A chef is like a fighter. Both have to train long and hard as well as be smart and adaptable. Whether launching a restaurant or walking into a ring, each one inevitably takes some blows but then finds a way to endure.
In this corner…Wolfgang Puck.
Born in a small town in Austria, the son of a woman who was herself a fabulous chef, he formally set out on an epicurean career path when he was a teenager. Puck went on to train in the kitchens of some of France’s most venerable restaurants, including L’Oustau de Baumanière in Les Baux de Provence and Maxim’s in Paris. He came to America at the age of 24 – during a time when people were into discovering new foods. In 1982, less than 10 years after he’d arrived, Puck opened his first restaurant, Spago, on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood.
“When we started, you could come in and have pizza and a glass of wine – and next to you might be someone who was drinking a bottle of champagne and eating Beluga caviar, but you didn’t feel out of place,” said Puck, who had just begun to hone his signature combination of California-based haute cuisine in an elegant yet playful dining atmosphere. “The restaurant was relaxing. It was fun. I’ve always said the only thing that should be serious is on the plate.”
Now jump ahead a decade to a different city – Las Vegas. In the spring of 1992, The Forum Shops at Caesars debuted, setting a new bar for luxury shopping on the Strip. Puck, who is an avid boxing fan, was already coming regularly to the fast-growing desert destination to see the big bouts. One of his friends and a loyal customer, Sheldon Gordon, happened to be among the developers of that high-end retail complex and implored him to break ground on a Spago there.
“He told me he was filling space. I didn’t really want to do it the beginning,” recalled Puck. “I said, ‘In Vegas everyone is a gambler and they get everything comped. Why should they come to my restaurant?’”
Eventually Puck was persuaded and on Dec. 11, he unveiled what would, figuratively speaking, launch a thousand restaurants and prompt Las Vegas’ transformation into a world-class dining city. But Spago wasn’t initially a knockout here.
“The first three weeks were terrible. We had almost no customers,” said Puck, noting that the big event in town was the National Finals Rodeo. “You had all these cowboys around in boots and hats. Our kitchen was open, so people would walk right up to the counter, take a plate and ask, ‘What do you have, sir – a burger or ribs?’ That lasted a few weeks, and I had to drink a bottle of red wine every night just to fall asleep. I thought we made a big mistake coming to Vegas.”
A booming New Year’s celebration made way for a busy January. Some of the months that followed were slow – especially in summer – but Puck mostly saw business pick up. And then a wonderful thing happened: Spago became a popular hangout among locals. A seat on the faux patio under the domed ceiling of the upscale mall’s simulated sky was a coveted place to see and be seen. Plus, people like casino mogul Steve Wynn were being spotted having dinner in the restaurant.
As time passed, Puck was courted by executives from MGM Resorts International who were looking to fill a spot in Mandalay Bay, and so his first Italian-focused restaurant, Lupo by Wolfgang Puck, opened there in 1999. That same year, he also launched Postrio Bar & Grill, known for blending California cuisine with Asian and Mediterranean influences, in The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. At MGM Grand, Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill began attracting visitors with its contemporary menu in 2004. This was followed by the chic steakhouse CUT in The Shoppes at The Palazzo, which debuted in 2007. Most recently, in 2010, Puck introduced Wolfgang Puck Pizzeria & Cucina, perfect for anyone hankering for his wood oven-baked pizzas, inside Crystals at CityCenter.
Thus, with Spago as the foundation, he amassed a collection of winning restaurants here over the past two decades, much the way a champion boxer does titles and belts.
“It’s amazing,” said the ever-gracious Puck. “Twenty years in Las Vegas is like 200 years in Europe.”
Throughout his career, he has refused to be pinned down. Although Puck admitted he’ll forever enjoy “a good pizza,” he’s known for mixing up his menus as well as the décor elements at his eateries. As a result, what guests are experiencing today might be completely different tomorrow.
“Change is difficult because the old customers get nervous. They don’t know what to eat,” said Puck.
He laughed about seeing actress Joan Collins in a pickle recently. She was overwhelmed after surveying the new menu at his flagship Spago, which had moved from West Hollywood to Beverly Hills in 1997. To calm her, he offered to make a chicken dish that she’d ordered frequently in the past.
“But if you don’t change,” continued Puck, “then you go the other way. If a restaurant does one thing for so many years, the place doesn’t go up – it goes down. After a while, the customer count starts to decline, too, because there’s no new adventure.”
Indeed, modernizing with the times is important in the restaurant industry. Puck has been adept at navigating those waters. Yet even though he has accomplished so much, like being presented with the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award early this year, he still wants to get better.
“I told them it’s way too early,” explained Puck, who is far from entering any final round in his beloved profession. “I said that they’ve given it to me at the beginning of my career, so they must know something I don’t.”
In fact, Puck is still expanding his reach. Although no new restaurants are in the works for Las Vegas, he recently opened a CUT in central London (his first dining venue in Europe), and he aspires to have a restaurant in Paris, where he once lived. Puck also foresees eateries spread across the Middle East – in places like Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain and Doha in Qatar.
“I don’t want to be on a ship that just sails into the sunset. I want to be on one that visits every place out there. While I’m still doing what I love to do, I don’t want to be boring. I want to change,” said Puck, who believes diners’ palates have grown a lot and that today they are much more eager to try different things. “I don’t want people to go to Spago and completely know what they’re going to eat. I want them to look at the menu and say, ‘Wow. I never tried that!’”
While some things have changed, fans of Spago will have an opportunity to celebrate the restaurant’s milestone and savor favorite dishes from the past. A special 20th anniversary menu has been compiled, and it will be available from Dec. 10 – 20. Among the 28 items being brought back are smoked salmon pizza, house-smoked sturgeon, chopped vegetable salad, wild mushroom risotto, white corn agnolotti, Cantonese-style roasted duck and Kaiserschmarrn (a traditional Austrian dessert) with strawberry sauce. On Dec. 11, Puck will even be cooking in the kitchen as well as greeting guests and taking photos.
He’s also thrilled to come to town then because he’ll be able to catch a major boxing match. The fourth encounter between Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez is set to go down on Dec. 8 in the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“Oh, I still love the fights,” said Puck, in regards to what he is passionate about outside the kitchen.
And pound for pound, everyone in Las Vegas would surely agree that, in the culinary arena, Puck is the greatest heavyweight of all time.