In yesterday's first part of our interview with Wolfgang Puck, the chef talked about his new downtown restaurant WP24 and gave us a little backstory of Ma Maison, Spago and the invention of his famous pizza. Speaking of pizza, turns out that Puck decided to detour, mid-interview and en route to the 24th floor of the Ritz-Carlton, to check in on his Bistro. In the process of chatting up his chefs, handling dough, and peering at mis en place, he decided that he wanted to make a few pizzas. The sight of Puck shoveling a peel, his breakfast pizza loaded on top, into the ovens was arresting, not only to his chefs but to the handful of people who chanced to wander into the restaurant at lunchtime and did a series of double-takes when they recognized the guy on the line.
Turn the page for the second part of the interview, and check back later for Puck's recipe for soft-shell crab tempura.
Squid Ink: So where did you get the name Spago?
Wolfgang Puck: Well, that's funny. George Moroder, a very successful musician; he did all the music for Donna Summer. And for Midnight Express, for Flashdance, for Top Gun: he won 4 Oscars for music. When I was at Ma Maison he was a good customer. So I told him what I wanted to do with this restaurant, because there was no pizza at the time in L.A. There was like Shakey's pizza, and the chains, but not one restaurant. He got all excited and so he was supposed to invest the money. So then we talked and he wanted to call it Spago, because he said he wanted to write a musical called Spago.
SI: A musical??
WP: Yeah. And he said, Well, if we don't make the musical, at least we'll have the restaurant. And I said, I don't care what you call it as long as you give me the money. So then all of a sudden when we talked about the business part, he said he wanted 75% of the business. I said, me too. So we never could agree on a business deal. I told everybody at the cooking class at Ma Maison that I was looking to open a restaurant, and I had a few dentists and a few doctors and they said, Oh we can help you raise the money. So we raised the money like in $15,000 [increments].
SI: And you kept the name?
WP: Yeah, so I'd told them already that it was going to be Spago. They said, Oh my god it sounds like a Puerto Rican restaurant, you have to change the name. And Rita Leinwand, who was the editor and chief at Bon Appétit at that time, said, Oh Wolfgang, how can you make pizzas, you make such wonderful food at Ma Maison and now you're going to go make pizzas. Everybody tried to say no. We went to have dinner at the Polo Lounge and Rita Leinwand told Barbara [Lazaroff, Puck's then wife], You have to stop him, he's getting completely crazy. That's not what he should be doing. But I said, You know what, we'll do that and we'll see what happens. And I tried to explain that we're going to make pizzas with Santa Barbara shrimp, with duck sausage — not pepperoni or whatever.
And then we opened January 16th. The first night I didn't tell anybody and all of a sudden I looked around and it was full. And I said, Shit. Mark Peel was doing pasta, and we didn't even have a pasta cutter; we cut everything by hand. And Kazuto [Matsusaka] was doing the appetizers and Ed LaDou was doing the pizzas and I was doing the grill.
SI: You wouldn't call it a pizza joint now.
WP: Yeah. Well, because I like change. You know, I don't want to be stuck with one thing for the rest of my life. And I told myself, like maybe in '92 or '93, If I'm going to be here when I'm 60, I'm going to jump out the window for sure and kill myself, that's it. So I made my mind up way before that I was going to leave, and everybody said, Oh don't you regret that you left. I said, Not one second. It wasn't even a question to second-guess myself or whatever.
SI: And would you say that the same motivation has prompted your other changes over the years?
WP: Yeah, because I always like something new. Even at the restaurant, sometimes I change something and they say, Why do you want to change that? Because that way it's better.
SI: You don't get bored. Neither do the rest of us.
WP: Exactly. I think it's really important to keep on staying motivated.
SI: Maybe that's why people stay with you for so long. How long has Lee Hefter been with you?
WP: Maybe 16, 17 years, something like that. Sherry [Yard, Spago's longtime pastry chef] was about the same time. Lee started as a line cook up at Spago. At that time, I thought I had to send them to Europe to learn more. But today that's not that important any more, because you have so many good restaurants in America. Lee I sent to France. Sherry I sent to Austria.
SI: Why Austria?
WP: The Austrian school is a pastry shop school. In Austria they were famous for pastries, you know, to have in the afternoon with coffee. It's a big thing to go for coffee and cake. And obviously what they call the Viennoiserie, even in France. What they call a Danish is actually from Vienna too.
SI: And you're from Austria originally, right?
WP: In the south, on the border between Italy and Slovenia. A town called Klagenfurt, in the countryside. There's a nice lake there, where my mother used to work as a cook in a resort hotel.
SI: Is that how you got into cooking?
WP: Yeah, the lady who owned the hotel got me my first job. In the beginning, when I was twelve or something, I wanted to be an architect, because I saw on a picture the Empire State Building and I asked who built it, and somebody said, An architect. So I said, That's what I want to do. And then I couldn't go to school because it was too expensive, there wasn't one in Klagenfurt, so you had to go to Vienna. And I was okay in school, but not really not so good that the government would pay for everything.
