Art by Florence Sykes
INTERVIEW BY ANDY KOVACIC
I sat down with Wolfgang Puck on a rainy London day, sheltered in the decadent hotel bar above his London restaurant CUT at 45 Park Lane. Our interview came as a bit of a surprise, a last-minute rendezvous as Wolfgang had recently flown into London for a series of self-promotions in his British fine dining outpost. As he sat across from me, he looked like he had just left the kitchen downstairs. He was wearing his signature ebony chef jacket. Wolfgang is always bursting with energy. His life seems to be one big twenty-four-hour dinner service. Just the night before, on his Instagram, Wolfgang was in another restaurant half the world away in Singapore.
Although his restaurants are known for their elevated cuisine and Michelin-star quality, Wolfgang the Man is undoubtedly a plate of comfort food. He is authentic and warm. His confidence and charm immediately makes me feel like his long-lost friend and he seems genuinely happy to take time out of his busy schedule to sit down in the bar and chat with me about mundane topics like omelettes and cooking tips for people not so naturally gifted in the kitchen. When I ask what his secret ingredient is, Wolfgang tells me: “love food”. You have to have love food to be able to cook it (and cook it well). That is how Wolfgang has been able to do what he has been doing for so many years, ever since he was a young boy watching his mother prepare sweets in the kitchen. He simply enjoys cooking. And all of the years he has spent building and maintaining a huge restaurateur empire has remarkably not changed that.
After our interview, I left Wolfgang waiting at the hotel bar for his next meeting - a casual drink with a friend. He tells me with a cheeky smile that his favourite cocktail is the Negroni. It isn't the drink that I would have guessed. As he waited for his drink, I watched him approach a group of strangers sitting at a table nearby. He was simply going over to ask them how their day was going and they seemed delighted by the attention. This is something Wolfgang is known for; what might be termed his "fan-service" extends well beyond the ivory tablecloths of his own restaurants - he has a nice word to say to everyone, anywhere. He leaves me with a wave and a smile. To be honest, he is rarely not smiling. As I re-enter the evening downpour, I feel buoyed as I leave the gilded lobby of 45 Park Lane as if I’ve just eaten a delicious meal. On my way back home, a thought entered my head. I wished I had asked him another pressing question: “What should I make for dinner?”
What are your recommendations for people learning to cook for the first time?
I think the most important part is to find good ingredients. It is pretty easy because online you can find almost any recipe and it's easier than looking in a cookbook and at the beginning, when you do first, just look it over a few times and follow the recipe. Don't think the first time it's going to be perfect. To make it better, it takes time. I think it's best not to get frustrated, but you must have a passion for food. You have to love food. If not, cooking doesn't really fit in there. You may as well just drink wine or something and buy a sandwich. But I think if you love food, you can actually learn it pretty easily and get good at a few things. You don't need too many good recipes. If you can master five recipes, you can have friends over and cook the recipe and cook it maybe ten times the same until it is really delicious and your friends will say, "Wow, how did you make that?" It could be something simple like Macaroni & Cheese or a salad or a pasta with pesto and whatever it is.
Do you think you can learn to love to cook, if you don't already?
I think you can learn to love it because I didn't love it when I started when I was fourteen so it took me some time. If you find a mentor, I think that helps a lot. I was nineteen and found my mentor Raymond Thuilier at L'Oustau de Baumanière and he changed my life because he was so passionate about food.
Do you have any family food traditions?
I travel so much. We try to have dinner at home with the children but now they are busy too. My youngest boys, sixteen and eighteen, and you know they often want to eat with their friends more. But my younger one goes to school and has a lot of homework so we generally eat together. So we like it and I really like to have Sunday lunch at home and invite some friends so it is nice. It isn't such a tradition because I'm gone a lot. Last Sunday, I was in Singapore. This Sunday, I am here. It's easier when the kids are younger.
I've seen you make a lot of cooking videos with your son, did you have to convince him?
No, he likes it actually! Yesterday, they knew I was leaving for London and my son said, "Oh Dad, you brought some good eggs home from the restaurant," because I don't like the supermarket eggs, he said, "Do you want me to make you scrambled eggs?"
He offered to make you breakfast?
Yeah! And I said yes and make some toast! He knows how to do the eggs. I taught him how to cook them really slow on a very very low fire and he cooks it for like ten minutes maybe and moves them all the time. He makes them nice and creamy, the way I like them.
On the business side of things, have there been any difficulties with working with family?
You know, I work with my older son Byron and he is a pure joy. I am so happy. The way he is progressing it is almost like I wrote the script and he has executed it better than I imagined. He really exceeded my expectations.
What is an example of something he has achieved that you are proud of?
Two years ago he opened a restaurant, two restaurants really, in a new hotel in LA. He used to call me up with a question and would ask, "What do you want me to do with this or that?" And I would say, "You figure it out!" He didn't say anything but he couldn't sleep at night. He was worried the hotel would not be happy and I would not be happy. But he learned so much because he had to get out of trouble himself. He had to do it himself. Often, if you make a mistake, you learn; you just can't make the same mistake twice.
I sent him to Europe to work at Baumanière and also to a restaurant in Vienna. He is very excited wherever we go. We went to Singapore and he couldn't wait to eat chilli crabs. He is really passionate. For me, it makes it even more special. It's an important part to have people around me who are not worried about trying new things, who are not worried about failing or something. If it is not good, don't make it.
What have you tried to make that has failed?
I tried to make this spicy tuna with falafel and I don't think the falafel flavour worked well with the tuna. We were trying it in Singapore and it didn't taste right. The chef was upset because I was explaining what I wanted and he did it, maybe not exactly the way I wanted, but I said the flavours just don't match up. So maybe we just don't do it. We try and if it doesn't come out right, we don't have to do it.
Are you worried about change?
Change is good but we have to have both: tradition and innovation. If you go to Chanel, they still make the same jacket and skirt like Coco used to. They've changed it a little. They also have very modern things. The fashion industry is very similar to our business because you have to have your DNA but you also have to move forward all the time.
The theme for the ORB Art Prize this year is "Homage". To whom would you like to dedicate a homage?
My mentor, Raymond Thuilier. I would not be where I am today without him.
Do you have any plans for a new cookbook?
I want to do a new one about my life.
Like a memoir?
Like a memoir but with pictures of food. More about things about where we were in the 1980s and the 1990s, with the food and the restaurants, and have some pictures and everything. Not to have it as a cookbook but more like a coffee table book, a history book. We have so many different menus and different restaurants. We have Spago, CUT, an Asian restaurant with a sushi bar, we have restaurants in airports...I love to do new things.
What is your reading recommendation for the Oxford Review of Books?
I love to read biographies but I also like to read business books. One of the most amazing biographies I have ever read is about Napoleon. He was a real genius. Very few people know everything about what he did and how he did it and how young he was. He became a general when he was like about twenty-four-years-old and so forth. And then, this whole war took him down but he was still an amazing personality. Now I am reading a book called Mindset by Carol Dweck. You have an open mind or a closed mind. It is really interesting to learn about how you feel about yourself, how you feel about failure,