Legendary chef Wolfgang Puck has fed the world's superstars like no one else, thanks to his famed restaurants Spago and CUT in Beverly Hills, a portfolio of international eateries from Istanbul to London and the fact that since 1995 he has been the man in charge of creating the menu for VIPS and celebrities at The Academy Award's Governers Ball.
Over tea in Singapore, where he was attending the Epicurean Market at the Marina Bay Sands, home to his eateries including the one Michelin-starred steakhouse Cut by Wolfgang Puck, he told Fine Dining Lovers the fascinating back story to feeding the world's biggest stars and just how he became the go-to chef for such a prestigious event.
Once again, for 2020 he'll be overseeing the food for the Governors Ball after the awards ceremony on February 9th. Due to the vegan diet of most of the people attending the party, 60 to 70 percent of the dishes served during the dinner will be plant-based. A choice that responds to the rising attention from the actors' community on themes like sustainability and the attention to the climate crisis. A new challenge that chef Puck accepted with no troubles.
How did you break into feeding the world's most glamorous party?
I think the first time we did the Academy awards officially was like in 94-95 but I'd done it already before at Spago. The first year I opened Spago I never had an opening party, so we opened in January and then it was the Academy Awards and I did a little party. But everybody used to go to the famous talent agent Swifty Lazar's parties, all the famous real superstars went there. Swifty always used to come to Spago, so I told him, "why you don't do the Oscar party at Spago?" And he said "okay kiddo". "What's the deal? - I said - I give you the same deal as the Bistro Garden, except you're going to get good food". So naturally, I talked Moët et Chandon into giving me Dom Pérignon champagne, I talked to my caviar guy and said I want caviar at 25% instead of 100% of what you charge me. And then we had really good food! It became so famous, we had hundreds of people.
How has it changed?
The first year we did it was at the Shrine Auditorium, I was very friendly with Mike Ovitz who co-founded the artists' agency CAA. He said, "okay, if you're cooking, I'm going to bring in all of our guests, tell all the agents and their clients to come down". So then all of a sudden we had 1200 people at the party. So it started out and then it continued, continued. About 20 years ago we built Hollywood and Highland where the Oscars are now, we have two kitchens so now it's much easier. Before, we prepped all night at Spago and transported everything downtown, we had a kitchen in the parking lot. I remember one time I was making a grilled chicken breast with black truffle risotto. So I said it's easy to do, we'll make the risotto, but the kitchen was in the parking lot and it was rainy and windy and the wind blew and the gas went sideways instead of going straight up. Oh, it was hard! So now having the kitchen and everything, it's much better. I also have Eric Klein who is our catering chef, he is so well organized. They always want to do a tasting but I said don't worry about that, he will organize it and he's very talented, he's been with me for 25 years.
What about your famed smoked salmon pizza, is that served?
We actually make it a smoked salmon Oscar. So we make the dough, cut it out in the shape of the Oscar and then put a little a dill cream on it. We have also a mould for the salmon so we slice it really thin and then put it on top.
Now with all these incredible people there, did you ever get starstruck?
I think when Marlon Brando came, maybe. Oh goodness. I think, you know, I said, oh wow! Joan Collins, Warren Beatty. So many.
Do you miss that time to a certain extent, was it easier then? Pre social media, pre-internet, which is so ubiquitous now?
It's an evolution which happened gradually so it wasn't overnight. Now in a certain way, I'm still old fashioned. I love to read newspapers and magazines. I don't look for the news on my phone. We get three newspapers delivered to the house on Sunday. I still like to read the paper, it's like food in a way. You know, you like to touch it, you like to look at it and everything. I think it's an important part of it.
Do you have a rye smile now when you look back at how food has exploded in the last 15-20 years?
It's an amazing thing when you look back because now the young people forget, in the 80s when I opened Spago, goat's cheese was something totally new in America! Sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil, you couldn't get it! Salad was iceberg or romaine, so nothing was there. Young people, they come in, they have such a bounty of ingredients already available to them, so it's certainly much easier. I remember I had to drive to Chino Farm to get great tomatoes and strawberries and everything. Now we have a farmer's market in Santa Monica, which is amazing, you know? And it's interesting because the young people saw it always like that but forget that there was nothing, not too long ago.
What about how the role of chefs has changed?
I remember when I was in LA and I met a friend of mine, Nikki Lauda the Formula One driver. He was racing Formula 1 down in Long Beach. Afterwards we went to a club and I danced with a girl and she asked me, "what do you do?". I said, "I am a corporate chef". And she said "a cook?". As soon as the song was over, she left, left me on the dance floor. So after that, whenever I went out with a girl, I said: "I'm a race car driver!"