Born Wolfgang Johnannes Topfschnig, but known worldwide as Wolfgang Puck, the celebrity chef, restaurateur, businessman, husband and father says he learned cooking from his mother.He brings the knowledge of food he began gathering as a youngster to his vintner dinner Friday night for the Naples Winter Wine Festival this year.
Puck began his formal training when he was 14 and went on to train under Raymond Thuilier at L'Oustau de Baumanière in Les Baux-de-Provence. His resume includes Hotel de Paris, Monaco and Maxim's in Paris before coming to the United States in 1973 where he worked at La Tour in Indianapolis for two years. He continued west to Los Angeles to be the chef and eventually part owner of Ma Maison.
Puck's first cookbook written in 1981, was based on the recipes from that restaurant. In 1982 he opened the first Spago on the Sunset Strip, and 15 years later the award winning Spago in Beverly Hills came to life.
Puck is the only chef to have won the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Chef of the Year twice in 1991 and 1998. His business enterprises include Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, Wolfgang Puck Worldwide Inc. and Wolfgang Puck Catering. He now has more than 20 fine dining restaurants throughout the United States, catering services, express operations, kitchen and food merchandise, cookbooks and canned and frozen foods in supermarkets.
Wolfgang Puck is among the celebrity chefs cooking at the Naples Winter Wine Festival this month, and he talked to us about his passion.
Naples Daily News: Where or from whom did you get your love for food and know you wanted to work in kitchens?
Wolfgang Puck: My mother was a professional chef. When I was 12 and 13 years old during our summer vacations from school, I remember spending the day with my mom in the kitchen where she worked as a hotel chef instead of playing soccer with my friends. That's where I first started getting interested in cooking.
When I was 14, I left school and started an apprenticeship in Austria and by the time I was 17, I moved to France. It's really when I worked at a restaurant called Baumanière in the south of France where I found a mentor in Mr. Raymond Thuilier, who really showed me passion and love for cooking.
NDN: Which three people would you want to have dinner with?
WP: I would like to share my dinner with people who have passion and love for food and wine just like I do. Naturally, they must be good conversationalists, be fun, and not take themselves too seriously. I still remember a dinner we did with Robin Williams with a few other friends — we had great food, great wine, but also a lot of fun.
NDN: What is your comfort food?
WP: To me, comfort food is a Wiener schnitzel with potato purée, something I grew up with.
NDN: What is your favorite thing to make?
WP: Cooking with my two boys, Alexander and Oliver. We like to make a simple dinner at home such as steamed or grilled vegetables, a small steak and an apple cobbler for dessert.
NDN: Where did you have your most memorable meal and what was it?
WP:My most memorable meal was in Kyoto at a restaurant called Kitcho — it must have been in the 1980s — and I still remember clearly what I ate, and the way it was served. The whole food service was like a Zen experience — each table had its own private room. There was no noise, so you could concentrate 100 percent on what you're eating.
NDN: What gala that you cooked for stands out in your mind as being the best and what was your menu?
WP: The most important gala we do every year in Hollywood is the Governors Ball after the Academy Awards. Where else can you have the biggest movies stars, producers and directors in the same room at the same time? And, they let me choose the menu so I get to cook whatever I like.
(Puck has been catering the Governor's Ball since 1994.)
NDN: Which is more interesting to you — cooking or inventing new food products for the stores?
WP: Inventing new food products is always more challenging because it's easy to cook a dish for 10 people in a restaurant, but it's a different story to do it for 100,000. The most fun for me is cooking in our restaurants.
NDN: What do you think is your biggest accomplishment so far?
WP: We are only at the beginning, so I think we're going to accomplish much more. On thing I'd like to accomplish is to help feed people who are starving throughout the world.
NDN: What was the best advice you ever got?
WP: When the first chef I worked for told me that I'm good for nothing, I thought about the opposite: Sooner or later, I would show him that I can do better than him.