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AN APPRECIATION OF WOLFGANG PUCK

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It will soon be 40 years since Wolfgang Puck moved to the United States, and it is time to reflect on America’s most influential chef.  “Wolfgang, most influential, you say?” And, indeed, there is no doubt.

Looking back from 2015, it is hard to remember what American cuisine was like in the 1970s when Wolfgang arrived in the U.S. People forget the cultural role played by the Boeing 747.  Prior to this airplane’s introduction, most Americans’ experience with Europe was through history books or serving overseas in the military.  Only the wealthy traveled abroad. Replacement of Boeing 707s carrying 100 passengers with jets carrying 400 passengers brought the middle class to Europe and opened their eyes to foreign cuisine. Meals of beef, chicken and veal covered with mushrooms and heavy sauces produced by hotel cooking school trained chefs were suddenly old fashioned. People hungered for the fresher food they had tasted in Paris, Florence and the Mediterranean.

Experimental restaurants like Chez Panisse with adventurous, well traveled cooks and chefs from diverse backgrounds started turning out beautifully crafted meals that were deceptively simple and seasoned with fresh herbs and spices, often grown yards away, rather than ten thousand miles away. America rediscovered the local farm, the wild produce foraged in local fields and forests, the heirloom products long forgotten by corporate farming, and a whole new zeitgeist emerged.

EARLY DAYS

Into this exciting period emerged Wolfgang Puck, an Austrian who left his village to learn the craft of cooking and finally found himself by the early 70s in the kitchens of three star restaurant l’ Oustau de Baumaniere in Les Baux de Provence.  He briefly cooked in Indianapolis and  then was hired by Patrick  Terrail, nephew of the owner of Parisian three star La Tour d’ Argent to head the kitchen in a  deceptively casual, but ultimately trendy Hollywood restaurant named Ma Maison.

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Ma Maison

The young Terrail might have been impossibly arrogant and insouciant, but he understood the nexus of celebrity and chic like no one ever had before and created an iconic restaurant out of a parking lot that featured a temporary roof enclosing patio furniture and umbrellas.  To top it off, the phone number was unlisted.

Sounds like ingredients for failure?  Not in L.A! The key to its success was a very hard working, newly appointed chef named Wolfgang Puck who night after night turned out the nouvelle cuisine of France and was suddenly the star chef of Hollywood.  Every evening the front parking lot was filled with Rolls Royces and Bentleys, and celebrities, studio executives and star gazers fought for tables.

Ever the promoter, Terrail would pack up the restaurant crew and transport it to Cannes each year for two weeks for the spring film festival and have ‘Ma Maison on location’ in the corniches looking down on the festival town.

 SPAGO

At one of the cooking classes Wolfgang ran in the kitchens of Ma Maison, Don Salk and several other Manhattan Beach dentists told him they would support him in his own restaurant venture and soon Spago was born.  Named after a small pizza parlor the Le Baux chefs would retreat to after their cooking chores were completed each night, and occupying a then untrendy location on Sunset Blvd. sharing a parking lot with the flagship Tower Records store, Wolfgang created the prototypical  Southern California restaurant whose unique design elements have been copied world wide. These features included a wood burning pizza oven visible to all and constructed in this case by a beer fueled itinerant German brick layer, and the most important design element was to bring the kitchen into the actual dining room for all to see—an unheard of concept.

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Wolfgang Puck conducting a cooking class with Rita Leinwand, Barbara Lazaroff and others at Spago.

People forget how revolutionary this was.  The kitchen had always been in the back or underground, and food mysteriously appeared through hinged doors.  Now it was prepared by chefs cooking in front of your eyes.  You could see them and they could see you!  The chef suddenly could feel the pulse of the dining room, no longer detached from it, and in the case of Spago he could see which celebrities and important people were dining that night and where they were seated.  Wolfgang could quickly walk away from the stove and greet Johnny Carson or air kiss the latest media darling.  The media was totally complicit in Wolfgang’s emerging stardom. Every night outside Spago there were paparazzi waiting to capture pictures of important people entering and exiting.  Visiting Spago, then French three star guest chef Jean Andre Charial observed the crowd at a celebrity chef event in the 1980s and noted, “Wolfgang really understands California!”

