Interview / Wolfgang Puck
The options were work or die. A 14 year-old Wolfgang Puck stands on the ledge of a bridge looking down at the black, rushing water. He has just been fired from his job as a potato peeler at a local hotel. Rather than go home where he endured brutal beatings by his step father, he contemplates ending it all. In a decision that would come to characterize his approach to life and business, Wolfgang decides to persist. He goes back to the hotel and demands to be re-hired in the kitchen.
That's just the beginning of Wolfgang Puck’s epic story that takes him from potato peeler in a remote Austrian village to a mentorship with the famous Raymond Thullier of Beaumanière in France where he gained an un-abiding passion for food. That passion grew into an obsession, and the once impoverished, under-fed kid from a village of just over 12,000 people became the paragon of all things culinary world-wide.
Wolfgang now presides over an empire of 26 fine dining restaurants located in six countries. Twenty of these restaurants are ranked in the top 40 best restaurants in the world.
WP: When I was 14 years old I quit school and started to work professionally. When I was 17, I moved to France. I worked in the best restaurants. Like Maxim’s in Paris. I learned more there than in Austria and I spent 7 years there.
I came to the United States because everybody told me, if you want to make money, you have to move to America, that’s the land of opportunity. So, when I was 24, I came to America. First, I moved to New York, and I didn’t really like New York. Somebody offered me a job in Indianapolis, so I went to Indianapolis and started cooking. I had no money to live. I started to work and thank God it was easy to get my papers there. Later, I got the opportunity to move to Los Angeles. It was always my dream to come to California. From there, I started at Ma Maison, and in 1982 we opened Spago, and in 1983, Chinois. We continued to grow our company.
JJ: Can you describe yourself in your own words to someone who might not know you?
WP: I am passionate about what I do, I am curious and willing to learn all the time. I hope my kids will say he was a good father, and my wife that he was a good husband. But that’s not for me to say.
JJ: Was your dream to be a chef?
WP: It wasn’t a dream at first, it was more like an escape. I was not dreaming at 14 to become a chef. I might have dreamt of becoming a racecar driver or a skier. But not a chef. It was only when I was 19 years old that I worked in a restaurant called Baumanière in the South of France and that’s where I met my mentor. I saw his passion and somehow it rubbed off on me and I became passionate about food.
I think it’s very important for young people to find their passion, and hopefully a mentor who can help them along, show them and teach them. A mentor is a teacher who has empathy and is passionate.
JJ: What is good food to you?
WP: Something beautiful can be a strawberry that is perfectly ripe. It’s about the ingredients. The beauty of the ingredients is an important part because if the ingredients are beautiful then they taste good. In America it's very different when you think about beauty. Factory farms grow tomatoes by the millions, they all look the same. That is not beauty to me. That’s boring. Beauty is in authenticity and is artisanal. Artisanal farmers who make beautiful stuff and who get better as years go on because they work the ground. For me good food is all about great ingredients.
It's the same thing with clothes. It's how you wear the clothes. It's not what the clothes are–it's the person who wears the clothes that makes them what they are. The clothes don’t make the king.
JJ: You have so many restaurants all over the world, how do you keep it authentic to you?
WP: Every company has a culture. Even families have a certain culture–they go to temple every Friday or Saturday and observe shabbat. So, that's part of a culture. Our culture in the restaurant business is hospitality. How we make the guests feel, and obviously how we cook the food.
Our culture is to buy the best ingredients and then don’t screw them up. We are all about hospitality, how we make the guests feel is the most important part. If you pay $100 or $200 and you’re happy at the end, you will come back and do it again, even if you don’t have a lot of money. You’re going to say, next time for an anniversary or birthday I am going to go back there because I felt so good after. If you go to a restaurant and spend $20 and nobody cares, you say ‘I don’t want to spend my money like that. They don’t care about me and there's no hospitality.’
I always tell people the story of when I went to Barneys in Beverly Hills, I went to buy some jeans and T-Shirts because I was going on vacation. I walked up to the fourth floor and there were four people around the cash register. Nobody said good morning to me, nobody welcomed me. Nobody was there to take care of the guests. I went up to the counter and threw my hand on the table to make them wake up and said, “Good morning, can I help you?” You could see that they were all nervous. That’s not the way to run a business. And sure enough, I never went back there.
I think we have the culture, and loyalty. I am a very loyal person and so are the people who work for us. It goes both ways, if we treat them right, they’re going to make the customers happy.
JJ: What is a dream that you have that you haven’t accomplished yet?
WP: I continue having small dreams. To continue to expand–I want to open a restaurant that has three Michélin stars. I want to do a beautiful coffee table cookbook. There is always something I am looking forward to.
JJ: What is your favorite book?
WP: I love history. I just read a book about Napoleon called Napoleon, it's an amazing book. He was a genius. I am also reading a book called The Cause about after the American Revolution, it’s an amazing book. I am also reading another book right now about the Congo called Congo about when the French came and took the Congo.
I also love cookbooks a lot.
JJ: Do you ever make other people’s recipes?
WP: I don’t really make recipes. I don’t go into the kitchen and say okay I'm going to make this recipe. But I look through it and get inspired. I have this book by Melissa Weller called A Good Bake. It's an amazing pastry book. I love to look through it.
You know one book young people should read is called Grit by Angela Duckworth. It’s a business book.
JJ: What is your favorite smell?
WP: I don’t have one favorite, I have many. The smell of a great melon is amazing. Or of a ripe peach. Or of a tomato you just picked in a garden. Right now, it’s the season of white truffles. Who wouldn’t like white truffles? But the problem is its $4,000 a pound. It’s an expensive smell.
JJ: What do you do for fun?
WP: I love to read; I love to play tennis and ski. I love to walk. It's very important to your health.
JJ: Who is the one person in your life that you feel the most at ease with?
WP: Being at home and if my wife is there, I feel so good. And if I say nothing, I feel totally fine. I don't have to talk all the time; I can just be there to be.
To learn more about Mr. Puck, watch his new documentary Wolfgang on Disney+ out now.
Shop Mr. Puck’s book recommendations by following these links:
The Cause: The American Revolution and its Discontents, 1773-1783
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
Congo: The Epic History of a People
A Good Bake: The Art and Science of Making Perfect Pastries, Cakes, Cookies, Pies, and Breads at Home: A Cookbook