Original celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck opens up about his 40-year career, his favorite Vegas restaurant, and health-conscious cooking.
It takes a certain kind of trailblazing chef to completely revolutionize a city’s dining scene, but that’s exactly what Wolfgang Puck did in Vegas when he opened Spago at The Forum Shops at Caesars in 1992. A spinoff of his popular West Hollywood restaurant of the same name (now located in Beverly Hills), Spago was the first eatery in Vegas to be helmed by a celebrity chef, and its debut catalyzed the development of a new kind of food culture on the Strip. Today, Puck oversees a worldwide empire that includes seven restaurants in Vegas, the newest of which, Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill, opened its doors at Downtown Summerlin in early November.
We stop by the chef's restaurant to celebrate the launch of his latest cookbook, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy, and chat with him about his illustrious career and his impressions of the Vegas food scene.
You’ve witnessed so much progress unfold in the Vegas restaurant world over the past two decades. What are you thoughts on food and celebrity-chef culture in Vegas?
Wolfgang Puck: Well, we were really the first ones here. In 1992, when we opened Spago, we were the only restaurant with name recognition in this town. Everyone from Steve Wynn to the other casino bosses came to see [it]. We did really well, and all of a sudden everybody said, “You know, if you want to have a restaurant [in Vegas], you have to hire a chef who operates the restaurant.” So now almost every chef from around the world has a restaurant here—almost too many now. But I like the cooking. I don’t have an agent, I don’t go out and try to have my television show or anything unless I have to. I do a little bit so as not to fall out of the picture—you know, “Oh, Wolfgang is too old, he cannot do that anymore.” But that’s not my main business. My main business is the restaurants. That’s really what I do. I’m not going to go somewhere and shoot for six weeks and not be in a restaurant and not be with my family.
Which Vegas chefs or restaurants do you think are making the biggest statements today?
WP: To me, one of the most important is Joël Robuchon. Worldwide, he created a great restaurant, L’Atelier. If you go to Tokyo or Paris or Vegas, it’s always very good—consistent.
One of your first jobs as a young cook in the 1970s was at the legendary Maxim’s in Paris. What was that like?
WP: Maxim’s at that time was probably the most amazing restaurant in the world. The clientele alone included everybody from heads of state to [Aristotle] Onassis to Yul Brynner to Salvador Dalí and Catherine Deneuve. Plus, we had a live orchestra playing. The food was three-star, so it was the most glamorous restaurant you could imagine. I still have pictures of Salvador Dalí standing outside with his coat on, Yul Brynner with Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve—it was crazy. I can remember I used to have Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin come in. They were always there until 3 in the morning hanging out, and everybody was smoking.
Aside from Paris, what do you consider to be the major global dining capitals nowadays?
WP: There are a lot of cities coming up that are not so well known. Parts of Mexico have really great food. In Europe, London has made probably the most progress of any other city. It’s like the United States, in a way, but London today is more exciting than Paris. It’s certainly one of the great food cities now.
What’s your go-to meal when you’re trying to cook something light and healthy for yourself or your family?
WP: We cook very simply. We always have four or five different vegetables, steamed or grilled. We grill salmon; my wife and my nine-year-old like salmon, as long as it’s wild and not farm-raised. My younger boy likes red meat—Kobe filet with rice and pasta. Pasta is probably the easiest thing for children. Yesterday I took my son to school, and he said, “Papa, can you bring me lunch? I don’t like the school lunch. Bring me a few chunks of parmesan and some pasta.” So I went to his school; they know me so well by now because all of my boys have gone to the same school. I know everyone from the janitor to the headmaster.
We’ve seen kale and cauliflower become wildly popular over the past few years. What do you think is going to be the vegetable of 2015?
WP: I think broccolini. It’s still only used in one way, but I think it’s great in salad and marinated. You can just chop it up and add it raw to a salad.
If we’re trying to eat healthier at home, where should we start?
WP: I really think you should go out to the farmers market, if there’s one near you. Choose some good vegetables, and take the children if you can. Eat the same things as the kids. Don’t eat mashed potatoes and tell your kids to eat broccoli; it won’t happen then. I think it’s important to teach kids manners, and also how to eat and keep better food at home. We always complain about school lunches, but we should complain about the way people eat at home more than anything.
Which do you prefer, making food for other people or eating?
WP: If I didn’t like to eat, I probably wouldn’t cook. I love food, I love to taste and eat. I get very excited every year when the first cherries come in, and right now we have the most delicious mangoes. There’s always something new with the seasons and everything, so it’s always exciting.
What advice would you give to younger cooks who are just starting out?
WP: Really learn the profession. Learn the basics and be patient. You’re not going to go out and start out in a restaurant when you’re 30 years old, so do that when you’re 20, and really get some world experience. Today, the world is really small. It’s not like it was when I grew up—there were no fax machines or email or Internet. Now, you have all of that at your disposal, and you can travel wherever you think is interesting. I really think traveling and trying to work in different parts of the world is important. Maybe something will stimulate you.
PHOTOGRAPHY VIA AMANDA MARSALIS