaurants we already have to work with us at least for a few years.

We are opening in Dubai, and I know already which chef is going to be there for about a year now, and he has worked with us for five years. We’re going to open in Doha next, a year after that, and I know already who is going to be the chef there. That way I don’t have to worry is somebody going to be there who doesn’t know my philosophy, who doesn’t know what I like.

Q: Some of the most successful global restaurateurs have had one big stumble, at least one restaurant they had to close. Did you have an opening like that?

Puck: I had a brewery called Eureka. We wanted a brewery to create that label, to create a brand. We were supposed to make a million cases of beer in a year. I had two partners and a financial guy. We got this fancy brewing equipment from Germany, and then we did not pasteurize the beer, to keep the fresh taste like on tap. So when we bottled the beer, the beer had to be refrigerated. If it was not refrigerated, it would start to ferment again in the bottle and spoil. That would happen again and again and again.

I tried to get rid of the partners, but they wanted to stay. We were going broke. At the end, I said, “I’m not raising more money with these three guys running the brewery. It’s pouring money down the drain, just like we did with the beer.”

Up to that point, I thought I could be successful in anything. If I opened a gallery or a shoe store, it would be successful. Then I realized I better stick to what I know. That’s one of the most important things I learned from that episode. You have to know what you know, and, more important, you have to know what you don’t know. You can’t do everything well. I cannot be a beer salesman. That’s not my passion. My passion is the restaurant.

Q: What’s the future of cuisine?

Puck: Cuisine has to change, too. Young people today—they like to experiment. They like to eat, and not conservatively.  They are more open and more ready to experiment. In the restaurant I ask, how can we get these people to try it? For example, now we have this bar menu, where you can come and sit in a nice restaurant, and get a little bit to eat and not spend a lot of money. Young people especially like it. We have low tables so people can sit in front of the fireplace and enjoy a cocktail. We always think about what can we make different. But whatever we do, we have to do it really well. I look often at fashion designers, because my wife is into fashion, and I go to the fashion shows in Paris with her. Why does Armani still do that? He’s 80 years old. He’s in the back, putting the dresses on the girls to make sure they hang right. He’s a billionaire. He could have somebody do it. But he still likes what he does. Just like him, we have a lot of good people doing it, putting it together. But somebody has to give them the direction. Somebody has to say, put it here and here, not there and there. You know when it’s an Armani dress or an Armani suit. You know, hopefully, the same thing when you go to Spago.

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