Chef Wolfgang Puck and his wife, Gelila Assefa, are having lunch on the patio at Spago, explaining why they recently spent $4 million to revamp the flagship of Puck’s $400 million food empire. The investment replaced the old look of Hollywood Wives circa the 1980s with the expensive simplicity of a 21st-century global billionaire’s L.A. pied-à-terre: artworks by Ed Ruscha and Doug Aitken on the hand-waxed Venetian plaster walls and sculptural olive trees arrayed on the courtyard. As Puck talks about the need to continually reinvent himself or else go “to the restaurant cemetery,” the establishment’s studied calm is shattered as a bubble-thin Riedel wineglass smashes to the floor. Puck looks up, amused, and shouts to the embarrassed patron who dropped it, addressing her by name.
“What are you doing, Tracy?” he says to the well-clad middle-aged woman in his Schwarzenegger meets Pépin accent. “We made changes, but we didn’t change into a Greek restaurant.” The tension diffused with laughter, Puck returns to his conversation as a waiter brings yet another course of the elaborate lunch. The chef, claiming he’s on a diet, sends his dish to the next table.
“You are young and thin,” he says to the lucky recipients, a pair of twentysomething hipster foodies dressed in skinny jeans.
The little episode seems staged to highlight Puck’s knack for reassuring a longtime patron while flattering new ones, but in fact it’s just another day in Pucklandia, a charmed culinary universe built on showmanship, business savvy and innovative cooking. Thirty years after Puck leaped to local prominence with the original Spago, on Sunset Boulevard, he has built a global empire that encompasses 101 establishments, from airport cafés to expense-account, fine-dining restaurants. Along the way, he acquired a level of name recognition that even his Hollywood patrons have to admire. (He perennially caters the Governors Ball after the Oscars.) Today, with the reinvention of Spago and planned expansion into China and the Middle East, Puck is making a bid for his continued relevance in a world in which food has become pop culture, a development that he helped create. Of the three chefs who have arguably defined California cooking over the past few decades, Alice Waters mother-henned the seasonal-local-organic generation, Nobu Matsuhisa spawned sushi nation and Puck pioneered the role of celebrity chef as empire builder.
“I’d much rather people call me a cook than a celebrity chef,” says Puck when asked how the characterization fits. “A celebrity is like Paris Hilton: Nobody knows why she is famous. Television has done that for a lot of young chefs today. They become famous before they know how to cook.”
In contrast to the Food Network’s matinee idols, Puck seems to imply, he can legitimately claim to have reshaped how America eats. “People talk about ‘farm to table’ constantly now,” he says. “When we opened Spago in 1982, I went to Chino Ranch for all my vegetables. But I never put ‘farm to table’ on the menu. I grew up on a farm. It was natural.”
Likewise, Puck invented California pizza by draping smoked salmon over an otherwise traditional crust. He funneled global influences into his signature fusion style and opened two Euro-Chinese restaurants: Chinois, in 1983, and 2010’s WP24 in downtown Los Angeles. Puck was an early champion of housemade bread (Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery and Pizzeria Mozza is a Spago alum), and he popularized the open kitchen. Like Yves Saint Laurent did with fashion, Puck would eventually leverage the prestige of his high-end creations to print money in the mass-market world of licensing. Today he’s on the Home Shopping Network, in airports and in the grocery store freezer section. He even has his own app. “If you’re not moving forward,” he says, “you’re moving back.”
The word “spago” means “string” in Italian, and Puck has explained its almost mystical personal significance, evoking the way that a piece of thread has a starting point but seems endless as it unspools continually from a bobbin. Asked about the risk of alienating his old clientele with Spago’s transformation, he bluntly acknowledges that the old crowd is dying off, and he assumes that everyone else will follow the thread, as it were, of his new ideas. “We really work for the people who want to discover something new,” he says.
What is new about Puck’s cooking after all these years is a tendency toward simplicity and a renewed focus on southern California’s culture and climate—local ingredients on the plate, local art on the walls. But unlike Los Angeles’s younger generation of chefs who favor pop-ups and provisional dining establishments and for whom decor and service are secondary considerations, Puck maintains a European commitment to the refinements of a dining experience. Spago’s new dinner plates, for instance, are custom Limoges porcelain by Bernardaud. He fussed over the renovation’s details because, as he says, “I have to live here.” Spago is, and remains, Puck’s professional home.
Which raises a question: Since Puck spends so much time away from home while tending to the far reaches of his empire, is he today a chef or a businessman?
“If I were a good businessman, I would be much richer,” he says with a chuckle. “So, unfortunately, I am still a cook. Do I cook behind the line every day? No. Do I cook in my head all the time? Yeah. Maybe if I were a businessman, I would be further along.”
Many other chefs might object that Puck has little ground for complaints about his level of success. “We are not suffering,” he concedes. “I don’t need charity. We eat and drink like the rich people.”
Spago is at 176 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills; 310-385-0880; wolfgangpuck.com.