Dining with Wolfgang Puck

From Vienna to Hollywood, the Impresario Chef Treats his Restaurant as a Work of Live Theater

Wolfgang Puck

Star chef Wolfgang Puck Presenting a seafood and salad creation | Photo Credit: Fred Prouser (Reuters)

“The press conference is on the second floor in the ‘Rosa Festsaal’”, said the friendly young woman in hotel uniform at the reception. It was 11.30 a.m. on a weekday morning when I crossed the imposing entrance hall in the Radisson SAS Palais Hotel on Parkring and proceeded to the elevator. The second floor ballroom – indeed rose – was thronging with journalists.

It’s a beautiful space: ornamental plasterwork on the ceiling, heavy drapery framing the windows and an exquisitely arranged buffet in the side room, with hors d’oeuvres to sample, main dishes and desserts.

This Lucullian feast, in honour of Austrian-born star chef Wolfgang Puck, began with mozzarella-melon spits dipped in green pesto and topped with basil leaves, served in small glasses. This was followed by sandwiches with fillings like beef marinated in sesame oil with fresh herbs. And as a tribute to Vienna, classics like Wiener Schnitzel and veal rolls in mustard sauce. It then reached its opulent conclusion in a pyramid of petit fours – little fruit and chocolate glazed cakes adorned with fresh berries and chocolate shavings.

But all this was for later. First, we took out places at the evenly scattered little tables to await Wolfgang Puck, both impresario and leading man, who had staged this dramatic celebration of fine dining.

This show place is in fact a perfect setting for Wolfgang Puck – the Los Angeles-based Austrian celebrity chef and restaurateur.

“The whole restaurant-business is like theater!” Puck agreed. “Every day you open the doors of your restaurant and allow your guests in, every guest expects the absolute best performance.”

Which is an expectation that he is certainly used to meeting, as the official caterer for the Academy Awards Governor’s Ball in Los Angeles. As Hollywood demands high quality, Puck, like many of film stars, is showman, writer and director in one person. But in his case, the working material is food.

At 59, the compact grey-haired Puck is nonetheless charismatic. On the day of the press conference, he had just arrived in Vienna with his wife and children for a two-day visit before travelling on to Capri to celebrate his wedding anniversary.

So how does Puck go about directing his food spectacles? How does he create the exquisite visual and gourmet events, I wondered, my mind wandering inevitably to the irresistible spread next door. As with theater, the atmosphere is all-important, Puck said.

“It is essential to have a welcoming environment, and you have to know where to place people, so that they feel at home.”

In his bistros, the ‘audience’ is entertained with many oeuvres and genres, from pasta, soups, vegetables or poultry, his repertory reaching from ‘Beef Lasagne’ or ‘Barbecue Chicken’ to more exotic dishes like Mandarin Noodles with sautéed Tenderloin and Vegetables.

But also sensations de gout, like the ‘Conch Chowder with Saffron, Coconut, and Orange,’ a Caribbean-inspired concoct of Scotch bonnet chilli, shallots, clams and mussels spiced and rounded off with star anise, black peppercorns, orange juice, saffron threads, heavy cream and coconut milk – undoubtedly a delicious festival of unusual flavours — all appealing to lovers of Shakespeare or “Turrini-esque” c.

Puck’s customer service skills were probably absorbed at home, instilled by his mother who was a cook at a restaurant on the Wörthersee in Carinthia. He was trained first as a confectioner, and later as chef at the Posthotel in Villach.

And he was obsessed with desserts.

“I love the vanilla-scented, caramel-topped custard known as crème brulée,” he admitted. This obsession has stayed with him ever since even after he emigrated to the United States 35 years ago. Extraordinary compositions like his ‘Honey Ice-cream with Almond Nougatine in Sesame Seed Cups’ seem to fire his imagination with a frozen dream of honey cream and sesame wafers moulded into serving cup shapes and decorated with caramelised blanched almonds. Another proof is his version of the classic Italian dessert ‘Panna Cotta.’

“The cooked cream makes a wonderfully satisfying, creamy cold dessert,” Puck said about his Italian dolce. “Ricotta cheese adds extra richness and tang, complemented by the zesty flavour of preserved lemons and a fresh raspberry puree.”

Whether its berries, vegetables, herbs or spices, fresh and authentic ingredients are his credo.

“For me the quality of the ingredients is the essence in life and in cooking! I always think about what is best at a particular time, in a particular season for a particular country,” he said, his eyes glistening with pleasure. “Whenever I am in Vienna in May, I think of white asparagus; in Italy in October or November, I think of white truffles.”

In search of the freshest seasonal ingredients, he encounters different cultures and culinary traditions, all of which are found on his menus, including his English-inspired “Chocolate Shortbread Footballs” (football-shaped chocolate biscuits with a mascarpone filling) or his Austrian-rooted Kaiserschmarren – normally cooked as a pancake, Puck has transformed it into a light, fluffy and refined soufflé. This culinary multiculturalism may help explain his ‘box-office success’; he attracts people from all backgrounds and makes them feel at home.

So all in all, what can his guests expect in Puck restaurants, like the “Spago” in Los Angeles?

“I think they expect a sur prise,” he concluded, “something new, tasty and entertaining. For them it should be like going to the theatre.” And one doesn’t doubt for a second that Wolfgang Puck is able to accommodate them.

“All the world’s a stage,” I thought, as I left the Hotel. But the best show of all is dining with Puck.

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