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On the Cutting Edge: Wolfgang Puck

On the Cutting Edge: Wolfgang Puck

Wolfgang Puck is one of the biggest names in the restaurant world. He’s a business owner, a caterer, a food manufacturer and one of the first celebrity chefs, but he started out as a cook.

Puck began cooking beside his mother, who also was a chef, and went through the usual European apprenticeship process, followed by stints at some of France’s top restaurants, before moving to the United States at the age of 24.

He spent two years in Indianapolis but moved to Los Angeles in 1975 and gained critical acclaim as chef of Ma Maison in West Hollywood, Calif. He went on to help transform California cuisine at his restaurant Spago, where he introduced open kitchens and fine-dining pizza. Then at Chinois on Main he incorporated the food of Los Angeles’ Asian communities into a fine-dining setting, helping to lay the groundwork for fusion cuisine that was to follow.

From there he went on to open an array of fine-dining concepts across the country, as well as steakhouses, a casual chain and a fast-casual chain. His company also sells a range of products for home use, from cookware to frozen pizza, and its catering arm feeds the entertaining elite at parties such as the post-Academy Awards banquet.

“He became an impresario. I think the brilliance of Wolf of late is how to build an incredible team and make it happen all the time. They open restaurants, franchise products, they are everywhere from the Food Network to the Home Shopping Network, and the quality of the man always comes across. He’s the total package, and that’s why, 30 years on, he is still an icon in the industry.”— Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino, Los Angeles

How did you go from being a chef to a businessman?

I always wanted to write my own ticket, and I thought, if I don’t own my own restaurant it won’t happen.

So I opened Spago on Jan. 16, 1982, and people came from all over the place because I was different and it was something new.

Then these Japanese people gave me basically no choice but to open [another Spago] in Tokyo. They showed me the plans and asked if I would open the restaurant for them, and I said I wasn’t interested, and they said, ‘Then we’ll open it without you.’ So I went into business with them.

Then I opened Chinois on Main within a year and a half.

Was that the beginning of your career as an entrepreneur?

I guess when you are an immigrant, you are an entrepreneur because you have to be optimistic to move from one country to another, and you can’t be an entrepreneur if you’re not optimistic.

I think the turning point is when you go from one restaurant to two. I was on the grill at Spago every night, and then when I opened Spago in Tokyo I had to put someone else in charge of the grill, and I wasn’t the full-time chef in one restaurant anymore.

But a chef has to be a businessperson, too. Making up good recipes is one thing, but today you have to be a good manager and a business person because in the end you can make the best food and still go out of business.

How do you balance your time?

It’s about half and half these days. This month I traveled a lot, and I just came back from Toronto and I’m going to New York to do something for Wine Spectator, but then I’m back in Los Angeles for two weeks, and I’ll work at Chinois and Spago.

Do you cook in the restaurants anymore?

Yeah, I expedite or I work with all the cooks at different stations. I’m doing more overseeing and teaching than working just one station. And also I go into the dining room to greet the guests.

What’s the most challenging part of running your business?

To me, fine dining is what I grew up with, so it’s the easiest for me. Retailing is more of a challenge, and fast casual. In retail they might tell you they love the food, but you still have to fight for shelf space.

Are there fears that keep you up at night?

When we open a new restaurant, I’m always nervous that no one’s going to show up. And I can have 300 customers that are happy and one who’s complaining about his table or the server, and it makes me nervous, so I have trouble sleeping and I turn on the TV to keep my mind occupied. But I also try to exercise, and that helps me sleep.

Have aspects of your culinary training helped in business?

The traditional Austrian apprenticeship is very disciplined, and I think that work ethic helps you later on. Even when you’re successful, you have to be there. You can’t just stay at home or go on vacation. It’s like parenting. You can’t just give your children to a babysitter and hope they’ll grow up the way you want them to, with good manners and values. You have to do it yourself.

But you can’t do it all by yourself if you own multiple companies.

For me, the most important thing is to train the right people. And you have to keep them, so my key people are also partners in the business. It’s also important to team with the right companies, who have the same long-term goals. I recently signed a really good licensing deal with Campbell’s Soup. They let us manufacture to our tastes, they just help us with the business, and working with them, it’s easier for us to get shelf space in supermarkets. Compass is the same way [for catering]. We run our business, but we have their financial support if we need it.

Are those contracts difficult to negotiate?

I make a deal that I want, and the fine print we leave up to the lawyers. I would fall asleep if I tried to read through 120 pages in a contract. But I don’t try to be extra-greedy. I try to put myself in their shoes, but also in my own shoes.


Title: chef-restaurateur, Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, Las Vegas; Wolfgang Puck Catering and Wolfgang Puck Worldwide Inc., Los AngelesBirth date: July 8, 1949Birthplace: St. Veit, AustriaEducation: formal apprenticeship in AustriaFirst job after graduation: stagiaire at Les Trois Faisans in Dijon, FranceCareer turning point: opening second restaurant

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