For a busy man, Wolfgang Puck never appears hurried or troubled. Maybe it’s the grace that comes with one of his original restaurants recently celebrating its 30th anniversary. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of knowing that his 21 fine-dining restaurants have launched the careers of so many other successful chefs. Maybe it’s all the Wiener schnitzel.
The Austrian-born Puck opened the original Spago in Los Angeles in 1982, where he popularized the California-style pizza concept, which includes his now-famous smoked salmon version. Celebrities ate it up, and he made his move to Vegas a decade later to expand his empire.
When Spago opened in the Forum Shops at Caesars in 1992, Puck had no idea he was also opening the floodgates to the celebrity-chefs-in-Las Vegas craze, pushing our culinary scene into a new dimension. In fact, in Spago’s first three weeks at Caesars, he didn’t even know if the restaurant would make it. Not only did it survive, but 20 years later, Puck’s name is now attached to restaurants up and down Las Vegas Boulevard.
What do you remember most about opening Spago in Vegas?
It was in December, and people were telling us “You’re opening in Vegas; you’re going to have to beat the crowds away!” We opened in December, and every showroom was closed. Siegfried & Roy, everyone was on vacation.
I remember we got a review in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and then I thought, “Wow! Now we’re going to be really busy!” And maybe 60 people came in that night. I started to get really nervous. I said, “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” … We [had] rented an apartment down the street from the MGM, and I used to go home and drink a bottle of red wine so I could fall asleep! … It was a difficult [first] three weeks, but then right after Christmas [came] New Year’s, it started to get busy, and then came the Consumer Electronics Show, and we were flying.
What’s the first meal you ever prepared?
I made my grandmother a birthday cake, a Sacher torte [a famous Viennese chocolate cake with a chocolate glaze], and I wanted to surprise her. I was doing my apprenticeship, I was maybe 14 or 15 years old, and asked the pastry chef for the recipe for this chocolate cake that we had at the hotel where I did my apprenticeship. He gave me the recipe, but I didn’t know it was for 60 people.
So I went and bought like 60 eggs, I don’t know how many pounds of flour and sugar, and chocolate. My grandmother came into the kitchen and said, “What the heck is he doing?” And little by little I started to run out of room. … I threw 75 percent away, because I had no room to put the egg whites in! Then I baked it, and it came out like a brick. It was so hard, and my grandmother saw it, so she took a bottle of rum, poured it in a bowl, put sugar in it, and put it over the cake and glazed it, and we had the birthday cake for Sunday lunch. My sister and I fell asleep because we ate a cake that was soaked in pure rum.
What trends do you see coming in 2013?
What I see for ourselves and for me is that vegetables [will] take a more important stance on the menu. We started already with Spago in Los Angeles. We have side orders of vegetables, and people have them in the center on stands made out of cast iron and the plate is on top, so people can share it, and it makes it more interactive to have really nice, well-prepared vegetables.
Some vegetables are minimally prepared, but some are more elaborate, like a corn dish we do in the summer: We make a puree of corn, we also sauté corn to caramelize it, and [we] make corn wafers. So we have three different versions of corn.
Speaking of vegetables, what’s your least favorite?
Probably cauliflower. It reminds me of when my grandmother used to overcook it all the time, and the smell in the kitchen! I still remember that smell.
What is your go-to comfort food?
Wiener schnitzel for me is real comfort food, more so than anything because I grew up with it, but it’s also easy and fast to prepare. Generally we make it with veal, but we [also] make it with chicken breast or pork. You pound it, not too thin—if it’s too thin, it dries out. You need at least one-third or half-inch thickness. Then season it with salt and pepper, and put it in flour [and add] eggs. Break the eggs, but don’t scramble them too much; just separate them a little. Throw in some fine bread crumbs, and [put everything in a] pan with a little oil and sauté.
Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day—except for me! I rarely eat at breakfast, but my kids eat. I get up with the kids at 7, I make oatmeal or sometimes pancakes or waffles, cereal or fruit. I have a double espresso with a little milk, then another double espresso with a little milk, and some fresh-squeezed orange juice. I don’t really sit down, so it’s not that important—though I tell my kids it’s important.
Are your kids adventurous eaters?
The little one, Alexander, is not adventurous. Everything [is] plain—plain pizza, plain pasta, rice. … And then Oliver is the opposite. We’ll go to the restaurant—both of them love Wiener schnitzel, [but] I ordered a whole grilled fish. My son was eating the Wiener schnitzel and the risotto, and says, “Papa, can I try your fish? It looks so good!” So I gave him a piece, and he says, “Mmm! It’s really delicious! Next time I’m going to have the fish!”
When he went to school, the year before kindergarten, I used to give him the Chinois lobster, which was lobster on a bed of rice with a ginger curry sauce. And so all the teachers during lunchtime used to say, “Oliver, what’s for lunch today?”
When you first opened Spago here, were most of the customers from Los Angeles?
A lot of initial clientele were all the people from here, like Steve Wynn used tocome over with [then-wife] Elaine and friends for dinner, and the Molaskys and Larry Ruvo, and some of the doctors, so we had great local clientele. EveryFriday night it was like their local hangout. And then when we started to come [for] the fights, that’s when I came with Jack Nicholson and Tony Danza, Arnold Schwarzenegger. All these guys liked the fights.
How has the clientele evolved?
The clientele in Las Vegas—everywhere—has evolved totally. Twenty-five years ago, when I used to come here for the fights, you never knew where to go to eat. Now it’s the opposite; you don’t know where to go to eat because there are so many choices. So before I used to ask the limo driver, “Where do you eat off the Strip?” and they’d say, “Oh you have to go to this place it’s fantastic!” and you go there and it’s terrible. Now it’s fantastic; you have so many great restaurants, places to go, you could stay two weeks and have a [more] choices than in LA.
Where do you eat when you’re here?
I spend very little time here, so if I don’t go to our restaurants, I like Paul Bartolotta [Ristorante Di Mare at Wynn], because I love fish the most.