Wolfgang Puck’s Cheesy Start

Remember when goat cheese was unheard of, especially on a pizza?

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Fusion cuisine. Artisanal pizza. Open kitchens. The chef as cook but also TV personality and frozen food purveyor. Others may have hit on these culinary concepts eventually, but a gap-toothed Austrian with a funny name did it first. In 1982, Wolfgang Puck established his restaurant Spago above a car rental agency in West Hollywood. Before long he was serving pies topped with barbecued chicken or smoked salmon to celebrities ranging from Cary Grant to Madonna. The original is now shuttered, but Spago lives on in Beverly Hills, and Puck, 64, has never stopped cooking.

I was at Ma Maison. I always wanted to be equal with Patrick Terrail, who was the owner of Ma Maison. So I told him I found this space up on Sunset. I wanted to do a restaurant similar to what I saw in Provence, with wood-burning pizza ovens. Patrick said, “Yeah, we can do that. But I’m going to own 51 percent.” I thought, “Yeah, me, too.” I left.

I had to think, “What do I want to do?” I went to a farm in Rancho Santa Fe with great vegetables. I went to the fish market where all the Japanese chefs used to go. I said, “I want to do a restaurant that reflects Los Angeles, the different cultural influences.”

The location wasn’t fancy. I remember the street down Sunset was full of hookers. I was naturally very upset about it, so I called the city council member for that district. I stood by the window and said, “Look what’s going on down there.” The next day the police came and chased them all down the street.

Nothing was fancy except what was on the plate. If you had lamb, it was the best lamb. If you had fish, I used to go to the fish market every day so we had the best fish. We had a mixture of lettuces. That didn’t exist then. At that time I never saw an Italian restaurant serving tuna. And we grilled tuna, too. How common is that today? Where Spago made the biggest difference was in building the big, open kitchen. It was really the first white-tablecloth restaurant with an open kitchen. So now the customers could not only face the food and look at the plates, but they could see the chefs perform: making pizzas, cutting the desserts, grilling. The kitchen was the stage.

It started the first night. I looked around, and all of a sudden the restaurant was full. The restaurant was packed every night. It was so busy, I would get nervous to have people wait. If you could not get them a window table, it was like the end of the world. I thought we were going to make a neighborhood restaurant. I had some music I wanted to play late at night so people could come and have a glass of wine and a pizza. I didn’t think it was going to get crazy like that. They said, “In a year, two years, you will be just like the other restaurants.” Through the ’80s, for ten years, we were sold out every night.

If you make one successful movie, you get offered another part. Spago was the same. People saw me and recognized me. I did The Tonight Show, Good Morning America. I opened one restaurant, then another one, then another one. I did consulting, branding. By the end of the ’80s, I went into foods for the supermarket.

We wrote a whole new chapter of the menu, but it was also that the chef was the center stage and the owner.

 

Palate Pleaser

Puck’s influence on modern cuisine is so pervasive, he rarely dines out without noticing something he developed at Spago.

 

Smoked Salmon and Duck Sausage Pizzas
People asked me, ‘Are you going to make pepperoni pizza?’ I said, ‘No. I’m going to make duck sausage.’ They just looked at me. We did the pizza with smoked salmon, and that became a huge thing.”

Tuna Sashimi
We had the tuna sashimi on the menu with a little bit of caviar, avocado, and sweet onions, and a little salad underneath. That became a huge star. The tuna sashimi in one form or another is imitated all over the world. I’m surprised that tuna are still swimming around in the sea.”

Spago Bread
“Bread was so mediocre that we started to make our own. Nancy Silverton started at Spago making the bread. She went on and opened La Brea Bakery.

Pasta with Goat Cheese and Broccoli
“It was 1981. Sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese were novelties. It was totally different. You couldn’t find fresh basil or tarragon in a supermarket.”

Photograph courtesy Shutterstock

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