Oui, chef: Wolfgang Puck on 35 years at the top
The celebrity chef talks to Portfolio about the anniversary of his Hollywood hot-spot Spago
Celebrating 35 years since it first flung open its doors in Hollywood, one of LA's most famous restaurants, Spago – the celebrity-magnet that counts Leonardo DiCaprio, Bradley Cooper, Jack Nicholson and Goldie Hawn among its regulars – has come to London this week for a three-day residency in CUT at 45 Park Lane.
To coincide with the celebration, The Week Portfolio caught up with the restaurant's head chef, Wolfgang Puck, for a look back at his three-and-a-half decades at the top.
If you could go back 35 years to just before the opening of Spago and give yourself just one piece of advice, what would that advice be?
The early stages of opening a restaurant are an exciting time, but also an uncertain one in terms of finances as you can never be sure if you are going to survive and it takes time to get the restaurant busy. My advice to myself would be to prepare for this financial uncertainty to avoid any stress. My passion for the financial part of the business has evolved over time and in the very early stages, my focus was purely on my love of food. Luckily Spago proved to be extremely popular.
The restaurant industry is notoriously challenging and diners notoriously fickle. To what do you attribute Spago's longevity?
Those at the top of their game, in the luxury hospitality business, know how to take care of their customers, we do it at Spago and we also do it here at CUT at 45 Park Lane. Our team offers guests an intuitive and personalised service; we know what they want when they arrive and we make sure we offer them a bespoke experience they will never forget.
When you walk into a luxury hotel like 45 Park Lane, you automatically feel like you are at home. In order to be successful, you have to extend a warm welcome to everyone in the restaurant, I believe we have achieved that here in CUT at 45 Park Lane and at Spago.
"Innovate or die" is the maxim of many of the world's biggest and most successful companies. Is innovation important in the culinary industry as well? How have you attempted to change with the times?
Innovation is really important to me as we need to offer our guests new and exciting experiences, but at the same time, we have to maintain those traditional dishes that never fail to wow our diners. At Spago, we have customers who have come to us for 35 years and they want the same iconic chicken with mustard sauce so of course, we make it for them. I love the loyalty of these diners. We also have guests who say "chef, just come and cook whatever you like for us" which is also fun and gives us an opportunity to be creative. Innovation is important to survive but traditions and standards must not be lost.
How is dining different, in your view, between Europe and the US?
When I opened CUT at 45 Park Lane in London as my first restaurant in Europe it was clear that diners here generally wanted to take time with their dining experience, whereas in the United States we find that our guests expect a much quicker service. Luckily my teams around the world are flexible and instinctive, therefore can adapt to every guest's requirements to make the service feel genuine and bespoke.
Do you think of yourself as a chef or a businessman first? Or do the two go hand in hand?
In my position the two come hand in hand. If I did not think like a businessperson then my restaurants which I care so greatly about wouldn't be in business, but of course, I am a chef first and foremost and this is where my passion lies. I constantly try to develop myself, not only as a chef but also to grow by business acumen, which is why I have spent some time at Harvard Business School and will be going back in February 2018.
And finally, if things go to plan, what do you hope to achieve over the course of the next 35 years?
I was delighted to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in June this year; this was a real highlight in my career. Now I want to continue to grow my restaurant business and maintain the restaurants' reputations as the ultimate places to get the finest quality of food. My family are also extremely important to me, so a long vacation with my loved ones is important to balance my family and business life. A real aspiration of mine is to see my 22-year-old son Byron take over the business, but who knows what the future holds?