So first I wanted to be in pastry, but I couldn't find a job in a pastry store. I went to one, I was so nervous, I was 14 or something, they had a pastry store upstairs with coffee and tea and I walked downstairs where they made sheet pans full of cakes and I didn't see them, I was so nervous, I walked on them. They looked at me and said, What are you doing. So I got a job in a hotel. They started me as an apprentice. After three or four weeks, the chef, who was a really rough guy, drunk a lot, a big guy with a big stomach, he told me, Oh you better go home, go back to your mother. I told him, I can't go home. He told me to leave, and I said, Jeez, I'm going to have to kill myself, I'm not going home. So I was standing on the river there, on the bridge, it was the end of November, maybe the beginning of December, I was going to jump in the river. I was standing there for an hour maybe, looking down. And then finally, I thought, I'm just going to back tomorrow and see what happens. So I went back and the apprentice who was a year ahead of me was all excited: You're back, I don't have to peel potatoes. Because the last one who comes peels the potatoes and onions and washes the spinach, whatever. We had a vegetable cellar and I was down there peeling potatoes, and after ten days or two weeks the chef came down and he saw me and said, What are you doing here? He called the manager of the hotel and said, I fired the guy two weeks ago and he's hiding out here, what are we going to do?
SI: You were 14, right?
WP: Yeah. And then the manager called the owner and said, What should we do with this little guy, he can't go home. And so he sent me to his other hotel, and over there they were much nicer to me. I started, and then we had to go to cooking school, like every year for three months, where you learn about sanitation and cooking, the fundamentals, the more precise things. When I finished the school I came back, and we had to show the owner, who was an old lawyer, our report cards. And I had straight A's and he said, Oh my god. He was like 75 years old and for him education was an important thing, so each time he walks through the kitchen into the dining room, he says, Where's Wolfgang? And everybody was like, Why is he always asking for me? He was always very nice to me.
So then when I was 17, after 3 years, we did a gastronomic week at a French restaurant in Burgundy. And I said, Wow, it's so interesting, they're taking 5 bottles of wine and reducing it and cooking the chicken in it for coq au vin. In the other restaurant, the chef would just drink it. I thought, I want to go there. Either to France or to Rome to learn more. I couldn't get a job in Rome, but in France they said, Okay, you can come. Right away I took some French classes from an old French lady who lived in town and when I was 17 I left for Dijon on the train with my little suitcase.
SI: How long were you in France before you came over here?
WP: Seven years. Time goes fast.
SI: At what point did you start putting Austrian dishes on your menu?
WP: Only here at Spago. When we opened the new one, I said, What are we going to do differently. So I thought we'd do some Austrian things. We started with Kaiserschmarrn, chicken soup with marrow dumplings; we had Wienerschnitzel, we had goulash, we had headcheese, stuff like that. We never did it at the old Spago. Now we can't take the Kaiserschmarrn off the menu, even the Wienerschnitzel. You can't take it off; people get crazy.
SI: There's a kind of irony to that: coming back to the beginning.
WP: I know. In a way, it's interesting. And you know, I saw it so much with the customers. Like Billy Wilder, when he was older. We started to make bread at Spago, with Nancy [Silverton], and we made this 7-grain bread, like a country bread from Austria. We had to send it to Billy's house, and we were making salami to send to Billy's house because he though it was just like when he was in Austria.
SI: Was he Austrian too?
WP: Yeah, from Vienna.
SI: So… how did you get started with The Home Shopping Network?
WP: Through a friend of mine who represented George Foreman. You know, the George Foreman grill. And I gave him a hard time, I said, What's up with you doing that? I mean, George Foreman, he doesn't know anything about cooking. George Foreman also wanted to sell a meatloaf, and we were in the kitchen at the old Spago and I tasted that meatloaf, it was so bad and I tried to tell him. I told George, You know what, you stay with boxing and I'll stay with cooking. I don't think I can eat this. And he said, You know, a lot of people like it. And I said, I'm sure they do. So then I talked to him and that's how it started.
First we went to QVC and the pots and pans were too expensive, so we couldn't sell a lot. So we had $350,000 – $400,000 worth of inventory left and I said, What are we going to do with all these things? So somehow we did it on HSN, because they didn't really have any chefs there. We sold it off at a discount; we lost a little, but at least we got rid of it. And then we built a new version, less expensive, and it started to take off slowly. And then we went into appliances. So now I've been doing it for 12 years already. And every year I say this is my last year.
SI: People do love to shop.
WP: I know, it's crazy. People just buy. I think it's an addiction. I couldn't think, you know, lying in bed and having my telephone there and calling up. Last year, like 2 Christmasses ago, in 2008, we had a small knife set. We sold 80,000 knife sets in one day.
SI: Wow. So what kind of knife do you use?
WP: You know, different knives for different things, obviously. I like the Japanese knives, I like French knives. Whatever's sharp.
Check back later for Puck's recipe for soft-shell crab tempura with fried spinach leaves, a dish with origins at Chinois, and which is currently on the menu at WP24.