A cut above: Wolfgang Puck on his culinary success both sides of the Atlantic

18th November 2011 (Last Updated November 18th, 2011 10:03)

Arguably the most successful chef in history, Wofgang Puck has now arrived to work his magic in London.

A cut above: Wolfgang Puck on his culinary success both sides of the Atlantic

Wolfgang Puck may have been born and trained in Europe, but the scale of his ambition is all American.

The Austrian’s various business interests grossed an estimated $350 million last year. His restaurant empire includes 20 fine dining establishments, dozens of casual eateries and over 80 ‘Express’ outlets. His name is embossed on saucepans, salad dressings, iced coffees and frozen pizzas.

Puck has provided catering at the last 18 Academy Awards and cooked for seven successive US presidents. He is the toast of Hollywood and liberally sprinkles the names of celebrity friends like confetti. In fact, the man can stake a strong claim to being the world’s first ‘celebrity chef’, using power of personality, a contacts book that would make Harvey Weinstein blush and no little talent to transcend the kitchen and become a global brand, blazing a trail for the Gordon Ramseys and Jamie Olivers of this world to follow in his wake.

European homecoming

But this most American of Europeans has at last returned to the continent where it all started. CUT, the London outpost of Puck’s high-end steakhouse, opened its doors in September. Housed within the Dorchester Collection’s newest property, 45 Park Lane, it is the fourth restaurant operating under the banner, following Singapore, Las Vegas and the flagship Michelin-starred Beverley Hills outpost.

This has been a long time coming. Puck first arrived in North America as an impoverished chef all the way back in 1973 – Indianapolis of all places – and quickly established his reputation without any apparent craving for a European audience. So why here and why now?

We meet across the road from 45 Park Lane, at the Dorchester hotel’s Thierry Despont-designed Promenade. The diminutive 62-year-old is immaculately turned out, sporting a million-megawatt smile that is a paean to US dentistry and one of those radiant, deep-set tans that speaks of a charmed life on the Californian coast. During visits to London, Puck has been enjoying the best that the UK capital has to offer, throwing himself headfirst into ‘London Season’ with visits to such cultural highlights as the Chelsea Flower Show, the Serpentine summer party and Wimbledon. His only regret is failing to catch Kevin Spacey in Richard III at the Old Vic.

"You need to have a little fun"

It may all be part of the brand, but Puck radiates bonhomie. For a man running a multimillion-dollar empire, he is remarkably relaxed, something he puts down to a willingness to mix work with pleasure. "We all want to make money," he acknowledges, his accent still unmistakably Germanic, but with definite West Coast inflections, "but sometimes the motivation can be driven just as much by selfish reasons. I launched a Spago [Puck’s first fine dining line] at the Four Seasons Maui because I knew it would be a great place to take semi-vacations; hit the beach during the day and then spend the evenings at work. The same applies to our restaurant at the Ritz Carlton in Avon, Colorado. Sure the clientele is a good fit, but it certainly helps that my little boys can have a great time skiing. You need to have a little fun."

He can now add London to the ever growing list of family holiday destinations, but it would be naïve to think that this is the first opportunity to come along. Offers have been on the table before, he concedes, but the deals just didn’t feel a good fit. "I’m far more interested in the partner being right rather than the timing," says Puck. "In the Hotel Bel Air and Beverly Hills Hotel, the Dorchester Collection owns two of the landmark properties in LA. I already have a restaurant at the former, so we know each other well, we know we can work together."

Destination dining

Hotel dining has undergone something of a revolution on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years, with established chefs being brought in to attract a wider clientele and create restaurants that are destinations in their own right. With characteristic understatement, Puck claims to have led this revolution – "We signed a deal with Caesars Palace in Vegas in ’91, before anybody, now everybody’s there" – but he believes that not all hoteliers have learnt a valuable lesson.

"What I really admire about the people at the Dorchester is that they know they are in the hotel rather than restaurant business. Go next door to the Four Seasons," he says, pointing southwards towards the recently refurbished Park Lane property. "The restaurant is okay, but it didn’t make much of an impact upon opening. They invested a lot of money but ended up running the restaurant themselves.

"A chef should always drive the concept, but that can all too often be overlooked."

