Wolfgang Puck was a celebrity chef before celebrity chefs were the norm. With dozens of restaurants all over the country, including the illustrious Five Sixty perched atop Dallas icon Reunion Tower, not to mention television appearances, cookware lines, and catering star-studded events like the upcoming Academy Awards, he's a household name in every sense.
Puck is currently in town for Chinese New Year festivities at Five Sixty, and Eater Dallas had a chance to sit down with him today to chat about everything from craft cocktails to his old friend Dean Fearing. Here's what he had to say:
How do you think Dallas compares to other cities, in terms of the state of our restaurant scene and our palates?
In Dallas there are two things really. There is Dean [Fearing], he is the king, and we are all looking up to him, and hopefully he gives us some recipes some day. [laughing] He is a very good friend of mine, I actually hired him at The Mansion when I was doing consulting. And he became synonymous with Dallas, with cooking, the Southwestern influences and everything. And now Dallas has a lot of smaller chef-driven restaurants and I think it's certainly much more exciting now than when I used to come here when I did consulting. There was The Mansion and The Pyramid, maybe one or two more, The Old Warsaw, and that was about it. Now you have a lot of great restaurants.
Your anchor restaurant, Spago, has been in Los Angeles for over 30 years and is still incredibly popular. What's the secret to staying relevant after so long, especially in a place like L.A. that has such a fickle dining scene?
I really think the most important thing is there has to be an evolution and change, you know. If not, you get old with your customers, basically, and the new ones don't want to come. It's like you don't want to go where your parents go. You don't want to see your parents in a restaurant and be like, My god they see me drinking! So that's really for us what's important. We changed the whole restaurant last summer, so I think more younger people come now and feel more comfortable because it's more modern looking without getting over the top modern. I don't want to be a restaurant where it's like a club, where the music is more important than the food. We stay very food-oriented. But I think there's a lot of young people who like food. Because of television and everything a lot of young people are really into food and are really into trying new things.
The rise of celebrity chefs is a relatively recent phenonemon. Certainly when you were first coming up the ranks, chefs were much more behind-the-scenes. Now they're like pop superstars. Do you think that's a good or a bad thing for the food?
I think all in all it has a very good effect on food, that chefs and that the profession became better known where people actually want to get into it. When I came to this country like 35 years ago or so, if anybody would have told their parents 'I want to become a chef' they would have looked at them and said you know what, I'm gonna take you out of my will. Forget it, you can go be a chef. I remember once when I was in LA I went to a club and I was dancing with a girl and she asked me what do you do, I said 'I'm a cook' she said 'A cook?!' and when the song was over, she left. I didn't even walk on her toes! So I think these days because of television mainly, everybody wants to be a chef now, including my seven year old. Kids love cooking and I think they grow up with it now, which has helped a lot to make the food better in America and to get better people into the profession, whereas before they would have gone to law school or medical school now they become chefs.
And I think it has a few not as good things which is the [lack of] patience — everybody wants to be a chef, owner, do a restaurant, a TV show before they know how to cook. In culinary school they tell you you're going to be a chef, they charge you a lot of money and tell you you're going to have this opportunity and most of them don't know how to cook yet. You don't want to be operated on by a guy who just came out of medical school no matter how long he studied in school. You say you know, I don't want you to touch my brain or my heart.
On the subject of food TV, you were on a recent Top Chef: Seattle episode where the contestants had to cook fried chicken. Why do you think so many of the chefs screwed up that challenge so badly?
You know the simple things are sometimes the hardest. When this show started, they all came to Cut, our restaurant, like six of them, and I thought I'm going to have them make something really simple, an omelette. Out of six chefs not one could make an omelette right. So I asked the producer, can I fire them all, does that count? I thought, at least I don't have to pick who is the best. [laughs] But it was terrible. So a lot of the chefs today know recipes. Like if you want to be a chef today and say okay, I can learn 20 recipes, and you do each one 100 times so you can do it pretty well, but if I tell you to do something else you don't know what to do with that. A lot of chefs today know recipes but don't have a good foundation.
As a chef and restaurateur, what did you think of Pete Wells' now infamous review of Guy Fieri's Times Square restaurant?
You know it's very hard to comment on something which I didn't go to, the way it sounded it sounded like it was a terrible restaurant. But you know Guy, I'm sure he knows how to cook. Now building a big restaurant, getting somebody to invest money is a different story. For all the investors out there who think just because somebody's on TV they're good chefs and good business people, it's a different story. If he would have hired a really good chef and some really good people it would be okay for what it's supposed to be. I guess when you're high-profile, you also have to watch out for the press because they like to put you a little lower. So I think that I don't know how the food is but it did not sound like a place I want to go to.
