Wolfgang Puck Talks Cooking for the Oscars and Running His Kitchen Like a Football Team

The Spago (and countless other restaurants) chef has been preparing the Governors Ball feast for 22 years

Even though the stars seem to be hungrier for Double-Doubles than their ritzy catered dinners—we’re looking at you, Katy Perry and Adele—it’s hard not to drool at the post-Oscars Governors Ball menu. In his 22nd year of catering the event, Wolfgang Puck is serving up, well, damn near everything. There’s wagyu shortrib, avocado toast, potatoes with caviar, crispy bibimbap, chicken pot pie with fresh black truffles, and 6,500 wood-fired flatbreads made into the shape of the Oscar statuette. There’s even going to be a poke bar. We sat down with the chef to talk about how he manages to pull off cooking for more than 1,500 of the most famous people on the planet.

(Completely unprompted)

You know Sam Smith, the British singer? At the Grammys he said he couldn’t get a good tea in this country. Now that he’s coming for the Oscars, we’re making a whole platter of English tea with milk and everything.

That’s awesome. Do you get requests like that often? Is it easy to make them happen?

No, no, just a few. Like Barbra Streisand and John Travolta are always asking for my chicken pot pie. And Sly Stallone said to me this year, ‘I hope you make a steak for the Oscars.’ So I told him, “I hope you win the Oscar!” We have so many chefs—seriously, we have like three-hundred chefs and five-or-six-hundred waiters and busboys and bartenders—so it’s all about organization. We have chefs from all of our restaurants, even we have some people come from Vienna, we have people come from London, we have all of our restaurants throughout the world to come pitch in.

What are you most excited about on this year’s menu?

I think the seafood because we’re going to cook it all to-order. There’s Alaskan king crab that we’re going to cook with a lot of ginger and chopped garlic and black bean sauce with some plum wine in it. It’s pretty sweet so we have some lime juice to finish it off. Sweet and sour and just a little bit spicy.

Sounds super ambitious—is it hard to cook food to-order for so many people?

It’s not really that hard if you have the right chefs to cook it. I have chefs doing them 15 orders at a time, and then we have two woks going so we can put out dishes every three minutes. Thirty portions every three minutes isn’t too bad. I want to give people the same experience that they would have at Spago or Cut.

It seems like the menus at other awards shows read like a slightly upscale wedding. How do you do it so much better?

We have six sushi chefs slicing fish to-order. Even—look, right behind me, we’re making all the agnalotti right now. We’re actually going to freeze them and then boil them the day of, because we’re going to make probably 8,000 of them. And we have one guy who’s doing that. He started at 8 this morning and he’ll probably finish at about midnight. It’s all about having the right man-power, the right space, and the right organization, you know?

Definitely. So you’ve been doing this for 22 years now—how have you seen peoples’ tastes change during that time?

Oh, it’s so amazing how much it’s changed. People are so much more adventurous now, and they know so much more about food than they used to. In the old time, goat cheese was something new, sun-dried tomatoes were something new, and now people can get that everywhere. And I think people are so much more knowledgeable know because of the foods they see on TV. For us, it’s really great because we can go to the farmer’s market now and just use whatever we can find and I know people will love it. I didn’t have king crab on the menu for the oscars—it was never printed on the official menu—but I have my guy up in Alaska, and he said he has great crabs coming in now, and so he sent me about $50,000 worth of crab.

You must have some weird stories about celebrity eating habits, right?

No, not really. Everybody really loves food, and everyone comes here really hungry. At the end of the day, they’re coming to us to tell them what to eat. In the same way that I wouldn’t go to Spielberg or Iñárritu and tell them how to make a movie, they would never tell me how to cook. They just come to enjoy what I make.

I think you’ve really solidified yourself as the Iñárritu of the food world.

You know I think I’ve heard that before! But really, we just concentrate at try and do the best we can for that many people. So it starts with buying the best ingredients, and putting them in the hands of chefs who can cook. And the good thing is we have so many restaurants, so the chef from Spago is here, the chef from Cut will be here, the chef from the Bel Air Hotel will be here, the chef from our restaurants in Grand Rapids, Detroit, and Atlantic City are all going to be here. So they run one small team. It’s almost like you do it in a football team: you have a linebackers coach, you have a quarterback coach, you have a running back coach, and I’m the head coach running the show.

How are you able to scale up and keep such an organized staff? What’s your secret?

It’s very important for us to treat our employees well, to give them knowledge so they can succeed, and we pay our people very well and they get good benefits. So that way they don’t leave. I mean, sometimes we get two generations working at our restaurants. At Spago, we have a waiter there for years, and his son studied management in college, and now his son has become the manager. It’s amazing how loyal people are if you’re loyal to them. It’s cheaper for us to retain good people than it is to change them.

Are the Oscars your favorite event to cater or is just super stressful at this point?

You know, the Oscars are really the main event in Los Angeles, or maybe even in America except for the Super Bowl. And to have it here in L.A., it’s great for our economy, and it’s great to be able to host all these famous people. And I think because of that L.A. gets known worldwide. So I know for us, whether I’m in Italy, or in France, or Austria—people go, “Ohhhh, I saw you at the Oscars!” and it’s really great.