It might seem odd to someone who does not live in Los Angeles, but we often don't see the permanently blue skies and the palm trees. We forget to go to the beach. We completely forget about Lindsay Lohan. We take Wolfgang Puck for granted, despite the beautiful garden of Spago, the Oscars, the reminders on television and in airports. And then the chef does something to remind us of how necessary he has been to this town, to Los Angeles cooking, to the fusion food and creative pizzas, and to the resumes of so many of our chefs.
What Puck has done most recently is to open a new restaurant. In this case WP24, a modern reincarnation, sort of, of his then groundbreaking Santa Monica restaurant Chinois on Main. On the panoramic 24th floor of downtown's new Ritz-Carlton, WP24 is more like a view with a restaurant than a restaurant with a view. We caught up with Puck recently on his way downtown to check in on the new place, which opened quietly for dinner a few weeks ago. (En route he made a pit stop for fresh seafood at International Marine Products, thus this candid shot of Puck with a Santa Barbara prawn.)
Turn the page for the first part of our interview, and check back tomorrow for part 2, as well as for Puck's recipe for soft-shell crab tempura with fried spinach, currently on the menu at WP24.
Squid Ink: So how did you end up in Los Angeles in the first place?
Wolfgang Puck: I used to work in Paris, at Maxim's, and a friend of mine brought me over to New York first and I didn't like New York, and somebody offered me a job in Indianapolis. And I said, Oh, Indianapolis, it's great.
WP: Yeah, because I'm a fan of auto racing. I used to live in Monte Carlo and you know, they have the big Grand Prix there the end of May. So I went there and I had no more money to live so I had to stay there.
SI: You got trapped in Indianapolis?
WP: I know, I got trapped in Indianapolis. And then I stayed there for a year and the company I worked for, they ran upscale restaurants, mostly in bank buildings. They had a place downtown here where Bank of America used to be. They were losing their contract in Indianapolis — we were on top of a bank too — and they said, You should go to Los Angeles. I really wanted to go to San Francisco, but they didn't have a job in San Francisco, so I said, Okay, I'll go to Los Angeles.
We drove out with a friend of mine. I had a big Cadillac and we rented a UHaul and we drove all the way out here. There were like 3 or 4 restaurants in the whole building and I was the chef, the night chef really, at the French restaurant. One time [I ran into] a guy who I fired in Indianapolis, a chef, an American kid who had like two left hands and two left feet and no taste. I was downtown and I see him walking and I say, Hey, what are you doing here? He said, Oh, I'm working at this little restaurant called Ma Maison. So then he told me that the chef was looking for somebody to work a few days and I said, that's exactly what I want because I want to save $20,000 and open my own restaurant.
So that was my dream and to do that I had to work more, because I was making like $350 a week. Then I went to see Patrick [Terrail, the owner] at Ma Maison and this guy named Jean-Pierre [Lemainissier], who was the chef and they told me, Come do two or three lunches a week. And I looked at the refrigerator — they didn't even have a walk-in — and I said, What are they cooking here? After a few months, the chef quit and then Patrick said Please, come to work for me, he kept begging because all of a sudden the food was so much better there. So then I quit the job downtown and I remember for the first two weeks I got my paycheck and I go the bank and they said, Sorry there's no money. So I said, Oh shit, how am I going to pay rent? And then Patrick said, Okay, I'll give you a part of the restaurant and I'll pay you a little bit less and once we do better I'll give you a little more. And I started to work and it started to get better and better.
So when I left in 81, it was like a bad divorce. I told Patrick that I'd found this place up on Sunset Boulevard and I want to do this trattoria-style thing with pizzas and to keep it really simple. And I said, The only thing I want is that we form a new company, a management company, but we have to own it 50-50. And he said no. So then I said, Well, I have to leave. I'd become friendly already with some people, customers like Billy Wilder and Orson Welles, Jack Lemmon, some of the old-timers.
SI: Orson Welles used to spend a lot of time at Ma Maison, didn't he?
WP:Yeah, like every day for lunch. I used to make him every day the special. He liked the Mumm de Cramant, champagne that is not as bubbly as most of the champagne. I always wanted some excuse, so I said, Orson Welles wants a glass of the champagne, we have to open a bottle. I always liked a glass before lunch too. Of course, I was sitting with him. Then when I left naturally it was really bad. They confiscated the car, they took it away from outside of my house, they cut my credit card in half in front of me. So I got so pissed off, I thought, When I open Spago the only person I won't let in is Patrick. I stood my ground until I found out he had cancer and I thought, I can't go my whole life and have a grudge against him. He came, I let him in the restaurant, we're on good terms again.
SI: So how long has it been since you relocated Spago to Beverly Hills?
WP: 1997. After awhile it started to get really old and I said, If we really want to fix it, we need to do a major job. Because we had only 2 bathrooms, there was always a line, and the kitchen was small and the building was leaking and you think, patch-up here, patch-up there. So when I found out that this space might be available — it was actually through a customer — and I said that would be a nice spot. In a way it was be a more elegant set up than what Ma Maison was.
