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