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Late one night in West Hollywood last December, Kenny Loggins, the hitmaker behind Footloose and a Spago Beverly Hills regular, stood mesmerized before a centrifuge disassembling a persimmon. The ripe fruit, purchased that morning from the Santa Monica Farmers Market, was being pureed for a new riff on an Old Fashioned, the cocktail used to welcome a half dozen of Wolfgang Puck's loyal customers and friends, all gathered for a preview of the chef’s new restaurant, the Wolfgang Puck Test Kitchen.
Located in the test kitchen of Puck’s corporate headquarters—a space typically devoted to the research and development of canned soups and frozen pizzas—the eight-seat chefs counter is a venue for adventurous diners looking to experience the famed Austrian chef's cooking at its most experimental: The chef’s first stab at modernist gastronomy, and his first-ever ticketed restaurant, it’s where Puck and his protégés will work to redefine for the 21st century the California cuisine that made him a culinary sensation in the 1980s.
As Puck consolidated his showroom, film studio, offices, and test kitchen under one roof some eighteen months ago, he also conceived the addition of a backroom chef’s counter as a playground for his late business partner Matt Bencivenga, who passed away from cancer in early 2016, shortly after its completion. "I thought if he pulled through we might open it to eight customers a night, and offer a kind of comfort food through innovation," said Puck. "He loved to experiment, so we got all this stuff—the centrifuge, the vacuum distiller—for him."
Since then, the counter has remained mostly dormant, opened up for the occasional charity dinner or to test the skills of a prospective hire. But as he came to confront the space on a daily basis, he saw the potential to challenge and advance the skills of his most talented chefs: Typically too caught up executing Puck's most iconic dishes, they have little opportunity to think outside the box. "When we remodeled Spago five years ago, I took the wiener schnitzel and salmon pizza off the menu, but everybody complained," recalls Puck, "so I said we are not here to listen to complaints but to make guests happy. A waiter can always talk a customer into a new dish, but the next day the customer's going to want their schnitzel."
At Wolfgang Puck Test Kitchen, the constrictions of customer expectation are shaken off for footloose improvisational cooking. For one night each week, a rotating roster of chefs, plucked from Puck’s global empire, will team up to prepare a dining experience in which each chef develops and executes his or her share of a unique 12 to 18 course menu. "I just tell them, cook something I never had," says Puck.
The convenience of the restaurant's proximity to Puck's corporate duties, and the spontaneity of its menus, means Puck can join in at his leisure—as chef, customer, sommelier, or emcee—on any given night. It’s a real boon to a man whose work schedule keeps him traveling 160 days a year, and who no longer wants to eat out only to crib the latest dining trends. "I said, Instead of going to new restaurants to get ideas, let's come up with our own."
To help spark and shape those ideas, Puck hired Dave Beran as resident test kitchen chef. An award-winning veteran of Chicago's most highly regarded modernist restaurants, Alinea and Next, Beran was intrigued by Puck's investment in more experimental kitchen equipment and the intimacy of a chef’s counter. Beran signed on with the hope of being able to impart his encyclopedic knowledge of modernist cooking to everyone he works beside, Puck included.
And while there's no guarantee any given dish will earn permanent menu status at the chefs respective restaurants, nor will every international location of Spago or Cut turn into a temple of modernist cuisine overnight, Wolfgang Puck Test Kitchen will nonetheless set in motion incremental changes to Puck's restaurants worldwide.
On the night of Beran's introductory dinner last December, he literally dangled a carrot to start the race toward innovation with an appetizer that utilized the vegetable in all its forms. A roasted carrot paired with sliced garlic fermented in miso was laid on a bed carrot crumb and charred carrot tops, dressed in a carrot vinaigrette, elided with a pool of carrot puree, and paired with a carrot soda. Longtime Spago chef de cuisine Tetsu Yahagi made diners look twice at his trompe l'oeil approach to dim sum: What appeared to be a steamed bun was in fact dehydrated meringue stuffed with salmon tartare and salmon roe; beside it, a sesame ball burst with spiced coconut soup. As a counterpoint to such avant-garde cooking, Eric Klein, the vice president of culinary for Wolfgang Puck Catering, dusted off an old-world recipe innovative in its day. An ode to his own heritage, Klein prepared a main course of baeckoffe, an Alsatian partridge casserole that maintains its moisture through a simple ring of bread dough that seals the lid to the dish.
That the baeckoffe might challenge the tastebuds of those who swear by Puck's wiener schnitzel, or the meringue those who subsist on salmon pizza, is exactly the point of the new restaurant. Here, ticket holders will have a front row seat to a show that chooses not to rely on its greatest hits to impress.
Wolfgang Puck Test Kitchen is located at the Pacific Design Center at 8687 Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, California. Tickets to the weekly dinners cost $195 per person or $295 per person with wine pairings, and go on sale online at Tock on March 20, 2017; tocktix.com. The first weekly dinner is scheduled for April 19, 2017. To inquire about reservations before March 20, email firstname.lastname@example.org.