Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Wolfgang Puck
December 14, 2009 5:00 AM
By Patricia Sheridan Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Austrian-born chef Wolfgang Puck created Spago restaurant that became the meal mecca for stars in Hollywood during the 1980s and '90s. At 60, he is still going strong as a branded chef with his own line of products, including soups, frozen pizzas, kitchen appliances and cookware. He has authored several cookbooks, his latest being "Wolfgang Puck Makes it Easy." A naturalized U.S. citizen, he lives with his second wife and two young sons in Los Angeles. He has two older boys from his first marriage.
How did growing up on a farm in Austria shape your ideas about food and livestock?
For me having fresh vegetables, picking the vegetables at 10 a.m., then my mother using the carrots and potatoes or whatever to make the vegetable soup was completely normal. My mother was really a great chef and in the summertime she worked as a chef in a resort hotel. In the summer when it was hot we had rhubarb. My mother used to boil them with sugar and water and maybe a little vanilla. We ate it cold, and we used to love it.
I read that you used to help her in the kitchen as a little boy.
Absolutely. I started really young. I would go with her in the summer to where she worked. So really at the age of 10 I was in a professional kitchen already.
Where do you stand when it comes to subsidizing farmers?
We really try very hard to keep the small family farms, who grow organic -- and even the ones that don't, (they really don't have the money to go through the process of becoming organic) in business [because they] supply humanely treated animals. I really feel that if the government should subsidize the farmers who grow [organic] vegetables and fruits. Buy it for the kids in school, for example, because the malnutrition in this country is staggering. We think about health care; well, health care starts with good food.
Has your own celebrity complicated the personal aspect of your life?
At one point it's always good if you are better known because you have a big voice if you want to do something. I think the good thing is I can attract more talent. To me it has only pluses. Well, sometimes people bug me, but you know what? I don't really mind that. I always tell people, I'm going to mind it when nobody wants to take a picture anymore and nobody wants to take an autograph anymore. Then I will have problems. I know one famous actress who used to come to the old Spago and she said, "Wolfgang I cannot come here anymore. There are so many paparazzi, and they always bug me and take my picture." So when she left I told four or five of the waiters and some of the cooks "OK, let's go out so she can get into her Rolls Royce easy." So what did she do? The Rolls Royce came up from the valet, and she stood there posing for the photographers (laughing).
When you first got to Hollywood, were you prepared for that kind of self-centric Hollywood lifestyle?
No, not at all. At the beginning I really didn't think about it much. I only cared about the people who loved food. I remember Orson Welles used to come every day for lunch. I used to sit down with him, and we talked about food and wine and restaurants in Paris. So it wasn't that I was so impressed by him. I used to go play tennis with Gene Kelly, and he used to come to the restaurant and eat a pepper steak all the time. That was some of the earlier famous people who I met.
Do you cook for your children?
Yeah, every Sunday morning I am going with them to the vegetable market, the farmer's market, and if I'm not at home, the nanny knows the right way to cook and prepare for them. We just steam [the vegetables] generally and then pour a little bit of olive oil on top. They like it. They eat broccoli, asparagus, carrots and peas.
Where did your inventiveness with cooking get its start?
When I came to Los Angeles I saw all these different cultures. I was influenced certainly by the Japanese, the Chinese and so on. So for me that is when it really started.
Wolfgang, were you always confident you would be successful?
You know, I was always nervous when I opened a restaurant. I always thought, "What if nobody shows up?" So when I opened Spago in 1982 in January, I was so nervous. I remember they were writing things like "Wolfgang is opening a spaghetti joint." But when I opened all of a sudden the restaurant was full, and, you know, the kitchen was in the dining room. It was an amazing beginning. Naturally I wondered, "How long is it going to last? Sooner or later it's going to be over." Remember we were cooking from like 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. every night."
I understand you are not much of a drinker, but you do love your wine.
I love wine and I love champagne. I love cold champagne. It's my favorite. I turned my wife on to that, too.
So how does someone who spends 95 percent of his time around food not get fat?
I actually exercise for like an hour whenever I am in town. That's really the main thing. When you exercise you watch a little bit what you eat. I do eat everything, but I try not to eat at night, like sit down at 10 p.m. My manager, she loves to sit down after work and have a big meal, and you know -- it shows on her. I always tell her, "You have to eat before."
Finally, how do you measure success?
Having grown a little bit older and maybe a little bit wiser, I think success is a 50/50 proposition. It is half business and half your private life. If you are really successful in business but have a bad marriage and the kids are not doing well, you know, you are not a happy person. So I think it is really to balance business and pleasure or business and family.