5 Minutes With...Wolfgang Puck

Words by
Andy Morris
Photography by
Marco Bollinger

29th June 2022

For a few tantalising moments, it feels like the chef who elevated California Cuisine in the 1980s has brought the LA weather with him to London. Wolfgang Puck, the Austrian-chef who created Spago, is the man responsible for popularising some of the biggest innovations in restaurant dining: including serving pizza fit for Joan Collins, Wiener Schnitzel for Hollywood power players, red carpet worthy canapés and the concept of having open kitchens to celebrate chefs. His outpost in London, CUT at 45 Park Lane, is a superior steakhouse that has just opened a splendid new terrace. To mark the occasion he speaks to SPHERE about hosting, Mezcal cocktails and a NSFW encounter with David Letterman.

What’s new for CUT at 45 Park Lane in 2022?
CUT evolves every day. We have a new chef, Elliott Grover who is really great. He's very positive, very enthusiastic: it affects the cooks in the kitchen. Niamh Larkin, our pastry chef, now makes the best cheesecake ever. It's like a classic cheesecake, very creamy. You eat it and you eat it and you can't stop. So delicious! Tomorrow, I'm excited because we are going to get some Wagyu beef from Ireland, from a farmer near Shannon, who uses seaweed in the cow's diet.

The terrace looks spectacular….
I had lunch there yesterday. I had a whole Dover sole on the bone with a little salad: just perfect. It is really beautiful to have lunch or a late breakfast outside - it feels like it's a totally different restaurant now. It is great to give people always something new.

What do you think the most important thing about running a steak house is in 2022?
I think it's an interesting thing, because meat, especially in America, was always on the forefront. If you asked Americans, what would be your last dinner? They would say “ A ribeye steak with crispy onion rings or French fries." Meat is certainly very popular and for us, we want to be the best steakhouse. But we also have interesting appetisers, wonderful fish and delicious dessert, a good wine list and great cocktail programme. I think it's really a complete upscale restaurant.

Cocktail of choice?
A Mezcal Negroni. It has a little more guts to it. First, I tried it with tequila which was ok, but the Mezcal with its smokiness, goes very well with it. Mezcal, vermouth, Campari. One serve, one serve, one serve... and a bit of orange if you like.

Favourite wine pairing?
I love Barolo, which has a certain earthiness to it. In California we have a lot of Cabernets, which are very fruit forward and very high in alcohol - I like them but they're not my favourite.

Favourite memory of David Letterman?
I was in New York and his producer calls me up last minute because someone dropped out. I had just had lunch at DANIEL, the famous restaurant in New York, and it was white truffle season. I showed David how to sear a chicken, then told him to smell the white truffle, as they smell so amazing. He smells them, makes a face and I said, "Oh it smells like sex." And then he looks at me and says “Where have you been?”

What surprised you about the reaction to your Disney + documentary Wolfgang?
I wanted people to know what happened before I became successful. Even my own kids, they don't understand what I had to go through. I've got very good responses for it - I think we might even get nominated for an Emmy. It is hopefully an inspiration for a lot of young people who have hardships, who have had to go through difficult times in their life. I had to fight for everything.

It is remarkably open in places...
I told the director “You can talk to my ex wife as much as you want!' She was a big part of my life. I wanted to show a fuller picture. I didn't want it to be a Hollywood movie with me and famous people. What I'm most proud of is our longevity: Spago has been open 40 years! Time goes fast.

What are you working on next?
I love change. I know we have to mix it right, with tradition and innovation. With Spago [in Beverly Hills] everybody loves the patio, we have this garden outside with a retractable roof. So I said, "Why don't make the whole restaurant like that?" So they're working on the plan now. So when I get back, we'll see if the price is OK. I don't want to be in debt for five years because of it! We are also working on a new project on the beach in Malibu, and Frank Gehry, the famous architect is going to build it.

How do you stay so fit, healthy and happy?
I love what I do. So that keeps me mentally sane, I think. On the physical side, I have a big old English Sheepdog I walk with with her every morning for an hour where I live it is pretty hilly. I have also a trainer who comes two or three times a week and I play tennis. I watch a little bit not to eat too many desserts. I have such a sweet tooth so that's really tough. If someone orders one, I'll see if I can put my spoon there too.

