Lunch with Wolfgang Puck in the garden at Spago Beverly Hills was never going to be private.
The multimillionaire chef is friends with many of the customers and I watch him make his way from group to group, engaging in conversations rather than just shaking hands.
When he finally reaches my table and eases himself into a chair, shaded by century-old trees, a glass of chilled Chardonnay in front of him, the manager whispers in his ear.
“Sorry, Sidney Poitier wants a word,” Austrian-born Puck says, and he’s off again to chat with the veteran actor.
I’m in Los Angeles to spend a day with Puck, 62, who will open his first restaurant in Europe, CUT, at 45 Park Lane, in London on Sept. 1. The encounter turns out to cover two days as we drive around Los Angeles in Puck’s black Cadillac Escalade, visiting a fish supplier downtown, CUT at the Beverly Wilshire and the site of his new restaurant at the Hotel Bel-Air.
If you don’t know Puck -- and he’s not a huge name in Europe -- it’s difficult to imagine the scale of his business empire, and his celebrity, in the U.S. He owns about 20 fine-dining restaurants, from Washington D.C. (where President Barack Obama took First Lady Michelle in January to celebrate her birthday) to Las Vegas and he’s known for his Oscar parties.
“We’re going to expand our fine-dining restaurants,” Puck says in his Austrian-accented English. “We have some talks with people in the Middle East, and also we want to expand in Asia. We opened in Singapore very successfully so, hopefully, the next place will be Hong Kong and maybe Shanghai.
“On the other hand, we didn’t open in New York yet, we didn’t open in Miami yet. So we also still have spaces here and, if the deal is right, we’ll consider it. Except, we can’t do it over the next year because we have our plates full.”
He also owns about 50 Wolfgang Puck Express venues, mainly in airports. Then there’s the catering division: Think parties for the Oscars and the Emmys. His ranges of pizzas, soups, sauces and coffees are sold in stores alongside cookware, appliances, pots and pans and cutlery on the Shopping Channel.
So what’s his business worth?
“We’re doing about $400 million in business,” he says. “We did $70 million for our fine-dining restaurants in the first six months and the same thing in catering.”
Puck lives in Beverly Hills with his wife, the Ethiopian-born designer, Gelila Assefa, and their two young sons. (He has two other sons by his previous marriage to Barbara Lazaroff.)
We meet at 7:45 a.m. in Spago. He’s dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt. Only the Panerai watch and the perfect Hollywood teeth hint at his wealth. Forbes in 2008 estimated his annual income at $16 million. He says Forbes never asked him. I do and he doesn’t answer. Oh well.
A Bloomberg TV crew joins us as he drives downtown to International Marine Products. We cluster round as Puck prods Alaskan salmon, checks out South African tuna and grapples with Santa Barbara shrimps. Later, we drive to CUT to deliver them.
Puck chats easily about himself, from the work he’s had done on his teeth to how he bought his Ray-Bans at a Middle East airport in the middle of the night.
Oprah Winfrey, Maria Shriver, Michael Caine, Elton John, Tom Cruise, Joan Collins, Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Gordon Ramsay, Nobu Matsuhisa, the names drop thick and fast, but that’s his life. He has been rubbing shoulders with A-listers for 30 years.
It wasn’t always so. He was born to a mining family in Unterbergen, St. Veit, such a modest place that his address was simply Unterbergen No. 11, without a street name.
Road to Cooking
His father was a heavy drinker and it was his mother who set him on the road to cooking at the age of 14. Life was hard and he left south Austria for Paris to train before heading to the U.S., aged 24.
Decades later, he gave his parents the full VIP treatment when they visited. His father was a fan of “Dallas” and Puck took him to the set without explaining where they were going.
“That’s JR,” his father exclaimed in surprise, “and there’s Sue Ellen.” The actors all signed a cowboy hat for him that he would show off back in his local bar.
You can see the pride Puck feels in his achievements.
“Not bad for a little cook from Austria,” he says.
CUT, 45 Park Lane, London, W1K 1QA. Information: http://www.45parklane.com/dining-restaurant or +44-20-7493-4554.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)