Prior to Spago, pizza in America was either Chicago or New York style, thick or thin crust, oregano dominated, canned tomato sauce slopped onto the dough with factory prepared sausages, salamis and cheeses sliced on top and cooked in conventional restaurant pizza style ovens.  Wolfgang said, ‘Why used canned anything?”  Let’s make our mozzarella and ricotta fresh in the restaurant.  Who needs tomato sauce?  Why cook the hell out of our fabulous fresh herbs and freshly smoked salmon and cured prosciutto?  Let’s flash cook the thin dough in one minute in a wood fired oven to accent the flavors, then arrange the ingredients on the surface just before serving to  retain their succulent flavors?  Voila!  New Wave pizza. The apex of where he took the concept was the famous Jewish pizza consisting of gravlax style house cured salmon arranged on crème fraiche and anointed with caviar.  Another was a simple Taleggio cheese pizza surmounted by sliced fresh white truffles! Neither Chef Boyardee nor Godfather’s Pizza ever thought of that!

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Twice weekly trips to or deliveries from Chino Ranch outside of San Diego brought the best of seasonal fruits and vegetables to Spago and coincidentally Chez Panisse as well.  Meat and fish were handled with reverence.  A whole new concept of cooking was evolving and fertilized the thinking of chefs across America.

At the peak of Hollywood studios, when it was apocryphally observed that there were more stars on the lot of MGM than in the heavens, matinee idols went to Chasen’s for dinner and then hung out at Sunset Strip nightclubs.  In the 1980s Spago became the place to be seen and it reached its zenith on Oscar Night.  Famed agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar, took over Spago on Oscar night and his party was the industry’s hottest invitation.  If you didn’t watch the Oscars on large screen at the restaurant, you came to the party with your Oscar after the ceremony.  Wolfgang cemented his relationship with Hollywood by becoming the perennial host caterer for the Governor’s Banquet after the Awards.

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CHINOIS ON MAIN

Within a couple of years, not content with Spago being his legacy, Wolfgang turned his focus on Asian cuisine and created one of the first Asian-French fusion restaurants in America.     

Wolfgang had tasted the foods of the Orient and thought they could be updated and liberated by the techniques of modern cuisine.  For instance, why should every sauce come from a can?  With fresh fruit available year round, make plum sauce out of fresh plums! If you like the flavors of roasted meats served on the Mongolian steppes, why not take it up a notch unavailable to the desert horsemen and add fresh cilantro and watercress to flavor your roasted lamb!?

Curry is used throughout Asia.  Wolfgang thought, “Let’s update Oysters Rockefeller, and he produced a sensational signature dish at Chinois, warm curried oysters.  Americans had become bored with the traditional Waldorf Salad, voila, the Chinois Chicken salad was born, a spice filled, herbal accented, cold chicken salad that is now copied widely across America, and finally the ultimate Asian fusion dish, Shanghai lobster, large chunks of succulent sweet lobster napped with Asian spices mixed into a wine flavored, sweet, creamy sauce all served atop a bed of deep fried parsley, a brilliant stroke that provided both a complementary crunchiness as well as a piquant herbal bite that cut the richness of both the lobster meat and its accompanying sauce.  No Hong Kong or Peking chef ever imagined such a mix of flavors and cuisines, and until the 80’s chefs rarely ventured beyond their native cuisines.  French chefs largely cooked French food, Italians Italian and Chinese.  But in California fusion cooking was born and it became a worldwide phenomenon.

The Troisgros brothers sent their sons to Brazil to cook and they came back with the spices of the Amazon and indigenous foods of the “New World.” Coriander and other somewhat more exotic flavorings began to appear in French food, sushi and crudo, raw fish in Italy, something that had been localized to fishing ports suddenly started appearing on menus in Paris and Rome.  Wolfgang was not the Johnny Appleseed of world cuisine, but he was the first in America to unleash his creativity and meet with success and acclaim.

