Wolfgang Puck On Spago, California Cuisine, And How Backward American Food Was In The ’70s

I grew up with “Wolfgang Puck” mostly as a brand name, the words on the boxes of frozen pizzas I ate by the dozen. I suppose I had a vague notion of him as an apple-cheeked European man with a twinkle in his eyes, but I had no idea about California Cuisine or open kitchens or any of his innovations. When he showed up as a judge on Top Chef a few years back, an entire competitive-cooking concept that almost surely wouldn’t exist without him, it felt a little like we’d skipped a chapter on the Wolfgang Puck DVD. And yet there he was, the most entertaining Top Chef guest judge ever (if memory serves he made someone cry over a risotto).

Wolfgang Puck finally gets his due as a documentary subject this week when Wolfgang, from David Gelb, director of Jiro Dreams of Sushi and creator of Netflix’s Chef’s Table, premieres on Disney+. Gelb attempts to fill in some of those gaps, covering Puck’s many iterations as a public figure, from his early days as promising immigrant trying to to bring 1970s America’s backward food culture into the modern era, to Hollywood’s favorite chef at Spago, to becoming a media brand unto himself.

Between the historical recaps of Puck’s success, both as a brand and as a proponent of “California Cuisine,” Wolfgang offers a dual portrait of Puck as an illegitimate child in Austria and Puck as the one-time king of chefs trying to settle into old age. The timing of it couldn’t be better. With “celebrity chefs” on almost every channel in some form or another, Wolfgang Puck is one of if not the “original celebrity chef.”

The open question is, where does that leave him today? What happens when your once-innovative recipes get so popular, and copied so often, that they start to seem dated? When you put your name on so many products that the guy who made it uncool to serve canned food in restaurants becomes synonymous with prepackaged foods?

Without getting too deep into introspection, mostly it leaves Puck rich, happy, and still wildly charming. Much as in his Top Chef appearance (which I distinctly remember had Tom Colicchio laughing so hard he had to wipe away tears), every time Puck talks he reminds you why he became a media darling in the first place. His combination of candidness, volubility, and instantly recognizable accent all but guarantee good footage.

I got to speak to him this week to promote Wolfgang‘s release. Interviewing him was the same way. The sharp accent, the excitability — he’s the kind of subject who makes you think you’re getting great copy even when he’s dodging a question. Because you are. When someone has been a famous chef/restaurateur/personality for going on 40 years, there aren’t too many stories he could tell that wouldn’t be interesting.

So the movie has a bit about your smoked salmon pizza. If there was a California cuisine dishes hall of fame, what dishes do you think would be on it?

I think if you count it as a cooking style, a restaurant-style… it’s really a whole combination of things. When we opened Spago that was an open kitchen. This was the first time, really, that a white tablecloth restaurant had that open kitchen. The restaurant was casual but the food was really the star on the plate. I said everything on the plate has to be serious, the best quality. I think that’s really how this whole concept worked. Yes, there were famous dishes like this smoked salmon pizza. Or somebody just asked me yesterday, “When are you going to make your goat cheese pasta you made at the old Spago. Why you don’t put that on the menu?” And so forth. So I think there will always be people who remember those. So the smoked salmon pizza or the duck sausage pizza, some dishes like the goat cheese pasta or, now obviously every restaurant does it, the tuna sashimi, the way I used to do that. They were all new things at that time. Nobody served raw fish in a restaurant. Today, everybody serves raw fish.

What do you think that term California Cuisine means at this point? Is it still a useful way to describe food?

I think it depends what restaurant it is. So when I opened Spago in Hollywood, 40 years ago, I designed the menu, and I thought cooking should express the territory where you live, the place in the world where you are. Our place here in LA is multicultural. So we have a Chinatown, Olvera Street, Little India, Downtown, Little Tokyo — you name it. So I thought our cooking should express different cultures, and then I said, cooking should also express ingredients we have around us. I didn’t have cows around so I didn’t have steak on the menu when I opened Spago. I had a farmer who raised lamb, so I used his lamb and we had the roasted baby lamb. I went to the fish market, down to San Pedro and got the squid and got the rock cod from there and roasted them whole with some onions from the farm nearby.

