At 71, the chef has no plans to retire, ever.
By Wolfgang Puck as told to Andy Wang
Wolfgang Puck, the iconic chef behind Spago in Beverly Hills, will soon open Merois and Ospero at the Pendry West Hollywood. The 71-year-old Puck’s catering company is the subject of a new HBO Max documentary series, The Event.
I’m an entrepreneur. I don’t mind taking risks. A lot of people ask me why I agreed to spend so much money on a new outdoor space at Spago. It’s like, I don’t gamble in Vegas, but I take risks with the restaurants.
We’ve just finished building this really big comfortable tent at Spago. It’s a beautiful extension of our patio. We know some of our customers love the patio. The younger people are more inclined to eat outside.
Our investment was $350,000. We have a lounge in the tent. We’re going to have air conditioning and heating, so you don’t have to sit underneath a heater anymore. It’s going to be more like a regular restaurant. I’m excited about it because I think it’s really going to feel like how we should actually build restaurants in the future, especially in California. We can build gardens with a retractable roof and not make all these walls and foundations. We can keep it simple because people in California like to sit outside anyway.
The tent is made so we can adjust the size. We want to create more demand than there is availability. We can put 65 seats or 90 seats out there.
During the winter, Spago was not as busy as before the pandemic, but people spent more money. We could spend more time with the customers. And I think the service and food came out better. Overall, I think it was a better experience for the employees and for the guests.
During the pandemic, we’ve also done takeout at Spago, like Sunday night fried chicken that was by far the busiest night. We had never done fried chicken before. It was an interesting experience to see what people liked. So you always learn something through these problems. And you find out what you can do.
It’s important to do things like this and keep people working. It’s one thing if you get unemployment. But it’s a different feeling if you go to work and you’re productive instead of sitting at home. Being in the restaurant with your friends and working is important. I think that emotional intelligence is such a big part of our well-being.
We’re also opening restaurants at the Pendry West Hollywood. The rooftop restaurant is called Merois, and it’s my version of an Asian restaurant, like Chinatown and Little Tokyo and Koreatown are all close together. I cook the way I feel. I don’t want to be a traditionalist. For example, Hiroyuki Fujino, our sushi chef, is coming up. For the Oscars, we made all this amazing vegetarian sushi.
Merois is on the 11th floor, so it has amazing views. You can see downtown and all the way to the ocean. We can see how big LA really is. Maybe I can see Koreatown and Chinatown and get even more inspired by that.
Ospero, on the ground floor, is in between a French bakery and a trattoria. We’re going to have pastries and salads and pizza. It’s really a restaurant that’s going to be open all day, and you can come in and hang out and work on your computer and have a nice lunch. Or you can use it for takeout.
My son Byron will manage the restaurants at the Pendry, and I hope he will run our entire business one day. But that doesn’t mean I have to retire. What would I do? I love walking through a restaurant and seeing people having a great time and hearing them say that they’re so happy. If I got to write my ending, I would say, you know what, I would like to die in the kitchen because this is the place I love.
I always talk about tradition and innovation. I think curiosity is such an important part of life. The reason so many restaurants that did really well in the 80s and 90s are now gone is that they never changed. There’s a reason we’re still around. It’s important to respect the past and keep dishes like the lobster at Chinois and the wienerschnitzel at Spago, but we have to constantly change and innovate. That’s why we have a test kitchen next to my office.
I don’t ever go to one of my restaurants thinking that it’s only me who knows how to cook. Everyone has ideas. It’s like when you develop a new song. The drummer might say something. The guitar player might say something.
If there are more people combining and bringing great ideas together, you have a better chance of being successful. I think the whole thing in the kitchen is that I want people to feel good and feel proud. If they have a great idea, I’m very happy. I think it’s a collaboration. It’s a democracy and not a dictatorship. It’s not like when I worked in France where nobody had any say except for the chef, and things stayed the same.
The most important thing is that younger people look at the world differently. They act differently. I talk to Byron about how he goes out with his friends, and they might go to a bar and have a cocktail and then have a few appetizers. And then they might meet some other friends at another place, eat there a little, and then maybe go someplace else after that. I would have never done that.
The young kids like to share food. They want to share the experience. And I think that’s a really great thing because going to a restaurant is about the experience. It’s about how restaurants make you feel. If you can share something with your friends, there’s nothing better than that.
Byron also has done things in the test kitchen where I’ve said, “Wow, this is really interesting.” Like when you have the evaporator, and you evaporate fruit juice and give it a really strong flavor and more concentration without losing the original flavor, and then add that to your dessert or your sauce. It’s really an interesting idea.
At the end, the food has to be delicious. I don’t care how complicated it is. You don’t do it just to say you have this new technique. It’s not worth it if it doesn’t taste really good. So we have to find a way, especially in a lot of this modernist cuisine, to make it taste good.
Nathan Myhrvold is this amazing technician and engineer, but he found out the best way to do chicken is to cook it really slow. And you know what, it’s not my favorite style of chicken. So obviously, it’s personal too.
It’s the same thing with El Bulli. I had dinner there. And then when I was home, I thought about what I would like to do in our restaurant based on that. I haven’t found one dish yet. The whole experience was amazing, but it’s more than just the food there. You can’t just do three dishes like that.
I want our food to be our style. My work is my passion. It’s what I love to do. Somebody else might play golf or play tennis or play cards. For me, it’s a restaurant. Even when I go on vacation, I want to go back to work after a while. I think it’s really an important part for me, the interaction with the staff. Making money and doing what I love to do at the same time is the perfect scenario.
I get up in the morning and I’m excited. There’s so many things to do and so many things I haven’t done yet and so many things to learn. So I don’t want to retire, ever. I feel like having a purpose is important. Once you don’t have a purpose and the brain starts to fade away, you might as well die. Working and doing what you love keeps you young.