Cut to the chase

Kim Wyatt meets celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck Discuss this article

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Wolfgang Puck is the original celebrity chef. Long before big names such as Jamie Oliver graced our TV screens, chef Wolfgang Puck – restauranteur, entrepreneur, global brand, cookbook author and TV host – was creating his culinary empire from star-studded Hollywood, California. Today, the acclaimed chef is the owner of more than 100 restaurants around the globe stretching from the Middle East (with last year’s opening of CUT by Wolfgang Puck at the Mondrian Doha) to North America, Europe and Asia. With a long list of accolades plus a homeware brand and his eponymously titled Wolfgang Puck Inc. corporation, we catch him for an interesting chat on how he carved a formidable career in a cut-throat industry with an insatiable appetite for the latest #instafood trend.

Success and failure
Mentioning Puck without Hollywood is like serving a burger without beef (okay, that might be an extreme example). He is regularly photographed with Hollywood’s hottest celebs such as JLo and JLaw (who, by the way, also happen to be his biggest fans). Puck has been the official caterer for the Governors Ball for over 20 years and is loved by millions for his cooking shows and TV appearances. Spago, his restaurant in West Hollywood, is still going strong and has been a celebrity hotspot for more than 30 years – a lifetime in the restaurant trade. How does he remain so successful? “The most constant thing is change," he says. "I look at restaurants in Los Angeles from the 1980s that were doing well, but now, they’ve all gone. Why? Because they didn’t change and continued to make the same food all the time. People got tired of it.

I tell my chefs all the time Spago is 36 years old and just imagine that the best year we had was 2017.”

The restaurant trade, though seen as glamorous and exciting, is notoriously difficult. Public demand constantly shifts, with social media now becoming a huge predictor of success. It hasn’t always been the Hollywood walk of fame for Puck (he was awarded the 2,608th star in 2017). He is the first to admit that “It’s part of life to fail. I always think that without failure I would not be where I am today because I took risks. Often with risk comes failure and, in a way, you learn from that. I really believe that failure is not a bad thing as long as you don’t hurt anyone.”

Bad dad
Puck, to his credit, has also turned a tumultuous childhood with an abusive step-father into the classic American dream of success, fame and fortune. Internationally known as an American icon and brand, he is, in fact, Austrian. His apprenticeship started in Austria when he was just 14 and continued with stints in some of Paris’ most celebrated restaurants (such as Maxim’s) culminating in a jump across the pond, aged 24, to his land of hope and dreams – the USA.

Based in Los Angeles, Puck developed his signature method while other restauranteurs were still dishing up the same old “continental” menu. Using classic French techniques, he created an haute cuisine style using the best of Californian produce. It wasn’t long before word got out.

“Back in the 1970’s, there were many continental restaurants – hotel style food with a French influence. They basically had the same menu and it wasn’t exciting. When I first started in this industry, I had to do what everyone else was doing. Six months later, I declared I was leaving. I got a new job and was finally able to do whatever I wanted. I found a farm and picked up fresh, locally grown vegetables. Slowly but surely stars such as Orson Welles started coming to my restaurant. America’s number one food publication, Gourmet Magazine, wrote about our restaurant. I was so nervous. After the article was published I said, “How we are going to take all of the customers now that America knows about us?” So, I decided to disconnect our telephone line. That wasn’t the best plan because people got more excited and started thinking, “This restaurant is so chic it even has an unlisted number.” Suddenly overnight, Puck’s restaurant became a major sensation.

Cut opens
Riding on the back of this success, in 2006, he opened CUT – a sophisticated and sleek American style steakhouse showcasing his passion for culture and love of locally grown ingredients. “When we started CUT, I wanted to make things different by taking cultural aspects and giving it a twist.” The restaurant was soon awarded a prestigious Michelin star and expanded to other locations such as London and Singapore. Last year, the Mondrian Doha debuted CUT by Wolfgang Puck – a cleverly considered collaboration given that the hotel group started in his adopted home of LA. “I wanted to branch out and thought it would be interesting to go with a hotel group that appeals to a younger demographic. The hotel brand is full of colour, life and fashion. It truly reflects the LA culture.”

It’s easy to see Middle Eastern influences in CUT by Wolfgang Puck’s menu which features the likes of Qatari lamb, falafel, Arabian Sea king prawns and toasted pistachio alongside American favourites such as corn-fed USDA prime beef. “Why not have lobster and shrimp spring rolls from our restaurant in LA and make them here in Qatar?” Puck wonders. “You must adapt the restaurant to suit the culture. Here, raw food is not as popular as in Los Angeles, so we don’t serve it. I am always interested in the place I am in at that moment. It makes me learn and understand the people. Culture is a big part of my food.”

Falcons and sand dunes
As a recent guest chef of the Qatar International Food Festival, it’s clear to see the chef loves Doha. “I’ve talked to a few people and next time I want to go to the desert for a barbecue. I want to stay overnight and cook and eat the way people do here. My son Oliver tried dune-bashing and he loved it. He went sand-boarding and visited Souq Waqif to see the falcons – I almost had to buy him a pet falcon to take back to LA.

“For the food part of it, I met Qatari chef Aisha Al Tamimi and told her I want to experience real Qatari food and culture.” Puck even boldly asked her to cook for him in her home next time.

Cooks should be creative
For Puck, food and culture go hand in hand. At 69, he travels constantly and there are no signs of slowing down. “A lot of people ask me how I create things and I always reply “by doing things.” I was brought up in an age where we didn’t have the internet. At that time if you wanted to know what they cooked in France, you had to buy a cookbook. I was always worried that I would lose my passion for food. People say to me “You’re going to get tired of being in the kitchen.” It’s interesting because I do so many different things. I think if you enjoy what you do, it shows on your face. You can find people with experience who are fantastic with their cooking skills, but it is extremely hard to find people with an imagination. I think chefs must find their own voice in food – it’s just like being an artist.”

For Puck, life is about constantly moving and changing, especially in the restaurant business. “Creativity is what moves us forward,” he concludes. On that note, we’re headed back to his restaurant for a sit-down dinner with the best steak in the country.
CUT by Wolfgang Puck is the winner of Best Steakhouse in Time Out Doha Restaurant Awards 2018. Mondrian Doha, West Bay Lagoon (4045 5555).

By Kim Wyatt
Time Out Doha,

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