Fu­sion Drive

With a branch of his fa­mous Los An­ge­les flag­ship Spago open­ing in Sin­ga­pore, celebrity chef Wolf­gang Puck talks culi­nary phi­los­o­phy with Richard Lord

Hong Kong Tatler - - Faces -

If you’re look­ing for the man most re­spon­si­ble for the way we eat to­day, go no fur­ther than Wolf­gang Puck. The celebrity chef was first with many of the in­no­va­tions that shaped con­tem­po­rary din­ing, from fu­sion cui­sine to gourmet ver­sions of fast-food sta­ples, from fine din­ing with laid­back ser­vice in a re­laxed at­mos­phere, to an em­pha­sis on lo­cally sourced in­gre­di­ents.

Puck made his name in the 1980s and ’90s with his world-fa­mous Los An­ge­les restau­rant Spago. He now owns a global em­pire that en­com­passes a be­fud­dling ar­ray of fine-din­ing and ca­sual-din­ing res­tau­rants, a cater­ing busi­ness, cook­books, his own brand of kitchen equip­ment and even his own pack­aged food—and he’s be­come a fa­mil­iar face on tele­vi­sion.

En­tirely ap­pro­pri­ately, Puck has turned to the orig­i­nal home of in­no­va­tive fu­sion cui­sine, Sin­ga­pore, in mak­ing the lat­est ad­di­tion to his em­pire. He al­ready has one restau­rant in the city, at the Ma­rina Bay Sands—a branch of Cut, the steak­house he launched in 2006 at LA’S Bev­erly Wil­shire ho­tel. But the new one, also at the Ma­rina Bay Sands, is par­tic­u­larly close to his heart: it’s Asia’s first Spago.

“We have a long-stand­ing re­la­tion­ship with the Ma­rina Bay Sands, so when they came to us to open a Cut five years ago I was very ex­cited to ex­pand into this new ter­ri­tory,” he says. “Cut has be­come a favourite among many Sin­ga­pore­ans and it’s al­ways sold out. When the op­por­tu­nity came to open a sec­ond restau­rant at the Ma­rina Bay Sands on top of the build­ing where the pool is, I didn’t hes­i­tate for a sec­ond. Hav­ing a great view is a big plus, but I also know that peo­ple will come back for the food and ser­vice.”

Sin­ga­pore poses par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges when it comes to get­ting the menu right, he adds. “Spago is our flag­ship restau­rant and open­ing one in Sin­ga­pore is at once very ex­cit­ing but it also cre­ates a lot of pres­sure. Sin­ga­pore­ans are very savvy; they know about food, style and hos­pi­tal­ity. We tai­lor Spago res­tau­rants to the lo­cal mar­ket be­cause we al­ways try to get lo­cal in­gre­di­ents and then pre­pare them in our style. But Spago is its own brand, has its own look. The menu changes of­ten, so we’re go­ing to of­fer the best or most pop­u­lar dishes from Spago Bev­erly Hills, too.”

Born in Aus­tria in 1949, Puck got his first kitchen job at the age of 14. He spent sev­eral years learn­ing his trade in fine-din­ing res­tau­rants around France and then moved to the US at the age of 24, end­ing up in Cal­i­for­nia in 1975. He es­tab­lished Spago on the Sun­set Strip in 1982, and moved it to the equally iconic Bev­erly Hills lo­ca­tion in 1997.

A true culi­nary cit­i­zen of the world, the Europe-raised, Us-based Puck has been in­flu­enced through­out his ca­reer by the cui­sine of Asia. Long be­fore he opened his first restau­rant in Asia—he also has a Wolf­gang Puck Bar & Grill in Shang­hai—he launched Chinois on Main in Santa Mon­ica in 1983, pretty much in­vent­ing fu­sion cui­sine in the process. Puck’s love af­fair with the flavours of Asia con­tin­ues to this day, with his WP24 in the Ritz-carl­ton Los An­ge­les show­cas­ing his own con­tem­po­rary take on Chi­nese cui­sine in par­tic­u­lar.

