Hard Choices: Wolfgang Puck

 
     Dec. 29 (Bloomberg BusinessWeek) -- I left home at 14 to be
a kitchen apprentice and spent most of my early career in some of
France's best restaurants. If you wanted to be a respected chef,
that was the best training you could have. By the 1970s, when I
was at Ma Maison [a French bistro in Los Angeles], I decided to
open my own restaurant. The easy choice would have been to open a
French restaurant, but I decided on a pizzeria called Spago. I
thought you could have fun with the ingredients and create
delicious simple food, but newspapers ridiculed me, saying you
couldn't create a gourmet experience around pizza. The
editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit even took me to dinner to try to
convince me not to open it. I had my own ideas, and it became a
huge success.
     I never thought about selling frozen pizza until Johnny
Carson became a customer. I was preaching fresh food all the way,
but Johnny would take home 10 or 12 pizzas at a time. One day, I
finally said, "Johnny, what are you doing with all these pizzas?"
He said, "I put them in the freezer and pull them out when we're
playing cards. They're just as good." I thought he was crazy—and
I had previously tried a line of frozen desserts that hadn't
worked out so well. I was nervous, but if Johnny Carson liked my
pizzas frozen, maybe others would, too. I went home to try it
myself; I thought he was right.
     It wasn't so easy, though. Duck sausage pizza was our most
popular at the time. When I did a focus group, everyone said
"Ewww. I would never buy a frozen pizza with duck." So I had to
make the line more pedestrian—vegetarian and spicy chicken, a
combination of cheeses. There were also some things you just
couldn't do. My favorite was prosciutto pizza, but it doesn't
freeze well. Our most popular pizza at Spago is the smoked salmon
pizza, but you can't freeze that, either. And, of course, if
people don't cook it the right way, the pizza won't taste as
good. In a restaurant, you have much more control.
     As my business has grown, the hardest thing has been to give
up control. It might make people think I'm arrogant, but I'm not.
This is my name. This is my life.