Photo by Antonio Diaz

Exit Interview With Spago’s Eric Klein

The executive chef’s impending departure from the restaurant is at once exhilarating and bittersweet.

On September 1, Wolfgang Puck shocked the local restaurant world by announcing that Eric Klein will be leaving the executive chef position at Spago, which he has held for nearly 10 years. The chef was approached by Puck to move into a new, as-yet-undefined position within the organization, where he’s spent 16 of the last 20 years. “Wolfgang approached me and said, ‘Hey, listen, I want you to do more in the company. You’re doing a great job for us.’ But they wanted me to do more of an executive role,” Klein says. Klein’s final day will be September 14, following the fourth Sip & Savor dinner to benefit Keep Memory Alive.

Will you have to wear a tie in your new position?

No, I don’t think I’ll ever wear a tie. My wife always asks me to wear a tie. But at the end of the day, in my heart, I’m a cook. So I don’t think I’ll ever remove my chef’s jacket.

Will you stay in Las Vegas?

It’s still up in the air.

Are you excited?

It’s exciting, but it’s sad in another way, because it’s like a child, this restaurant. I’m the second executive chef of this restaurant in 24 years. That’s pretty impressive, I think. Wolf gave me the reins of this restaurant, to be its public face. I’ve built the customer [base]. When people come in, the locals, they say, “We’re not coming to the restaurant, we’re coming to see you.” That’s great. Because I’ve done something — not for myself — but for the customers. I’ve done it for the guests, making them feel like they’re part of the family. So I’m happy, but I’m torn, because of all those local customers. We’ve made memories together.

What was your first impression of this room?

The first time I came to Vegas, I came here and I walked by. I’d met [chef] David Robbins in L.A. But when I came to Vegas I thought, “OK, this is a little different. It’s not up on a hill.” And I tried to understand the concept of a casino and being in a mall, when in L.A. everything is stand-alone. But the first meal I ever had here was much later. We came for a party and I was sitting at a table in the back corner, because I didn’t want to make a big fuss. And I thought, “This is a great room.” How could I have believed that a couple of years later, I would be the chef of this restaurant? It’s amazing where life and its adventures take you.

What’s the standout moment of all your years here?

I have to be careful, because I’m a little bit emotional about this; I have so many memories. It’s not about one, it’s about the total of everything. It’s about watching somebody propose, or watching somebody get married. And then they come in every year after that. Being a part of that—having somebody come in and say, “Eric cook us whatever you want, we’re not even looking at the menu.” Having movie stars such as Jennifer Lopez text me and say, “I’ll be there in a half hour. What do you think I should have today?” Or to have Eva Longoria do the same thing, or Bette Midler, who tells me I’m her favorite chef. There are so many memories. This is what makes it priceless for me. And I want to make sure people understand that I may be part of a vehicle to make memories for them, but I appreciate it [as well]. It’s just beautiful when you see all these people enjoying it.

I also do a lot of charity work. Every year I do Make-A-Wish, and we have children come in. And you make a difference in their lives. You make a difference for their parents. You make them feel unique. A smile on a child’s face is priceless.

What have you learned about Las Vegas during your time here?

Vegas is an interesting place. It’s a city that never sleeps, but it’s also a community where people live, enjoy their lives, raise children and are part of the community. It’s a great city, a big city with a small-village mentality. Everybody knows each other. It’s fascinating.