Along with the Asian in­flu­ences, Puck’s sig­na­ture com­bi­na­tion is fine French din­ing with in­for­mal, laid-back Cal­i­for­nian at­ti­tude, plus a will­ing­ness to ex­per­i­ment. His cui­sine is all about in­no­va­tion, rein­ven­tion, new twists on old ideas. He is also an in­no­va­tor in his choice of lo­ca­tions. Puck opened the first fine­din­ing restau­rant in Las Ve­gas in 1992, help­ing to trans­form a town of poor-qual­ity carb-fest buf­fets into one of the coun­try’s fore­most fine-din­ing des­ti­na­tions. It’s there­fore fit­ting that his two Sin­ga­pore res­tau­rants are both in the Ma­rina Bay Sands—he also has res­tau­rants in Sands-owned casi­nos in Ve­gas—and sug­gests that if he wants to ex­tend his Asian em­pire fur­ther, Ma­cau might be the log­i­cal place.

That em­pire takes in more than 25 fine­din­ing res­tau­rants plus a host of ca­sual res­tau­rants un­der such names as Wolf­gang Puck Pizza Bar, Wolf­gang Puck Bistro, Wolf­gang Puck Ex­press and Wolf­gang Puck Café—and, as Puck him­self ad­mits, that means he some­times has to spread him­self quite thin. “Hav­ing many lo­ca­tions around the world with all of them very suc­cess­ful, a lot of peo­ple ask me, ‘How do you do that?’ I don’t open a restau­rant if I don’t know the chef, the man­ager, the pas­try chef and so on, so our chef at Cut in Sin­ga­pore has been with us for over 10 years. It’s the same with our chef and man­ager at the new Spago. And, nat­u­rally, I will go to Sin­ga­pore for the launch of Spago and I will come back pe­ri­od­i­cally to do spe­cial events, wine din­ners and so on.”

It’s not just his res­tau­rants that keep him busy. Puck’s cater­ing divi­sion pro­vides food at a va­ri­ety of venues, mostly in the US, from mu­se­ums and arts cen­tres to rail­way sta­tions and film stu­dios. It also caters ma­jor events, in­clud­ing ev­ery Os­cars din­ner for the past decade. There’s also a huge range of Puck-branded kitchen equip­ment, which the chef fre­quently pro­motes in per­son on the Home Shop­ping Net­work. And his com­pany sells Puck-branded foods, in­clud­ing canned goods, piz­zas, soups and stocks, and cof­fee. Then there are the many cook­books and TV ap­pear­ances—puck’s epony­mous TV show on the Food Net­work, plus every­thing from cook­ing com­pe­ti­tions to chat shows. The chef syn­di­cated col­umn ap­pears in 30 news­pa­pers and reaches 5.3 mil­lion peo­ple in the US ev­ery week. And, be­ing La-based, the chef also has his own act­ing ca­reer, of­ten play­ing him­self.

“I have quite a few dif­fer­ent busi­nesses,” Puck says with some un­der­state­ment. “But my pas­sion is and al­ways will be the kitchen, so I spend most of my time in the kitchen and very lit­tle time in the of­fice, and I al­ways try to evolve, learn new things and try new things. That’s why this year I built an ex­per­i­men­tal kitchen where I can go and play, and where I can have a few young chefs work­ing with me to test new recipes and come up with new ideas.”

As with all his res­tau­rants, Spago Sin­ga­pore will show­case the chef ’s com­mit­ment to sus­tain­abil­ity and en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly and hu­mane farm­ing prac­tices, and his fo­cus on or­ganic pro­duce.

“Our motto is al­ways, ‘Tell me how you treat what we eat’,” he says. “So in the US I visit the farms where we get our veg­eta­bles and fruits. I also visit cat­tle ranch­ers and poul­try farm­ers who we source from. We use or­ganic in­gre­di­ents in our cook­ing when­ever pos­si­ble be­cause what it re­ally boils down to is that I have to eat it ev­ery day, too, and I be­lieve our health starts with the right food.

“Our cus­tomers are very savvy and they re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate us hav­ing a menu where we use all or­ganic in­gre­di­ents, sus­tain­able seafood and hu­manely treated an­i­mals. In Bev­erly Hills we have a lot of peo­ple who are vegetarian, so we pre­pare a 10-course vegetarian menu for them, and we’ll do the same thing in Sin­ga­pore.”

PREGO SPAGO Wolf­gang Puck’s new Sin­ga­pore restau­rant serves up sus­tain­able fare in a re­fined set­ting

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