"A chef should always drive the concept, but that can all too often be overlooked. Most of the time keeping everything in-house sees a hotel lose money. The general manager wants one thing, the VP of operations another and you end up with a restaurant created by committee that is little more than an accessory. It’s like a woman buying a dress; if she’s going to spend the money she also needs the right bag to complement it. What good is having the right dress and pairing it with a shitty bag?"

As an example, Puck returns to Spago at the Maui Four Seasons. Prior to his arrival in 2001, the restaurant was grossing $1.2 million a year. Now that same space is turning over $7 million. "There are a number of factors involved," he says. "If it’s a chef you know, someone you trust, that certainly makes a huge difference. If all that’s being offered is another non-descript hotel restaurant, you’ll most likely eat elsewhere."

His new locale is not bereft of dining options. As well as Alain Ducasse, China Tang and the Grill already operating within the Dorchester, Heston Blumenthal, Marcus Wareing, Gordon Ramsay, Nobu Matsuhisa and Daniel Boulud have kitchens within short walking distance. Competition for diners is fierce.

"If I’m going to play in the Premier League I’d rather find myself at Manchester United than Fulham," Puck says. "Those restaurants are all here for a reason and that’s because it’s where you’ll find the clientele. People don’t want to eat at the same restaurant every evening; they’re looking for choice."

CUT is certainly a departure from the intricate fine dining style that has become synonymous with this corner of Mayfair. The concept is essentially haute North American, offering 15 cuts of beef cooked atop imported hardwood and charcoal before being grilled from above at a temperature approaching 350°C. There are some allowances made for the European palate such as a greater range of seafood dishes, more greens and slightly smaller portion sizes, but the finished article would be easily recognisable to Puck’s celebrity clientele back in LA.

"We’re talking about simple elegance," he explains. "It’s less fussy and complicated than Ducasse, but we use the best ingredients available and present them for what they are. There are many steakhouses back in California, but what has always set us apart is having real talent in the kitchen."

Puck also takes umbrage with some of the gizmos invading high-end restaurants, reserving special disdain for one technique in particular. "Why would anyone want to cook a piece of beef sous vide," he groans. "Where’s the flavour? Maybe at an express outlet in an airport, where the emphasis is all about time, but I really can’t comprehend why so many top kitchens are using it for meat and fish these days."

The prevalence of US-style steakhouses popping up on the London dining scene is a trend Puck has followed with interest. "We’ve always had the products," he insists, "but the recognition was not always there."

Puck casts his mind back to the ‘dark old days’, when selling fine dining to an US audience could seem like an uphill battle. "I had a consulting job at the Bel Air Hotel and found the kitchen was using canned French beans," he recalls, banging his fist against the table in exaggerated outrage.

"One diner was furious, claiming we’d added colour to the food. People had never seen anything so fresh and it horrified them"

"I’d just about accept that behaviour in Greenland, but not California. I drove down to Chino Farm in San Diego and found produce that was as good as anything you’d see in Italy or France. A dinner was arranged back at the hotel and the local beans were served. One diner was furious, claiming we’d added colour to the food. People had never seen anything so fresh and it horrified them!"

Things have certainly changed for the better and, through CUT, Puck hopes to dispel some lingering stereotypes about US cuisine. Staples such as banana cream pie and various cheesecakes feature proudly on the menu, albeit with what he refers to as ‘a number of twists’. UK produce is also paid its due, with seafood and cheeses sourced from around the country. Puck’s head chef David McIntyre even relocated from LA to London in January to oversee developments and forge relationships with various suppliers.
But he will soon be moving back to the States and Puck, ever the expansionist, will start focusing on the next opening.

The sheer scale of operations bearing his name is staggering; can he really vouch for its consistent quality? "Even with just one restaurant you can’t expect to do every job in the kitchen and out on the floor," he counters. "It’s all about assembling the best team possible and being able to trust in the ability of other people. Like conducting an orchestra, you can know the music better than anyone and provide the best guidance there is, but you still need the players to play."

He is not the first Austrian superstar named Wolfgang to lead an orchestra, but Mozart didn’t employ over 1,000 musicians. No chef has ever become this big and Puck shows few signs of slowing. As we descend into the bowels of the Dorchester where a tasting session is about to commence in the hotel kitchen, I ask how the buzz of controlling a multinational business compares with that of running the pass at the first Spago back in the early 1980s. "They’re both hard work," he replies, "but you don’t get anywhere in this business without enjoying a little bit of that."