Wolfgang Puck is everywhere, from restaurants to grocery stores to airports
Wolfgang Puck, whose name can be found on 101 restaurants worldwide, has thoroughly reinvented his Spago Beverly Hills restaurant.
Share with others:
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Thirty years ago, Wolfgang Puck opened Spago in West Hollywood, a restaurant that is still celebrated across this town, pioneering a lively new style of California cooking and offering a festive rebuke to all the white tablecloths.
But these days, Mr. Puck's name resonates with most Americans not for what he did in his kitchen but for the one-man culinary behemoth he built.
His smiling face peers from organic-soup cans and boxes of frozen pizza in supermarkets. Wolfgang Puck concessions sell grab-and-go meals in airports. There are Wolfgang Puck cookware, knives, coffee makers and rice steamers. At 63, Mr. Puck, with his tart Austrian accent, has been a mainstay on cooking shows for 25 years, a celebrity chef long before the phrase was even invented. Today there are 101 Puck restaurants, from Singapore to London. (There are locations in Philadelphia and Cleveland, but attempts in the mid-2000s to move into locations in the Pittsburgh market faltered.)
With his relentless merchandising, self-branding and kitchen globe-trotting, with his ease in moving from the highbrow to the lower-brow, Mr. Puck has often seemed in danger of sliding into culinary parody, more Barry Becher pitching Ginsu knives on late-night television ("Wait, there's more!") than the avatar of California cuisine.
"When he started showing up at airports, people were shocked," said Evan Kleiman, the restaurateur who just closed the acclaimed Angeli Caffe in Los Angeles and the host of "Good Food" on the public radio station KCRW.
Yet Mr. Puck recently unveiled an entirely reinvented Spago Beverly Hills, with a decor he describes as "edgy," a soundtrack of Arcade Fire and Spoon, and a menu sprinkled with adventurous small-plate offerings that have some of his bluer-hair customers wincing. This year he received the James Beard Foundation lifetime achievement award. And even as he presents an overhauled Spago, he is marking the anniversary of the luxurious restaurant he opened as part of the refurbishment of that Hollywood classic, the Hotel Bel-Air, named (but of course) Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air.
By almost every measure, he has not only survived but thrived, earning lasting respect from younger chefs, many of whom trained in his kitchens. Other peers wandered from their stoves as they became boldface fixtures on television or Page Six. Mr. Puck, ever restless, has continued to refashion his restaurants, his menus, his dishes and ultimately himself.
"Why stop?" he said, standing in the Spago dining room the other morning, the smell of paint fresh in the air, as workers rolled in tables and hammered down final touches. "What would you do at home?"
Even winning the James Beard award seemed more an annoyance than an honor. "He was like, 'What do they think, that I retired?' " said Ruth Reichl, a former restaurant critic for The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, who has been close to Mr. Puck for much of his career.
Mr. Puck's ambition does not appear to be dulled by success or age. The other night, he moved from kitchen to table with the genial spark that recalled his presence on the same floor a decade ago. He showed off the artwork on the walls, curated by his wife, Gelila Assefa; the receding canopy over the outdoor dining room framed by two outdoor fireplaces; and the soft lines and muted colors of the $4 million renovation by the designer Waldo Fernandez.
"Before, it was more ungapatchka, as we say in Austria," Mr. Puck said. "With little niches and this and that all over the place. It somehow had this dark feeling."
The very fact that Spago Beverly Hills continues to exist, much less prosper, is striking at a time when the Los Angeles restaurant scene is so dynamic and punishing. Over the past year, some of this city's most popular spots have announced they were closing: Angeli Caffe, Campanile, Sushi Nozawa and Lou among them. One place on Los Angeles Magazine's list of this year's 10 best new restaurants that was all but impossible to get into eight months ago had empty tables on a recent Friday night. The extravagance Puck championed at Spago has taken a back seat to restaurants that are quieter, smaller, more adventurous and less pricey.
"It's a very different world now," Mr. Kleiman said. "It's not like where it was 10 years ago, when a lot of people could go out and eat at fine dining places on expense accounts. I think people in their 30s or 40s don't think about going to Bouchon and Spago."
Puck has tried to accommodate them. At this latest of Spagos, he jettisoned two staples, the smoked salmon pizza and the Wiener schnitzel (though he said he would be glad to make either for old-time customers who ask) as he dappled his menu with dishes like a veal filet mignon tartare with smoked mascarpone, and a soba pasta studded with pieces of Dungeness crab. His challenge, Mr. Puck said, is rolling out innovative dishes that would bring in new diners without frightening the horses -- the patrons who have been eating at Puck restaurants from the beginning.
That said, he does have the buffer of a reputation built over years spent cooking here.
"I have to tell you, the best meal I had last year was at Spago," Ms. Reichl said. "When he wants to do it, he is an amazing chef. He's still enormously important."
And that reputation has carried through to a new generation of Los Angeles chefs who have picked up the ladle Mr. Puck held 30 years ago.
If Mr. Puck was once the David Chang of his day, today he is not quite a cutting-edge figure in the Los Angeles food world. He may be the only local chef who doesn't sport any visible tattoos. He doesn't seem particularly curious about the restaurants that have transformed the dining scene. He hasn't joined the caravan of diners who move from places like Animal to A-Frame to Superba Snack Bar.
"People say to me: 'Have you ever gone to this restaurant or that restaurant?'" he said. "I say 'no.' Most of the young ones, they've worked with us at one point or another."
Ms. Reichl said that over the years, she wondered why Mr. Puck would risk his success or name with all his new enterprises, instead of resting on his considerable laurels.
And why did he? Mr. Puck said he always saw himself first as a cook. He seemed mystified that anyone would think less of him for going into the canned-soup business.
"If anyone had said anything, I would have abandoned it," he said. "My passion was always fine-dining restaurants."
First Published November 8, 2012 12:00 am