As an aside, while Wolfgang certainly popularized the cuisine, a very early Asian-French fusion restaurant, the Imperial Dynasty, was opened by the late Richard Wing in Hanford, California in 1958. For over 40 years up to near the time of Richard’s death the Imperial Dynasty served superb Asian-French food that attracted diners from all over the world. (To read articles about Richard and the Imperial Dynasty click here [7]   and here [8]).  

MEALS ON WHEELS

Believe it or not, Wolfgang Puck remained a humble person, but also realized how his fame could lead to good for his fellow man. He inaugurated an annual Meals on Wheels benefit for the poor and his celebrity attracted the great chefs of Europe and America to join him in Spago’s parking lot to cook small,  sample bites to thousands of attendees and wine producers, and vendors donated their food and beverages as well for the sake of the needy.

The event initially held in the Spago parking lot became so popular that it quickly over ran the space and moved to the back lot of Universal Studios!  All the greatest chefs from America and Europe appeared at one  time or another.

WORLD CLASS WINE TASTINGS

At the same time that Puck’s career was taking off and interest in food was exploding, the California wine industry was undergoing growth with major coverage of the evolving scene covered by The Underground Wineletter, California Grapevine, The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator being the most notable publications.  Frank Prial began a weekly wine column in The New York Times and Nathan Chroman covered the subject for the Los Angeles Times.  Whereas most of these publications were the opinion of a single man, the editorial staff of The Underground was composed of a panel of longtime collectors who organized comprehensive tastings of California and European wines and printed the results to guide the purchases of their subscribers.  During this period U.C. Riverside particle physicist, Bipin Desai was developing a curiosity and taste for fine wine.  Growing up in a culture in India that did not incorporate wine into its cuisine, Desai started tasting California wines as a graduate student and then soon discovered French wines and joined The Underground Wineletter tasting group.  With assistance from Edward Lazarus, Geoffrey Troy and John Tilson, he began to organize vertical tastings of great California and European wines.  These events soon attracted a nationwide following of tasters who would fly in for a weekend full of tasting dinners and lunches.

The events were world class wine tastings from the finest chateaux with wines often spanning a hundred years.  Bipin and his friends always knew that fine wine demanded equally good food.  The tastings were held in the better restaurants in Los Angeles, but soon everyone realized that Wolfgang had a flare for matching food with wine and, unlike many chefs, was very flexible and sensitive to the nuances of wine and could make adjustments in what he cooked to best show the flavors in the glass. Wolfgang always tried the wines and became a knowledgeable taster. He could produce a meal at Chinois or Spago, cooking in the idiom of the restaurant’s cuisine and match the flavors of the wine without overwhelming the nuances.  This was a distinct gift.

LEGACY

Wolfgang Puck has entered that rare sphere of celebrity in America where he has become universally recognized by only one name, a la Madonna, Angelina and A-Rod.

Spagos are in several states.  He was the first nationally famous chef to open a sister restaurant in Las Vegas, a trend copied many times over. He has successful steakhouses known by the name, Cut. He is a star of celebrity food television and he has cookware and prepared food items named after him.  Groceries have sections featuring his soups and take-out food. Many airports in America feature his mall restaurants where travelers can pick up freshly made food for their flights or can sit at a counter and eat them.

Frankly, it is hard to go through a day and not be aware of Wolfgang’s presence.  Overkill, perhaps, but when you go to Spago or one of his managing restaurants, like the dining room at The Hotel Bel-Air, where the recent Vintage Port tasting was held (click here [9] to read that article), Wolfgang’s direct presence is felt and quite often he is there in attendance, managing the cooking and even occasionally taking a hand with its preparation.  He remains involved and plans to be so for a very long time.  “To your health Wolfgang and salut!”