SI: How did you get involved with the Oscars?
WP: The people who run the Academy asked me, Why don't you do our dinner. So I started with that and then I didn't do any of the other parties. And so now we're doing for like 16 years. In the beginning we did it downtown at the Shrine, and then at the Music Center a few years.
SI: That's kind of a big training ground for chefs, isn't it? Lots of culinary students work that.
WP: Yeah, because we need to do so many parties and we can't hire all the staff permanently. So it's a perfect thing for them and it's good for us, so that way they see what's going on and they can work for like three days.
SI: So tell us about the new place.
WP: It's not open for lunch yet, or breakfast. We just started slowly. So what I wanted to do is have like an evolution of Chinois, but not to have it the same. And I know that Lee [Hefter] loves Chinese food, so it's a perfect thing. So I can tell him what I think we're going to do and give him some ideas and he runs with it.
SI: Chinois was — and is — what, pan-Asian?
WP: Yeah, it was really the first fusion, of putting two different things together. We opened in 1983. At that time that was completely new; it wasn't like you could see something like that anywhere.
SI: So this is more Chinese?
WP: More elegant Chinese.
SI: Lee's spent a lot of time in Japan. Have you both spent time in China too?
WP: No. But he was at China Moon Café [Barbara Tropp's renowned restaurant, now closed] up in San Francisco, before he came to Spago. But he was young, and I sent him to France and he worked in restaurants in France. And he went to Japan, but just for fun.
SI: Was WP24 in the works for a long time?
WP: Everything has been in the works for years. At the beginning, Joachim [Splichal] was supposed to do the restaurant there. He couldn't get organized with it, and finally they came to ask us if we wanted to do something. So we said, Okay, but we want to do something a little bit different.
SI: Do you and Splichal spend a lot of time together?
WP: Not at all. I don't spend much time with anybody, because the free time I have I spend with the kids. I don't go and hang out at night like I used to in the old times, stand around and drink and smoke cigars till like 2 or 3 in the morning. And I think that with age that changes; I'm not into it now. If you're happily married I think you go home. If you're unhappily married you'll hang out with the taxi driver. Basically he does his thing, we do ours.
SI: You mentioned earlier about the Dark Ages of cooking in America. We're no longer in the Dark Ages? When did that change?
WP: Well, it changed over the last probably 30 years. Not that there were not good restaurants; there certainly were some of them. But all in all there were very few. In L.A. you couldn't even get an espresso. I used to live downtown, in an apartment building, like a retirement home. Each one had a little studio.
SI: You lived in retirement home?
WP: Yeah, it was cheap. So at that time, people were making Steak Diane and it was a completely different thing. There weren't chefs who owned their own restaurants. Scandia was still there, a few of them, some French bistros, but nothing interesting really. And even what I did at Ma Maison it was so different from what we did afterwards. At Ma Maison we did the French food that I learned, and little by little I started to change because there were so many influences here, I was like, Wow. Our cooking should really reflect the cultures. You know, what is L.A.?
So that's when I started to play around. At Spago, we were the first regular restaurant to serve raw tuna. I'd started that at Ma Maison in 79 or something. I used to serve salad Niçoise with grilled tuna on top. People didn't like it, because before that it was canned tuna. I said, How can you like canned tuna if I can get you fresh tuna? I remember a few people who I gave it to at the beginning, they said, Oh yeah it was nice. But then I looked and the tuna was all underneath. Then I said, Okay, I don't want to cook it like a steak, I'll just grill each slice. Then it was a little better, because it was gray and brown and not red. And then we started to play around with the ducks. I said, I want to make the ducks like they do in the good Chinese restaurants. So I bought a smoker and I thought that would be good to dry them. This was at Spago. I put sashimi on the menu in 1982 when we opened. Maybe because we got the younger crowd, they liked it.
SI: So what happened with the smoker?
WP: I said, Okay, I'm going to try and dry the ducks. I can't hang them in the kitchen, so I got this smoker. I don't know if I saw it in a restaurant show or not. So I tried and there was too much humidity, but then I started to smoke salmon. I thought, let's use the smoker for what it's supposed to be.
SI: And then you put it on a pizza.
WP: Yeah, then we put it on a pizza. Maybe we ran out of bread. You know, we ran out of brioche one day and Nancy [Silverton] was the pastry chef and Mark [Peel] was the chef and one day we ran out of bread and I said, Oh, just cook the pizza dough in the oven next to the smoked salmon. And as I was doing that I thought, Wow, you know what, I'm just going to do it like lox and bagels basically. So I cooked another pizza dough and put a little cream on it, and the smoked salmon, and I said, This is really good. I started sending it to people; it was never on the menu. Then Joan Collins said, Oh, this is my pizza. Or Robin Leach, who had that show called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, who said this was the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous pizza.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview.