Legendary chef, author, and entrepreneur Wolfgang Puck opens up about leadership, connection, and curiosity
“When I was a young kid, I left my home. I was 14, and I told my mother, ‘I’m going to make money.’ She said, ‘Yes, if you spend less than you make you will be successful.’ That was a good philosophy, and my first business lecture.”
It’s a lesson Wolfgang Puck has never forgotten. In the years since he departed his native Austria to train in some of the finest restaurants in Paris, the enterprising culinary genius has built an empire that reaches across cultures and continents, influencing the palates of a generation – and setting the table for the wave of sophisticated diners yet to come.
Chef Puck’s visionary approach to blending global tastes took root in Los Angeles, where, as chef at Ma Maison in West Hollywood, he attracted a devout following. His stellar rise continued in 1982 with the launch of the iconic restaurant Spago, where he was instrumental in forwarding the concept of “California cuisine.” The next year, his Chinois on Main in Santa Monica turned the tables on Asian food, blending classical French technique and Italian, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese flavors to create the enduring Asian fusion trend.
That incendiary early success blazed a trail that landed him atop an estimated $650 million empire that reaches from Beverly Hills to Bahrain. His eponymous brand encompasses three companies: Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, Wolfgang Puck Catering, and Wolfgang Puck Worldwide. A congenial teacher, author, showman, and seller, his accessibility and good humor have earned him a fan base as diverse as the inventive tastes he curates.
When we spoke, Chef Puck was preparing to greet executives from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who were en-route to preview his menu for the Governor’s Ball at the 91st Oscars® — his 24th successive stint as chef for the event.
Getting down to business
Despite very early success, Puck insists that his business acumen came from hard-won experience. “I worked on it,” he said. “Spago opened in 1982, then we opened the next one, and the next one. So I had to lead, and be able to delegate. (I learned to) just give really clear guidelines.”
Whether offering a luxe breakfast at Hotel Bel-Air, a divine contemporary steakhouse experience at CUT, or cocktails overlooking the city skyline at Spago Singapore, each Puck restaurant concept has a unique vibe, united by a common thread of impeccable customer care.
“My hot button is hospitality. Hospitality doesn’t really cost any more money,” he said. “Not like we spend money on food, or wine, or flowers. Hospitality comes from the people.
“I always say that if I hire a happy person, I can teach them how to be a good waiter, I can teach them how to be a cook, I can do a lot. But if somebody’s not happy, they’re never going to be a good maitre d’ or house manager, whatever. Teaching the profession is easy, but somebody really has to want to do it, and has to be happy doing it, and happy to serve our customers. That’s really big.
“No. 2, we are in the cooking business, so we have to produce great food. How do we do that? We buy the best quality. We never say, ‘OK, maybe the customer won’t know.’ If I know, our customer will know.”
The third leg of his philosophy is providing good service. “We’re professional and we do the job right, but mainly it works together with great hospitality. I don’t care if I’m served from the left side or the right, what I really care about is how the person puts a dish down in front of me, how they explain the dish and tell me about the ingredients. That’s what matters.
“When I opened Spago in ’82 and Chinois in ’83, the first thing I did was to bring the kitchen into the dining room. That way I could have contact with the guests while they waited, say hello to them, and then I could walk back to the counter. That really changed the way we ran the restaurant. Spago was the first one to have an open kitchen where everyone could see us cooking for the people.”
Creating a sense of place in each of his venues reflects a natural enthusiasm and warmth that comes through in conversation. “We have to create an environment where everyone who comes through our door feels special. There’s no difference between the people we know well, and those we don’t. Everybody pays with the same money,” he chuckled.
Ever the bon vivant, Puck makes an effort to be visible to his customers, from celebrities to the hoi polloi. “For example, Jennifer Lopez might be at a table with a friend, but when I go to the restaurant it’s not their table that I go to first. I go to their table last, because I know them,” he admitted.
“We need to treat our people as well as we would like to be treated. Our philosophy is that everyone is important. You might think that someone in the movie business might bring us more business then someone who saves up for that special birthday or anniversary, but no. I think it’s great to have movie stars and this and that, but they alone don’t make the business.”
Not surprisingly, chief among Puck’s considerations when deciding on new investments is the ability to connect. “We want to make deals with other people where we feel synergy,” he said. “We can build restaurants in many hotels out there, and do management deals, but my No. 1 thing is to make sure it’s a good fit with our company. We work to keep our brand at the highest level, because that’s what people are looking for. It’s important to associate with the right people; that’s the really important part for me.”
Also crucial is how much he likes the individuals involved in a transaction. “I need to meet the person, and if I don’t like the person, if they don’t care about hospitality and they don’t really care about food, why do business with us? The people are really important.
“Everybody wants to get paid well, but I don’t want to make money and not have good relationships. You lose your passion for things because you do them only for the money.”
Puck’s journey has been marked by a stunning number of victories, but he insists that the endeavors that didn’t make it were as valuable as those that did. “We learn more from our failures than from our successes,” he stressed. “In the ’80s when I opened Spago it was hugely successful, then I opened Chinois and it was very successful. Everything was going so well that if someone had asked me if I wanted to open a shoe store or open a pharmacy, I would have said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah it’s going to be successful.’
“Then I opened a bar called Eureka in 1990, and I did something I couldn’t really do properly, which was making and selling beer. We combined that with the restaurant, and after two years we had to close down because we weren’t the right fit. … I said, ‘I’m never going to do something that I can’t control and that I’m not the expert at.’ I don’t go into businesses that I cannot control because they are out of my expertise.”
One of his most startling successes came at the tail end of the 1990s, when he entered into a partnership with the Home Shopping Network. The arrangement continues today, going strong after 20 years.
“When we started out on TV, I didn’t know how to do it. We had to sell, and we became really, really successful with our cookware, and it was totally, totally unexpected. I never thought it would happen that way.” Not only was he the network’s first celebrity chef, his line of cookware, kitchen appliances, and accessories have sold over 10 million units and counting.
At 69, the father of four has his sights set on new horizons, inspired, as he put it, by a thirst for learning and unquenchable curiosity. “If you lose that, then your life slips away. I went to a restaurant and had sweetbreads in a way I’ve never had them before, and they were so good that I went back to the kitchen and asked, ‘How did they make them?’ so I can get better at cooking sweetbreads.”
Last year, despite decades of driving renowned brands and companies, he enrolled in the Owner/President Management executive leadership course at Harvard Business School. Having skipped formal education to learn his trade, Puck said the choice was a deeply satisfying one. “Someone asked me, ‘Why do you go? To teach there?’ And I said, ‘No, I go to learn.’ I was very impressed by the professors there, and thought it was a great experience for me. You always have to grow. You always have to get better.”
Written by: Anne-Frances Hutchinson, BOSS Associate Editor