Wolfgang Puck – the Stars’ Chef
Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck’s inaugural restaurant, Spago in Los Angeles, was an overnight success that has become as synonymous with A-list celebrities as it has with great food. Film and rock stars, producers and politicians flock to the eatery, originally in West Hollywood and latterly in Beverly Hills. Now the acclaimed chef, restaurateur and TV presenter has opened Spago in Singapore – the first time the concept has launched in Asia.
“Spago is our flagship restaurant so opening one in Singapore is at once very exciting and creates a lot of pressure,” says Puck. “But when the opportunity came along to open a second restaurant at Marina Bay Sands, on top of the building where the swimming pool is, I didn’t hesitate for a second.”
The jaw dropping location on the Sands SkyPark, next to the stunning infinity pool and overlooking the city, is certainly a draw but Puck is confident there’s even more to Spago. “I think having a great view is obviously a big plus but I also know that people will come back for the food, the warm and friendly service and the hospitality,” he says.
After all, Spago Beverly Hills has 2 Michelin stars and the prestigious AAA Four Diamond Award. Puck himself downplays the celebrity clientele: “Famous people, in the end, are all just regular people except everybody knows them. Since my early days in Los Angeles when I was used to serving Orson Welles and Gene Kelly and nowadays Elton John, Madonna and Leonardo diCaprio, a guest in my restaurant is my guest whether they are famous or not.”
The Singapore outpost is in safe hands with Wolfgang Puck stalwart Joshua Brown taking the helm. (Brown will also continue to oversee Cut, Puck’s successful steakhouse within Marina Bay Sands, as well).
The Californian cuisine that’s a mainstay at Spago will also feature in Singapore along with a few global elements. Spago aficionados will be happy to see a few of their favourites on the menu while first timers will have the opportunity to try Puck’s signature dishes from the Beverly Hills original. “Some of the dishes we’ve served at Spago through the years had to stay on the menu because many people come to our restaurant and ask for them,” says Puck. “If you come to Spago for the first time, I think you should try some of the Spago classics like our spicy tuna tartare in miso cones or the agnolotti pasta with white truffles.”
Signature dishes for Singapore include crispy black sea bass with clams and smoked potato puree; grilled lamb chops with charred eggplant; pan seared striped bass “laksa” with dry fried rice noodles; and grilled milk fed veal chop with kohlrabi orange puree and Chinese fermented black garlic.
“Be sure to leave room for dessert,” says Puck who admits to having a sweet tooth. “When I come to any of my restaurants, I always ask for ice cream or chocolate. I even once hired a pastry chef just to make wonderful chocolate and espresso bon bons.”
Puck, who moved to the US in 1973 and opened Spago in 1982, now has numerous restaurants around the world as well as a catering company (responsible for the Oscar’s after party every year), plus cook books and television shows. He first learnt to cook from his mother, also a chef, when he was growing up in Austria. At just 14 Puck secured his first job in a professional kitchen; “peeling vegetables and cleaning the kitchen but most importantly, I learned the basics of cooking”. After moving to France, 19 year old Puck worked at the 3 Michelin starred Baumaniere with the renowned Raymond Thuilier.
“It was all about luxury – foie gras, caviar or baby lamb – only the best ingredients were accepted in the restaurant. And it’s Raymond who really was my mentor and why I stayed with cooking because that’s where I developed my passion,” says Puck.
His own cooking at home takes a simpler turn: “I love cooking at home for family and friends. Cooking for my family is always a pleasure and seeing the kids enjoying a meal is really wonderful. I like to cook simple things like a roast chicken or grilled fish with roasted or steamed vegetables. My kids love romaine so I’ll make a salad with balsamic vinegar and sea salt.”
While Cut is renowned for steak, Puck is also passionate about the equally superb side dishes that accompany them. “I always try to cook with vegetables. I buy whatever’s available in the farmer’s market. Vegetables are one of my favourite ingredients and we can prepare them in many different ways whether it’s Chinese, Japanese, French or Italian. They are easy to adapt to different flavours.”
His appreciation of veggies started at an early age, again inspired by his mother. “My mother taught me early on that by [sourcing] from farm to table you will end up with the best results. We had no choice – I grew up on a farm so everything came right from the garden whether it was vegetables or salad or berries. When my mother used to make vegetable soup, she hand picked for or five vegetables, washed them and made soup out of them. Very simple, yet very tasty.”
Health and wellbeing is also a priority for him these days. Most days, the he will exercise for an hour after taking his children to school and before starting his business calls. “We use organic ingredients wherever possible because I believe our health starts with the right food,” he says.
Puck is still very much a hands on chef. When he’s at home in California, most lunch times will find him at Spago Beverly Hills or his restaurant at Hotel Bel-Air and at dinner at Spago or Cut. He’s also set up a development kitchen. “My passion is the kitchen so I spend most of my time there, very little in the office and I always try to evolve and learn new things. That’s why this year I built an experimental kitchen where I can go and play and have a few young chefs working with me to test new recipes and come up with ideas,” says Puck.
“To me, cooking is an evolution so there has to be constant innovations. Not only in the cooking but also in the whole attitude and décor.”
The décor at Spago Marina Bay Sands, designed by New York based Tony Chi, is influenced by a colonial style Singapore bungalow complete with verdant garden. There’s inside and outside seating, with the interior being more fine dining in atmosphere including an extensive wine cellar while there’s lounge seating, low tables and cabanas al fresco. Of course both have open kitchens – a Spago feature.
“When I started Spago, I wanted the kitchen to be in the heart of the restaurant, just like it is in my home,” says Puck. “Today it’s a cliché that restaurants have open kitchens but in 1982, Spago was a trendsetter and probably the first fine dining restaurant with an open kitchen.”
Puck is still as enthusiastic about his vocation as when he started out. “I love what I do, that’s the important thing for me. I still have a passion for seeing the guests at the restaurants and going to the market.” Though he does concede:”I’m terrible at cleaning up after cooking. As much as I love to cook, somebody has to do the dirty work and clean up after me.”
And he shows no signs of slowing down. “I still feel like I’m at the beginning. As we speak, I’m working on a project near Palm Springs, a new family restaurant, and I also love making wine,” says Puck. “To me, getting up in the morning and thinking, what can I do next? What can I do better? Is there anything else I haven’t done yet? That’s what keeps me going.”
[UPDATE: Wolfgang Puck’s Cut won a Michelin star in the inaugural Singapore guide on July 21st 2016]