For anyone who's lived in Los Angeles longer than a decade, it's impossible not to feel caught in some sort of time-warp pulling up to the recently reopened Hotel Bel-Air. The swans still float serenely on the pond and wander the lush grounds, but the first thing you notice aren't the Cygnini, it's the valets: buff, young dudes in striped button-down shirts who look like they just left the Cobra Kai dojo. Like the Karate Kid, Sonny Crockett and Marty McFly, Wolfgang Puck rose to fame in the 1980s, so it makes perfect sense that he'd be helming the renovated Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel-Air.
The restaurant boasts a large patio with alcoves for current and former movie execs to discreetly take business meetings. The bar is casual and open yet intimate enough for a sexy rendezvous. There's also a classic indoor dining room for formal dinners. Puck himself oversaw the menu along with key members of Team Wolfgang including pastry goddess Sherry Yard. Here, the Austrian-born chef sits down to discuss his restaurant empire, the perils of tailoring one's cuisine to a particular city and the challenges of running a hotel restaurant — even as an old friend stops by the table.
[Photo gallery after the jump.]
Squid Ink: How many restaurants do you have?
Wolfgang Puck: We have right now 20 or so.
SI: You've lost count.
WP: Yeah. [laughing] I don't count.
SI: How do you keep it fresh each time you open a new one?
WP: I think we have a great staff. It's really a collaboration of a lot of people. You always have to keep on working at it. If not, you'll end up just like Chasen's, like Le Dome, like Ma Maison, like Le Restaurant. Every restaurant which was famous when I was here, except maybe for Dan Tana's and Musso & Frank's, are all gone.
SI: With Dan Tana's and Musso & Frank, people go more for the ambiance than the food.
WP: Exactly. It's like going to your country club. You're not going to get good food at the country club, but people still go and hang out.
SI: So how do you keep learning?
WP: I think a lot of things you learn from young people. A lot of things you learn from traveling. But I think an important part is to be willing to learn, to be willing to let people do new things. You can't do everything in life, so it's important to form a great team.
SI: The way you describe it, it sounds a bit like being a director on a film set. You don't have to be the best editor or the best cinematographer, but you have to choose people who are the best at what they do and will carry out your vision.
WP: Exactly. They have to carry out the vision. If I would have to cook every day, I would kill myself. Lee and Sherry and Ray and Ari, they work with me for 15, 20 years, so they think like me. It makes it easier. Martin Scorsese always used to use Michael Ballhaus to shoot his movies because he knew he had the eye. After a while, a collaboration like that makes it really easy; you don't even have to talk.
SI: Are there any chefs you've been inspired by in Los Angeles or elsewhere?
WP: Outside of London, Heston Blumenthal's restaurant, The Fat Duck, is really an amazing place of food and invention. It was the most inspiring one. Not that I would like to do the same thing, but he did it the way he thought a three-star restaurant should be.
SI: How do you walk the line between playing to what's popular now vs. creating enduring dishes?
WP: We have to believe what we do is right. If everybody does molecular gastronomy now, they're doing a few things really well, but most of the things fall on the side. People like to do foams, people like to do this — but at the end of the day, if it doesn't really have flavor, it doesn't mean anything to me. To me, it's really all about the taste. If we buy great ingredients, they look good, but at the end: How does it taste?
You know, it would be interesting to have Ferran Adrià and other chefs cook a dinner and give them certain ingredients, but you're blindfolded [when you] eat it. You don't see the plate. You don't see the smoke. You don't see everything. You just take the purity of the dish and taste it. I know we always say “We eat with our eyes first,” and I tell everybody that too, but at the end, you want to go back if it really tastes good. You might be a little bit lenient on the presentation, but you will say, “I'm really happy with the dish.”
SI: Do you have any personal favorites you like to eat or cook?
WP: I like Dover sole. It's always one of my favorites. I like it when I'm in England. I eat it every day almost. I think it's probably one of my favorite fish.
SI: How do you do Dover sole here?
WP: We bone it and sautée it with a confit of a little lemon juice, olive oil and butter, and we serve it with cauliflower puree, raisins, almonds and capers.
SI: When you open a new restaurant, do you conceive it specifically for that city?
WP: Not anymore. I used to make that mistake where we open in Tokyo, I fall totally in love with the fish market. I say, “I want that. I'm going to serve a sashimi of that.” But it was the wrong thing because they have so many restaurants who can do that probably better than I do.
When we go now to London, for example, we're not going to say, “Okay, what do the English really want? What should we cook for the English?” We say, “This is us. We are coming to you and this is who we are.” When the English come here, they like it. If all the English from Elton John to Michael Caine would have said, “We don't like this food here. We're never coming back,” I would never have opened a restaurant like that. I did not change anything to accommodate the English. I think the world is not anymore like that today.
SI: You're best known for California cuisine. Are you sort of an ambassador for that?
WP: No, different things for different places. The last few we opened out of the country: Singapore was Cut and London was Cut. I think we bring the meat. It's really American soul food. Everybody loves a great steak and a great glass of red wine.
SI: What was the concept for this restaurant?
WP: It's a hotel restaurant so we want to be really elegant yet chic. The environment is not stuffy. It's more like a garden. It's inside, outside. It has a lot of different facilities. We have the bar, we have people come and eat maybe a hamburger, crab cakes, a Caesar salad, tortilla soup. Then we have the restaurant, where the menu is very elegant. The service is very good, very upscale, so they prime your wine glasses before you get your wine and everything. A lot of restaurants serve good food, but they don't have very good service. We look at every little point, because I really believe service is just as important.
I had a guy from Germany here for lunch, he comes here quite often, and he says, “You know, it's rare to see in Europe that they have so many people, that you don't have to look for somebody.” I really believe that service today in America is better than anywhere else.
SI: Because it's a hotel and it's Bel Air, did you have to make the menu more tame?
WP: No. I tell everybody the same thing: You have to make every dish so when you taste it, you should remember it when you go home. You couldn't do that if you tame it down. We wanted to have strong flavors.
(From stage left, enter former Paramount Pictures CEO Sherry Lansing, a tall, slender woman with great cheekbones, steely blue eyes and perfectly coiffed chestnut hair. She wears a subtle, classy suit and carries a black Birkin bag.)
Sherry Lansing: I didn't mean to be rude — I just had to see you. You look so skinny and handsome. And look at this [gesturing to the restaurant], it's fantastic.
WP: Now, I don't have to go home. I can sleep here.
SL: We live right up the road. I used to come here every morning.
WP: I see you over there, I said, “Oh, Sherry.”
SL: I didn't realize it was you, otherwise I would have run over. (To me) He is the most important man here. Are you doing an interview?
SI: Yes. And he did recognize you right away.
WP: We have known each other forever.
WP: She was in junior high school when I was cooking at Ma Maison.
SL: I wish that was true. [musing] Actually, I don't. I really am very happy. This is fantastic.
(Puck excuses himself to give Lansing a mini-tour of the restaurant, stopping to greet at a half-dozen patrons by name and returning 6 minutes and 55 seconds later.)
SI: It's a fancy hotel in Bel Air. How do you make it not stuffy?
WP: I think if everybody is friendly, if everybody is relaxed, if nobody has an attitude, it becomes a friendly fun space. I want people to have fun. I like whatever is on the plate to be serious, but the rest surrounding it should be fun.