Is there a dish you are not keen on?
Some Austrian desserts. The Sacher torte is not my favourite, but I'm working on a new one now. And actually, it was an amazing thing. I read the I read The Financial Times on Sunday. They had the recipe that was really smart. It's a cake, with mousse, with apricots.

Can you recommend a good book?
I'm reading The Caesars Palace Coup by Max Frumes and Sujeet Indap about how they went down in, in Vegas. We are affiliated with the casino for so many years. I love Angela Duckworth, who has this book called Grit, which is really good for the kids to read. I'm reading a book by Chuck Collins called Is Inequality in America Irreversible? It's about capitalism and how everything started to be outsourced to China and to Mexico. But my favourite is still Emil Ludwig's  Napoleon book. I talked to Ridley Scott, the director, who is  making the movie about Napoleon. I don't know how he going to put all that into a movie because Napoleon's story is so amazing, even though he died so young. The way he made war, the way he moved into Egypt, and studied the Koran and told the soldiers "We have to get the people on our side, we have to give them more freedom." I think he was a total genius. He was so smart: he was in Poland on on the front, and then he had the Paris Opera come and play for the troops. And wow, and then he slept with a soprano! A happy ending.

Last time you were starstruck?
In LA we are a little bit jaded. Maybe I would be if it was a President I liked. I would like we didn't have one lately. But I think my favourite was Sidney Poitier. You know, I think what he did was amazing. He was a great actor and top of he was the godfather of our kids. So I with him we had a really personal relationship. One of his producers, Walter Mirisch, is a friend of mine, too. And he's 100 years old. I asked him one day  "Why don’t you come to the restaurant any more?" He said "All of my friends can't go out anymore or they are dead." So now he's going to come have lunch with me at Hotel Bel-Air.

What is the secret to great hosting?
The mix of people is really an important part. Making people feel comfortable. For me, obviously people always expect to have great food when they come to my house! My wife Kalila is really in charge of this social scene. Last time we were here in London, we actually had a big dinner for Edward Enninful from Vogue magazine, so a whole big group: Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell. Last night we had Pierce Brosnan and Kevin Costner.

You are opening Spago in Budapest. What do you like about the city?
Budapest is really a beautiful city, very picturesque. Obviously, they have some very good wines, you know, the Tokaj region in the southern part of Hungary, but they have great red wines. A month ago, I went to see a farmer there who was making ham and all these different pork products like culatello, proscuitto, and so forth. Hopefully, we can use his products in the restaurant there. So it's really nice. Budapest doesn't have a lot of restaurants with [international] name recognition. Hungarian cuisine is still in its infancy. There are not enough young people who really believe that it could be refined or how many different regions they have. I think it's an interesting country - I'm actually going back end of July for the Formula One race.

Best advice you've ever received?
"No is not an answer". Which is true. When people said, “You cannot do that" I said "Well, I do it anyway. If somebody doesn't like it, then I say I'm sorry." If you ask too many questions, you don't get the answers that you want.

What does luxury mean to you?
Having time for myself. It's not what clothes or what shoes I wear or what car I drive, it's really having time for myself and for my family.

Watch of choice?
I have a couple of Panerai's - I'm actually wearing one right now. I have a vintage Vacheron Constantin but I don't wear it much because I don't want to have my arm cut off! These days, it's crazy. So many people get their watches stolen. My friend was at the Miami Grand Prix, he's super rich, but he was just walking to a cafe, somebody came, they had a gun and said, "Give me the watch!"  A $100,000 Watch.

Most memorable guest request?
Whenever we can do it, we do it. I often take something off the menu. And then people tell me, ‘Why? I come here for that!’ Then I tell them, ‘For you, I will do it’, then they feel even better. They think "Oh my God, Wolfgang made it for us specially…’ so it becomes a good thing. Even for the Oscars, I have five or six cooks just to do special things. So if somebody just wants a simple pasta with tomato and basil, we just make it. If somebody wants a Wiener Schnitzel, we can make it. So, we try to be ready. I told all my waiters "“No is not an answer". You have to find something similar. You have to try it and talk them into it and then they are fine.