“It does what it’s supposed to do: it projects the power and the prestige of the presidency. It’s kind of a moving billboard, if you will. ”
When the effervescent Wolfgang Puck visits Spago, his signature restaurant in Beverly Hills, he often stops by each table to greet fans of his innovative "fusion" cuisine, which blends cooking styles and ingredients from various parts of the world.
If the fusion label makes you suspect that Puck has had a chance to absorb diverse influences on his route to success, you're right. The Austrian-born chef, who credits his mother with his early appreciation of cooking and locally grown organic food, apprenticed at L'Oustau de Baumaniere in Provence, France; Hotel de Paris in Monaco; and Maxim's Paris. Then he moved to Indianapolis, where he cooked at La Tour. In Los Angeles, Puck bought a share of Ma Maison and honed his skills before launching his first restaurant in Hollywood in 1982.
That operation became an instant success, and the chef's reputation quickly grew. It helped that Puck's bestselling first cookbook, Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen, had been published the previous year, introducing food aficionados to his penchant for blending cuisines to achieve unique new dishes.
Shortly after opening the Hollywood restaurant, Puck befriended Gary Mansour, founder and CEO of Beverly Hills-based Mansour Travel. After Mansour started Avion Private Jet Club in 2005, Puck began traveling on its per-seat charter flights and catering meals for Avion customers.
The chef, who turned 60 in July, now oversees an empire that includes 20 fine-dining restaurants, more than 80 fast-casual Express locations, Wolfgang Puck Bistro and Café restaurants, a catering division, lines of kitchenware and prepared foods, and six cookbooks. Puck has appeared on television and in movies and writes a weekly column that runs in more than 30 newspapers.
With his larger restaurants mostly in major metropolitan areas, he regularly travels on airlines, but for trips to underserved areas, he charters business jets. The scheduled Avion charter flights between L.A. and New York are one of his favorite ways to travel, especially when his wife Gelila and two young sons accompany him.
Because Avion sells individual seats, Puck often finds himself traveling with people who patronize his restaurants. And those seatmates frequently find that they have lucked out, as Puck whips up a smoked-salmon-and-caviar pizza or Spago's famous lobster Cobb salad for everyone on board.
Does your mother's influence still show up in your recipes?
When we grew up, it was always about quality, not quantity. We had the best vegetables because they came right out of the ground. We have the same philosophy [as my mother had]. We buy the best ingredients and then we try not to mess them up.
You do some catering for Avion. Why not build a larger aviation catering business?
I did it in the old times for American Airlines. We made smoked-salmon pizzas and things like that, but they messed it up each time. I did some catering for Regent Air also. I believe if we put our name on it, if it's not first class we shouldn't do it. That's why I stopped doing things with American Airlines. We made potato galettes with smoked salmon for the brunch menu and most of the time they served it cold. Also, we had to bring it a day early to the airport at 35 degrees. Here [on Avion] we bring the food and they can eat an hour later. But it's also different, serving six or eight people instead of 250.
How do you have time to go to all your restaurants and oversee everything?
Even if I don't cook in the kitchen, I cook in my head. I can put ingredients together and tell my chefs, "This is what I want you to do," and then I can taste it. I don't think it's my job now to cook for eight hours. I have to be a teacher and a businessperson.
Do you often cook on business jets?
When I flew with [automotive designer] Carroll Shelby to Detroit for the auto show, we had appetizers and smoked-salmon pizza and toast with smoked sturgeon,
and then because I knew he liked steak, I brought some Kobe steak with us and we had a three-hour meal.
What else do you prepare on board?
Salad's always good-something a little composed because the greens wilt easily. It's gorgeous with a citrus hazelnut vinaigrette. I like smoked-salmon pizza with a little caviar, a good glass of champagne. If it's a morning flight, I make scrambled eggs. My favorite is white truffles. What I want to do is give people something really upscale without overdoing it-have small portions, because I don't think in flight you should eat much. But what you eat should be the best quality. That's why we have all organic stuff. And for dessert instead of having a lot of things we have some cookies and berries.
Is this easy food to prepare when you're flying?
Pizza, pasta, everything can be made in advance and you can finish it in the plane, so that's what I like to do. I don't want to start cooking and smelling up the airplane with fish, for example.
If you're cooking simple food, you don't need special equipment?
Generally, we don't. It depends on the configuration of the plane. When I have truffles, I always bring my truffle slicer because I know they don't have them on the plane. And I generally bring the wine I like. Krug is my favorite champagne, at home or on the plane.