I used to go down to the Chino Farm in a Rancho Sante Fe and picked up the best strawberries or melons or white corn. So that’s how the whole thing came about, and when I designed the cover of the menu, I said, I don’t know what style cuisine, so I just wrote on it “California Cuisine.” Did I think it’s gonna stick, or people gonna talk about it? No. I just thought that’s what we expressed, California. Because I always said if I would be in Provence, I would cook Provencal cuisine. If I would be in Southern Italy, I would make a dishes with a lot of butter and cream and fresh pasta. I would use olive oil, tomato, garlic, and basil.

When you invent or become associated with a specific style like that, do you worry about the term being co-opted or becoming meaningless? Do you try to protect that designation in any way?

We cannot copyright things in the restaurant, in the food world. I cannot copyright the smoked salmon pizza or this or that. We write cookbooks and give people the exact recipe, the exact measurements and everything! So I think cooking is about giving, it’s not about an egomaniac doing it. I’m sure there are egomaniacs out there too, but I think to me, cooking is about giving pleasure to people, making people enjoy the time, making them feel good and that’s the most important thing. I think David Gelb in the documentary really showed that beautifully in a way that even from my upbringing, which was very difficult, that at the end is really about making people happy.

I heard Jacques Pepin speaking a while back, where he talked about coming to America in the seventies and not being able to find fresh mushrooms. He could only find canned and dried mushrooms. I was wondering what American food was like when you first came over here, and what were some of the things that you were surprised by?

It was so different than what is now for sure. I tell you when I was in the Bel-Air hotel in the eighties, I did a dinner — because they tried to expand their hotel. The hotel Bel-Air is a total neighborhood property, it’s not the commercial district, so now all the houses around, they have to ask all the neighbors for permission to go forward with the expansion. So for the dinner I went to the Chino farm in Rancho Santa Fe, picked up peas, small carrots, green beans and I don’t know what else, and I cooked them properly and I made the dinner for them. The beans looked like beans, totally normal green, a beautiful color and everything. And then they send a letter to the president of Rosewood then and said, “Mr. Zimmer, we expected good food at the Bel-Air hotel. Now you’re bringing us colored vegetables? You put food color in the vegetable, that really should not be at the Bel-Air.”

So he showed me that letter and I said, “What the heck are they saying? What do you mean?” I didn’t even understand. So I go back to that Bel-Air, I go into their storeroom and I see canned asparagus, canned green beans, canned beans, and when you open them, they’re all gray and overcooked. So I said, “Oh my God, this is really a sad story.”

Even at the Bistro Garden where Spago is now, I remember I went there and I was already at Ma Maison where I used great asparagus from the Stockton region and they have the green asparagus. At the Bistro Garden, they served the veal dish with white asparagus out of the can. So that was so traditional, that you could get things out of the can. But I was lucky because I found the Chino Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe and they had great vegetables. Then all of a sudden we had farmers who started to bring us chanterelles and porcini mushrooms and things like that too. So we started to get into that really well and I think a little by little, the whole food scene changed. There were no farmer’s market then and now you have farmer’s market everywhere. I think we are lucky and the young chefs are lucky to be cooking today, especially in California, where you get so many great ingredients.

On that note, how much savvier is the average diner now than in the eighties? What kind of things do you think that they expect now that they wouldn’t have then?

Well, in the old time, people were, very much– they know what they ate as a kid. It was very historical, almost, the cooking, nobody really wanted innovation. Nobody was really prepared to try new things. Now because of television you’ll see so many different things. You can say, “Oh, I want to try that. I want to do that.” I was just a judge on a newer Iron Chef series and they made dishes and I said, “Wow, this is really amazing,” so now the people are going to see that out in the world and say, “Wow, you know what? This is really good. I want to try it too.”

