[UPDATE: Wolfgang Puck is bringing his signature Asian French fusion dishes from his Santa Monica restaurant Chinois to Cut at 45 Park Lane, London for a pop up celebrating the restaurant’s 35th anniversary. From today until 30th June the menu, featuring Asian flavours fused with French techniques, will include Shanghai lobster with curry sauce and whole sizzling sea bass with ginger and ponzu sauce. As well as an a la carte lunch there’s two tasting dinner menus – six courses priced at £115 per person and eight courses £165 per person including a welcome cocktail.]
Wolfgang Puck, one of the most famous of the world famous chefs, is reflecting on how times have changed for his profession; “When I moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s I used to go to discotheques,” he recalls. “Once I asked a girl to dance, she asked me what I did for a living and I told her ‘I’m a cook’. When the song was over, she left! Nowadays that scenario probably wouldn’t happen.”
He is more than likely right – since then chefs have become celebrities and Puck has become as famous as the stars who flock to his LA restaurants. Though the native Austrian, who learnt to cook from his mother and trained at Michelin starred restaurants in France, is not entirely comfortable with that either.
“I don’t like the name celebrity chef but I think that television has put chefs in the public. Television has really helped elevate our profession. I think it’s great because this has become an important profession, before it wasn’t,” he says. “Fifty years ago, you probably wouldn’t know who the chef was anywhere. Now chefs are like rock n roll stars.”
But for Puck, whose empire includes Cut, Spago and Chinois restaurants around the world, being a great chef still comes down to learning the basics. “The funny thing is, a lot of these television people, they don’t know how to cook,” he says. “I did a programme a few years ago where I asked the six chef contestants to make me an omelette. And you know what? None of them could make me a good omelette. That’s the problem with a lot of younger chefs today – they don’t start with the proper foundation.”
“Learning how to cook is like learning how to paint,” he continues in the first of many arty analogies (he has said that he would have liked to have been an artist if he hadn’t been a chef). “When you learn how to paint, you learn how to mix colours. Cooking is the same. If I have ginger, garlic and scallion, a dish would taste more Chinese. If I add basil and remove scallion, it would taste more Italian. When you really boil it down, it’s really not that complex. That comes with experience and, of course, a full understanding of the basics.”
Having mastered the basics, Puck eschews recipe books for his own instincts. “I know a certain flavour I want to have, then I try to get there my way. I don’t want to look at a cookbook to find how the Chinese, Indian or Vietnamese make it, I want to make it my own style,” he says.
“It’s just like writing a song, or painting. If you paint like Picasso nobody cares but if you created your own style, people would say, ‘oh, that’s interesting.’ Or if you’re a singer and you sing Lionel Richie songs all day long, you’re never going to become Lionel Richie – no matter how well you sing it. It’s the same with food – you can use lamb, fish, whatever but you still have to create a dish out of it your way.”
It’s an ethos that Puck encourages from the head chefs across his restaurant empire. “I create two lines here, and I let the chefs operate in between these lines. They have been working with me for many years, so they think like me anyway. But I want them to be creative, I want them to add something of their own to the menu.”
At Spago Singapore, the first in Asia and Puck’s second restaurant at Marina Bay Sands in the city state following Cut, the global fusion elements he describes can be found on the menu alongside American classics. “I opened Spago in Los Angeles in 1982 and then I opened Chinois in 1983 – essentially I opened an Asian restaurant but not in the traditional way. I made it my style,” Puck says.
The global menu at Spago Marina Bay Sands includes versions of two Singapore specialities: kaya toast and laksa. “We take something that’s already popular here and make it our own. And people still like it!” says Puck. As well as the luxurious versions of foie gras kaya toast and lobster laksa available at dinner, there’s a chicken “laksa” spring roll on the lunch and bar bites menus.
As well as the dinner menu, Spago has several lunch options to choose from depending on your mood and time allowance. Alternatively, a compact selection, still offering signature classics such as the tuna tartare cones and hand cut agnolotti, is available in the terrace lounge and at the al fresco rooftop bar. Perhaps to go with a cocktail or two although Puck prefers champagne. “I drink cocktails but not too much. With champagne, I can drink a whole bottle and still feel fine.”
When it comes to his own tastes Puck says he prefers strong flavours including chilli and spices in his food. “For me, French food is too subtle. One or two French dishes are fine but if I had to eat eight, I’d fall asleep.” While he has often tried chilli crab and fish head curry in Singapore these days he likes to stick to his own restaurants in Marina Bay Sands. “Even in my home country I go out less than I used to,” he says. “Here, if I want to have a really good meal I ask my chefs to cook me something.”
Although, or perhaps because, Wolfgang Puck has a couple of Michelin stars under his belt, he seems unfazed by the launch of the prestigious restaurant guide in Singapore later this year. “We don’t open a restaurant with the aim of earning Michelin stars. I know what I should do if I wanted to get the stars – open a restaurant that serves only 30 people a night and prepare 10 or 12 course meals. But I would only get people who try us once,” he says.
“For me, the stars are our customers,” he continues. “They are the ones who are going to come back, they are the ones who pay me and the rest of the people. So if the Michelin Guide gave me three stars but I have no customers those stars wouldn’t mean anything. I’m not saying Michelin stars are useless, but the most important thing for me is taking care of the customers.”
Great hospitality is a recurring theme for the chef and restaurateur. He sees good service as just as vital as good food. “Like any major city today, Singapore has a lot of great restaurants so to set ourselves apart we don’t just focus on the food. I think it’s important that people get recognised, that people feel like they are at home,” he emphasises.
“Yesterday at Cut, I saw a German family who has been living in Singapore for 40 years. I remember them from last time I was here. They came up to me and said, ‘Oh, it’s so good to see you again. We come here at least twice a month.’ That to me is more important than earning Michelin stars.”
[A version of this story was originally published in 2016]