How I Made It: Wolfgang Puck
Strong-willed top chef
The Austria-born celebrity chef and founder of Spago is considered a pioneer of California cuisine. He is set to cater the Governors Ball after the Academy Awards for his 16th year.
Wolfgang Puck in his Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills. He keeps a grueling schedule, traveling about 180 days a year. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / February 17, 2010)
Home cooking: Born in Austria, Puck learned to cook from his mother, who often brought the youngster along to a resort where she worked as a chef. At 14, frustrated by his family's hardscrabble existence, Puck set out on his own. Cooking "was something to get out of my house and something I felt comfortable with," he said. A family friend helped him land a three-year apprenticeship at a hotel, where he learned to peel vegetables, make rice and soups and cook meat and fish.
Rough start: Puck said that when he left home, "my father told me, 'You're good for nothing, you're going to be back in three weeks,' " he recalled. "Sure enough, a month later maybe, the chef told me the same thing. He said, 'You're good for nothing, go back home to your mother.' He basically fired me.
"That night I wanted to jump in the river. I said, 'I'm going to kill myself.' So I was standing for like an hour on the bridge and wanted to jump because I didn't want to go home. And then all of a sudden, I don't know why it went into my head, I said, 'You know, I'm just going to go back tomorrow and see what happens.' "
Puck said the hotel's owner pitied him and sent him to work at a different hotel in the same city.
Globe trotter: Puck worked at restaurants in France, Monaco and Indianapolis before moving to Los Angeles in 1975. After a brief stint at a restaurant downtown, he became chef at Ma Maison, a trendy French bistro on Melrose Avenue, where his reputation soared.
Going it alone: After working at Ma Maison for six years, Puck feuded with the restaurant's owner and they parted ways. He decided to start his own restaurant because "I always wanted to be my own boss."
Money matters: To open Spago, which Puck envisioned as "an upscale neighborhood restaurant," he borrowed $60,000 from a bank and raised $510,000 from investors.
The restaurant opened on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood in January 1982 and quickly became a favorite among foodies and Hollywood elite. A friend suggested the name, which means "string" in Italian.
Innovative menu: Dishes such as tuna sashimi with golden caviar and haute cuisine pizzas topped with smoked salmon and creme fraiche helped usher in California cuisine and put Spago on the map as one of the country's top restaurants.
Puck said he wanted to incorporate the diverse flavors of L.A.; he browsed local farmers markets, Chinatown and Little Tokyo for inspiration. "We're not French, we're not Italian, we're not Asian, but we have influences from everywhere, and that is exactly what California is," he said. "I said, the city has all this culture, so our cooking should have all this culture."
Can't stomach: Peanut butter. "My poor kids grew up with no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Peanuts, I eat."
Don't mess with the Puck: Or he'll blacklist you from Spago. He said he was so miffed at a former boss that he threatened to fire his staff if they ever seated the guy. One day Puck received a call from his maitre d', saying the adversary had showed up for a meal at the original location in West Hollywood. Puck's response: "You know what to do."
Leading a restaurant juggernaut: Success at Spago led to dozens of restaurants and business ventures, and a staff that now tops 4,000 worldwide. To stay on top of it all, Puck keeps a grueling schedule, traveling about 180 days a year. He said he promotes from within and pays key employees well; many staffers have been with him for more than two decades.
"I don't open restaurants if I don't have the right people," he said. "When I trust people, I give them the authority to manage their business, but I always look on."
In the works: Puck is focusing on opening more of his Cut steakhouses and Wolfgang Puck Bistro restaurants, including international locations, and is expanding his line of frozen pizzas.
Best advice he's received: " 'No' is not an answer. I really believe when people say 'no,' they don't really mean it."
Personal: Puck and his wife, Gelila, live in Beverly Hills and have two sons, Oliver and Alexander. He also has two sons, Cameron and Byron, from a previous marriage.
Unique strength: "I'm able to change. Cooking is an evolution. I love the smoked salmon pizza, but I don't feel like staying still on one dish is the answer."
Lasting appeal: "A dish should create a memory. If it's just good, it's not enough."