People become more open-minded. But before it was very difficult. I remember when I was at Ma Maison, to undercook a fish was impossible. They sent it back all the time. I remember I undercook the salmon and the people said, “Wolfgang that’s not cooked. What’s wrong with you? Can’t you cook a salmon?” I said, “Well, it tastes better that way.”

Conversely, are there things that you had on the menu at Spago in the eighties that you couldn’t get away with now?

Well, I think when we opened Spago it created a whole new style of cooking because we had a charcoal grill, we had a wood-burning oven and everything. So everything was fresh and simple. We didn’t have space to make it complicated. This day and age a lot of the young chefs, they still think the more things they have on a plate, the better their food would be. But it’s not true. Or people doing things with tweezers, putting things on the food. I said, that’s not necessary. If it’s not really beautiful the way you buy it, don’t do it. And what it’s going to do, making little dots of sauce around the plate? People don’t even touch them. So I think the quality of the food should be great and the flavors should be strong and you don’t need a hundred different things around. By the time everybody puts that decor on their plate, the food is cold. And I like hot food hot and cold food cold.

What did you like about the wood-fired oven so much?

Well, because I grew up with it as a child in Austria, everything was wood-fired. We didn’t have electricity. We didn’t have gas. When I lived in Provence, I went to a restaurant and helped a friend of ours, really, he had this restaurant where he had simple food, I think mainly grilled food, like a steak, maybe lamb chops, and he had that wood-burning pizza oven. So I mean I was thinking about Spago and I was thinking about a restaurant similar like that. Then because I had to leave Ma Maison, I made it more upscale.

You talked about people not maybe being ready for undercooked salmon back in the day. Are there areas that you think are sort of the next frontier in cooking that the average diner hasn’t a warmed up to yet right now?

I don’t know. People talk about eating crickets or eating the cicadas or whatever. I don’t know. It doesn’t appeal to me. So for me, I don’t want to cook something I don’t want to eat, just because it becomes a fad or just because somebody saying it is good. I did that tryout with this Beyond Meat product and I tell you, I made a Philly cheesesteak with it. It was as good as any Philly cheesesteak I ever had.

You think that’s a way to go that maybe we haven’t reached its full potential yet?

Yeah, I definitely think so because some of these companies who do these inventions out of a laboratory making meat or making like meat out of plants, out of peas or beans or whatever using the proteins from plants, I think it definitely has a future because I think we definitely have to cut down on the greenhouse gases and we know how much it comes from the cows and everything. So maybe that will help. Maybe they can make it at a good price and it’s still tasty. Now to me, it has to be done right to be tasty because by itself, I might as well prefer to have a real hamburger.

The movie talks about this to some extent, but do you ever think that your celebrity got in the way of you being a chef? What was it like trying to find a balance there?

Well, I really tried to tell people that you can be a chef today and a businessman. I know a lot of food critics, a lot of papers they criticize, they think a chef should be behind the stove all the time. Now I tell you I’m 71 years old. If I would have to stand behind the stove and serve 250 customers every night, I think my life would be cut short. I don’t think we have to stop. If you want to be a boxer, they don’t ask you to be a boxer when you are 50 years old or 60 years old. You become the trainer, and I’m more like the coach and the trainer, I tell people what I want and taste the food with the way I like it. I teach the techniques and they have to execute and we have more than one restaurant.

A lot of chefs out there today have more than one restaurant and I think I’m happy and I’m really proud of showing people that a chef is not somebody who is sitting in the background somewhere, a chef is not somebody who is in the dungeon cooking the food, and nobody knows about it. I’m very proud to having lifted the profile of the chefs. Not only that they can be great cooks, but also great business people.

‘Wolfgang’ hits Disney+ June 25th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.