What is your travel schedule like?
I travel a lot, to all of our restaurants, to Las Vegas, San Francisco, Dallas. I just flew to Toronto, and from Toronto to New York and back to Southern California, then back to Las Vegas.
How do you stay healthy when you travel so much?
You have to eat healthy and not overdo it. I don't want to have a big stew or heavy soup because then you gain weight. You want to have a few delicacies, and that's enough. You don't need to eat a six-course meal and fall asleep. The same with wine. It's better to drink two glasses of something good than a whole bottle of something cheap. I always tell people, if you get so full that you can't go home and make love, it wasn't a good dinner.
When you first flew on a business jet, was it immediately apparent that this was a good way to travel?
Traveling on a business jet changes your life. Instead of waiting sometimes three or four hours in an airport, you go right on the plane when you want to. You don't have to go through security and you can eat and drink what you want.
What do you think of the portrayal of business jets as toys for the rich?
There are always people who say, "Why go to a fine restaurant? Why go to the finest hotels? Why buy expensive clothes?" I mean, we just should all go to Wal-Mart and that would be it. What about putting people in business? If you go with a private plane, you put people to work, from the factory workers who built the planes to the people who rent them to the company that runs them. So I think there's a trickle-down effect.
Now, I don't agree that if you take taxpayer money, you should spend it on your private plane. I think you have to earn it. I don't think the people from AIG should fly on a private plane after they make that company basically insolvent and then we had to bail them out. They should fly Southwest with five stops from here
to New York. And only peanuts, no water.
How is your company doing in this recession?
We do pretty well because we have many loyal customers. The catering business for large parties has slowed down because nobody wants to get the publicity and say we did a party for 1,200 people. I think if you do a movie for $100 million, you certainly can spend $50,000 for a great opening party because it gives you good publicity and gives people work, which is the most important thing. When we say how are we going to stimulate the economy, it's not by sitting home and not spending.
Speaking of home, what do you like to cook when you're there?
I went to the farmer's market this morning and bought vegetables, fruit, cheese and a free-range chicken. For the kids, I just cook some pasta and steamed vegetables.
So you still enjoy cooking?
Yeah, I love it.
In your restaurants, you're involved with the food, but many other decisions as well.
I even decide what music we play now. I think I'm going to have to get some music playing on the plane. Get some good tapes where we play Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and the Doors and David Bowie and the new ones. First we do the best food, and then [music and decor]. It's important but it's not the main thing.
In 2007, you changed your approach about foie gras and veal.
Exactly. We only use humanely treated animals, which means we don't use eggs from caged chickens, only free-range chickens, and the same with veal and pork and so on, and we use only organic ingredients whenever we can.
I understand the Puck-Lazaroff Foundation has raised $13 million to support the American Food & Wine Festival, which benefits Meals on Wheels.
The main thing is to do something good and give back to society. If we want our community to be interested in us, we have to be interested in the community. A lot of our guests do charitable work or head up charities and we are always jumping in and helping.
Your older son was interested in aeronautics. Did he pursue that?
No, he went to Tufts for engineering, and then he gave up engineering, because he thought he was going to design right away the next G650, or something like that. He forgot you have to start at the bottom. It's the same in the restaurant business. Young people get into something; right away they want to be on television and own their own restaurant. When you come out of cooking school, that's not the way it happens.
What is your advice to young people who want to get into the restaurant business?
You have to study and learn as much as you can. You have to know how to cook, obviously, but you also have to know the restaurant business and you have to be a good manager, because you can't do every job yourself.
The most important thing is to work in different restaurants and see what you like and develop your own style. If somebody leaves Spago and they cook exactly the same dishes, you say, "Well, I can get that at Spago." So you have to be able to come up not with new ingredients, because we really don't have new ingredients, but with new compositions. It's like songwriting. So many love songs are out there, but when a good one comes out, it still goes to number one.
Can cooks recreate your dishes at home?
My last cookbook, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy, was made for the home cook, with not too many ingredients. A lot of people, when they start cooking at home, say, "I'm going to impress somebody-I'm going to make something with 100 ingredients." I don't think that's the way to do it. I would make something I know well, whether it's a pot roast, a stew, a pizza or just a great salad. Something simple, and start with good ingredients. And I think you have to show a passion for it. You cannot just throw things on the table and say, "That's good enough."