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Top Chef

by Peter Proko; Photo by Paul Pugliese
Wolfgang Puck dishes on food, South Jersey and longevity.

Early three decades ago, Wolfgang Puck emerged to take the dining scene in this country by storm. With refined techniques, a passion for good ingredients, and an endearing personality, Puck helped transform the way Americans look at food. Since opening his first restaurant in 1982, Puck has gone on to build a culinary empire that incorporates 22 fine dining restaurants, including Wolfgang Puck American Grille at The Borgata in Atlantic City. He also runs several more casual eateries and a catering outfit which is now responsible for the bites at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center. And more recently, the man many would consider to be the first celebrity chef partnered with Campbell Soup to launch a new line of Italian sauces destined for supermarket shelves. We spoke with Puck as he was gearing up for a relaxing Thanksgiving at his home in Los Angeles to find out more about the new line, his approach to food and why his old boss would love to be hired by him.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: Can you tell me about the new partnership with Campbell’s and the inspiration behind the new line of sauces?
WOLFGANG PUCK: I started the soups 15 years ago and we always had problems getting shelf space and distribution, so we partnered with Campbell’s [in 2008]. It’s a perfect marriage; they have money, distribution and I have the taste and know what kind of soup I want. We started the sauce business the same way. They are perfect for two to four people, whether you’re making pasta or chicken parmesan, or the meatballs you like in Jersey.

SJM: Every year you appear at the Savor Borgata event in Atlantic City. Do you like it when you get those opportunities to interact with the public?
WP: We had a great time; it’s a great event and fantastic for the people to come by and sample the food. You think, it’s a casino, it’s only for gambling, but you go there and you can get great food.

SJM: And you had plenty of people stopping by wanting to say hello.
WP: We had a line for three-and-a-half hours!

SJM: Did you enjoy catching up with the restaurant staff while you were in town?
WP: We have a very good chef, he’s been with me for many years and is doing a terrific job over there. Our business is growing every year, even though gaming is down. We have a lot of regular diners … we don’t depend on the casino, we depend on the community. We take care of the locals first, then the tourists. They spread the word.

SJM: In less than 10 years after moving to Los Angeles, you found instant success with your first restaurant, Spago. Did you expect such great things at an early age?
WP: When I opened Spago in 1982, I wanted it to be a neighborhood restaurant. In the restaurant I worked before, everyone was going home at 10-10:30 [at night]. I wanted a place where people could come have a pizza, a glass of wine, dessert and just hang out. Everyone from Hollywood came, we got so busy, so fast. It was gratifying.

SJM: Did people think you were crazy for going out on your own?
WP: When I left Ma Maison, the owner had a staff meeting and told them “Wolfgang will be back begging for a job in three months.” Then we opened and basically put him out of business.

SJM: Well, you certainly proved him wrong.
WP: The funny thing is, about eight years ago, he came to me and asked for a job.

SJM: How has the culinary world changed since you first started?
WP: I think because of all this [media coverage], cooking has now become a great profession to Americans at large. Today, when kids watch Iron Chef and these competitions, now they want to be a chef instead of lawyers and doctors. We are getting much brighter kids in the profession.
America has made more progress in the past 30 years in food and wine than any other country. Almost every restaurant now has a sommelier. Thirty years ago, there were maybe 10 in all of the United States.

SJM: You talk about cooking with such passion. Who inspired you?
WP: As a child, I had an apprenticeship when I was at Oustau de Baumanier with Raymond Thuillier. He was the first guy who made me say, “Wow, I want to be like him,” and I was going to do whatever it took.

SJM: Now that you’ve achieved a level of success, do you pass along similar lessons?
WP: When I look at how many young chefs that worked with me and are now very successful, it’s amazing. How we teach others, it’s the biggest legacy we can leave. Not only to cook, but to manage and learn to be responsible.

SJM: I know you’re a big music fan, with favorites ranging from classic rock to Jay-Z. Does music inspire you in the kitchen?
WP: I like it when it’s calm and serene and zen-like in the kitchen; I have to concentrate. I like music in the dining room, but not in the kitchen.

SJM: Do you feel that your longevity validates you career?
WP: To me, that’s really the most important thing. Look at how many people open and close restaurants. But the people who stay in business for many years, that’s the best way to demonstrate you are doing the right thing as a chef.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 9 (December, 2011).
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