On modernist cooking/molecular gastronomy:
You know, every new way of doing things has good things and not so good things. It's amazing, my son Byron he is in 12th grade, and this year the chemistry teacher taught a molecular gastronomy class. I actually sent some of our chefs who really like to do that stuff to teach them about taste, because at the end of the day, if it tastes great, it doesn't matter how you produce it. If you cook it sous vide for 72 hours or you cook it really fast over a grill for 15 minutes, if people say wow this is great, you have succeeded. So I like that there is something new, but would I go to a restaurant like that all the time? No. Would I think that if you make an ice cream with liquid nitrogen that it's better, it's not better. But I think it's great to have the diversity. I like it.
On craft cocktails:
I think cocktails were always a good part of the American palate and American restaurants, from the martini to the Negroni. I myself before dinner like a cocktail which is very dry, like a regular martini or something like that. I don't want any sugar in it. I think a lot of these handcrafted cocktails are too sweet for me. I feel like they're for teenagers when they go to their clubs and drink. [chuckling] Not teenagers, they can't drink, but for 21, 22, 23 years old. For me Champagne and great wine is still number one. It's fun to see all these cocktails and I think it's great, it's interesting to young people and a lot of people relive their youth. What's great is that chefs have gotten into making cocktails, before it was only bartenders. But I think if you a great personality and great cocktails, you can have a successful bar.
On the prevalence of the local/seasonal movement:
I grew up in Austria, when my mother wanted to make vegetable soup she went out the door, picked the vegetables in the garden and made the soup, so it always tasted good. When we opened Spago in 1982, I used to go to the Chino Farm in Rancho Santa Fe which is one of the best farms in America, and pick the vegetables and Frank the owner used to drive them up in this truck. So to me, that was always the trend. I thought it's totally normal, why do you have to make such a big deal? In the last 10 years people talk so much about farm to the table, but if it leaves the farm sooner or later it ends up on the table. In some places like California we are really lucky, but if you're in South Dakota or something like that or Minneapolis, it's different.
On the rise of Yelp and amateur critics:
Years ago there was no cell phone and the TV didnt have much food either. So the newspaper was a big thing, every local newspaper had a food section. Now it's basically gone, except the New York Times and maybe a couple more. The LA Times doesn't have one anymore. In a way that's really sad when something like that disappears because I am still really old-fashioned and I really like them. Yet one has to recognize the world is changing. The newspaper people could not change, because they could not make their content and make money. How are they gonna mix them, they couldn't figure it out.
So I think this thing, it's good but it has bad things too. If you serve one day a bad meal and the person is from Yelp or something or just a regular person, you can reach so many people instantly now. You can take a picture or email everything to your friends and if you have a lot of friends all of a sudden 1,000 people know you had a bad experience. This could be a one-time bad experience in a good restaurant, any restaurant can sometimes serve a meal which is below your expectations. I think we really as chefs and restaurateurs, we have to be conscious that everybody is a food critic. Everybody has to be treated right and everybody has to get great food, the way it should be. Now it's easier if there was one or two critics in town and you know who the guys are, but you know it's not 1970 or 1980 anymore. We have to go with the flow, it is like it is.
So I think everybody has become a critic, everybody is influential in a way, so you want everyone to leave the restaurant happy. and you want people to tell their friends to come. That's what we always thought anyway, except in the old time the newspaper mattered much, and it matters less and less now. Sometimes the critics at the magazines or the newspapers are not any better than the people who Yelp. Or sometimes they are old and don't want change, and some resist change. But I think we have to change with the times, otherwise you get left behind and I tell everybody if we don't change, we become irrelevant. The reason we changed Spago is to stay relevant and because it's our mother restaurant. I said we have two choices, we change and stay around for another 10 or 15 years hopefully, or if we don't change we might be around for another five years, we don't know. So for me it was a no-brainer. Every 15 years I think we have to change.
One of the dilemmas when you go, let's say you go to The Mansion, where Dean was successful for many years, then he left and even towards the end when he was there it started to taper off because he didn't change, the decor didn't change, so you have all these old customers and no new ones. It's still the old style, the way it looks and feels, I think it needs a facelift. A radical facelift. I know it's an old building and everything, the inside or whatever you can do, you really have to do something. I don't know what, I'm not an interior designer or anything. I knew what I wanted to do with Spago, I don't know what I would do there.
[Photo credit: Strauss PR]