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Chef Wolfgang Puck Looks Back On 35 Years At Spago Restaurant |

Chef Wolfgang Puck Looks Back On 35 Years At Spago Restaurant

If you ask chef Wolfgang Puck about his legacy, he’s quick to say that he’s not done yet. At 67, the Austrian-born chef isn’t content to rest on the laurels of his immense and ever expanding branded empire, which includes fine dining restaurants, airport and retail outlets, catering and cookware lines of pots, pans and appliances, as well as an experimental 10 seat restaurant called The Rogue Experience, where chefs rotate from throughout the Puck properties.

Wolfgang Puck shows Spago’s chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi a new batch of truffles. Photo courtesy of Wolfgang Puck.


Ask him about the restaurant closest to his heart, however, and Puck will return like a swain to his first love Spago. To this day, making his ubiquitous smoked salmon pizza or cooking at the grill will bring back memories of his Beverly Hill flagship and first endeavour. I caught up with Puck by phone from London’s 45 Park Lane Hotel — where he is currently marking Spago’s 35th anniversary with a three day pop up at CUT at 45 Park Lane, along with executive chef David McIntyre and Spago’s chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi — to chat about changes in dining rooms and diners since Spago first opened its doors.

When Spago launched in 1982, many of the elements of casual fine dining spaces that we take for granted today were uncommon or unknown, such as putting the chef forward as the face of the restaurant or bringing the kitchen out into the open.

“It’s so funny and interesting how the physical elements of restaurants have changed and just the ways that they have changed,” says Puck. “When I started out, the maitre’d or the restaurant manager was the star of the enterprise: no-one knew who the chef was, he was just  some guy downstairs or in the back, who never went out to talk to the customer and was never really known or had their name on the menu.”

In order to forge that connection with the diner, Puck made the decision to bring the kitchen itself into the dining room, so that people could see their food being created. “Part of it was so that I could see the diners and know what was going on in the dining room and other operational matters, but the other part was that I think the kitchen is really the heart of the restaurant. Why should it be hidden in the back and mysterious? Seventy per cent of the revenue of a restaurant comes out of a kitchen, so why hide it?”

Puck also thinks that this visibility also increases a chef’s responsibility to the customers. “If you see the customer, you’re going to make a specific dish that they know they’ll like because otherwise, you know they’re going to come up to the counter and say, why can’t you make that?” he says. “It holds chefs accountable to being polite and being a part of the hospitality we offer.”

The customers at Spago’s dining room in the 80s were a clientele accustomed to getting their own way, from celebrities to politicians. When asked about the challenges in feeding celebrity diners, Puck’s response may surprise. “If you feed a celebrity or not, there can be people who saved up for six months to come for dinner. It was always important to treat everybody with respect and everyone pays, so the money doesn’t change anything…the money is the same,” he says. “So to me, it was always important when I went into the dining room to the kitchen and if I saw Madonna or Tom Cruise, I would never just run to their table and spend time with them because then people would say that they went to the restaurant and Wolfgang only talks to celebrities. So now, what I do is exactly the opposite  I say hello to everybody before and then at the end I might say hello to somebody who is famous. Why? Because, I hear this from the customers and we listen.”

Puck’s attitude towards dining faux pas such as well done steak have also softened throughout the years. “I could not be like I was when I opened Spago when I told the customers, ‘you know what? I’m not going to cook you a steak well done. Eat the chicken instead’,” he says. “I think I’m over that. If someone says ‘this is what I really want’, I’m not going to argue with them. I might send something out to the table to taste, but I’m not going to talk them into something they really want to do. You want people to feel comfortable and feel happy.”

Nevertheless, there are diners who have crossed Spago’s threshold for thirty years who want nothing but to eat their familiar favorites, and Puck still caters to his loyalists, despite his drive for change. “You want to have some tradition and innovation mixed together. We keep the smoked salmon pizza and wiener schnitzel on the menu, as there are people who associate their whole life to certain things,” he says. “Every day, when I’m in the restaurant in LA, people will say, I love this certain thing because I know exactly what I’m going to get.”

As Spago moves forward into new international markets and a different dining demographic, Puck is aware of the need to keep reinventing the brand. The Beverly Hills restaurant underwent an extensive renovation in 2012 by Waldo’s Designs, and works on attracting — and keeping — a younger diner. “Before I left for London, we had a party of five at Spago and there was an eleven year old girl and her parents said, you know, she was the one who wanted to come here,” says Puck. “Even with downturns, people love food. They tweet it, and see it on television, so people are really into it, especially young kids.”

Puck says that Spago had its best year in 2016 since the restaurant opened in 1982. “Spago is busier than ever. It’s the strength of the brand, but mainly, that it changes and is not always the same,” he says. “Most of the time, when restaurant owners or chefs get to my age, they say, you know, it was good for thirty years, so, it should be good for the next thirty years, but it’s not just not true anymore. I don’t know that it was ever true. But I think, for me, I would get bored doing the same thing all the time.”

Watch this space for more from the interview with Wolfgang Puck, including his candid talk on successes and overcoming failure.

 
Leslie Wu is a food and travel writer. Follow her on Twitter at @leslie_wu.

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