Celeb chef interview: Wolfgang Puck

After the opening of Cut in Dubai, we chat with the chef

Executive interviews, Dubai, Wolfgang
The Porterhouse steak
The Porterhouse steak
Tuna Tartare
Tuna Tartare

The man who cooks for the stars and rubs shoulders with royalty, Wolfgang Puck, tells Caterer about plans for his successful upscale brand, Cut, which has opened its first outlet in the Middle East, and the importance of staying relevant

When I visit what used to be the Chinese venue Hukama at The Address Downtown Dubai, it’s a flurry of activity — from the cacophony of drills in the front-of-house area, to the sizzle of the grill in the kitchen, with the phrase “yes, chef!” being regularly heard. I am told the venue is going to open in another four days; while there was a lot of work to be done, this is Dubai, where anything can happen (it did).

Amidst the raucous atmosphere stands Wolfgang Puck, celebrity chef and restaurateur, carrying plates of food that had to be photographed. He’s going to celebrate his 65th birthday next month — and he’s still going strong.

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Born in Austria in 1949, Puck runs restaurants and catering services, has written cookbooks, makes regular TV appearances, and tells me that he has already visited local Dubai institution Ravi’s which “was nice”.

He’s the official caterer for the Academy Awards Governors Ball, and has been for two decades. Puck grins and says: “We have been doing that for 20 years; it’s a long time and I have a great image.
It’s always great, the biggest party of Los Angeles and America, really. Celebrities come from all over the world. I remember, when I went to Monaco last summer, I saw [Prince] Albert and he said to me, ‘oh I remember the chicken pot pie, it was so delicious at the Academy Awards’, and we talked for a long time. To hear people talk [about the food] six months later and tell me to open a restaurant in Monaco... it’s good.”

But Puck has been careful about where he opens his restaurants. After entering the US, he ventured into London and Singapore, and has now made his presence known in this region.

An official announcement was made in 2013, and now Puck has finally opened his first restaurant in the Middle East at The Address Downtown Dubai. He’s not stopping there; having firmly put his foot in the door, Puck reveals: “We are looking at the potential of Bahrain at the Four Seasons. I think we will probably do more, maybe one day in Abu Dhabi, or Doha also.”

But this wasn’t his first brush with the region. Puck was invited, by the Royal Family no less, to open in the UAE eight years ago. Puck is refreshingly honest when he says he didn’t enter the market then because he “didn’t really like any of the properties” at the time.

However, over a year-and-a-half back, Puck ran into Haroun Siddiqui from Emaar Properties at his branch of Cut in London, who insisted he take a look at the UAE for opening prospects. Puck was not wholly convinced but visited Dubai in March 2013 anyway.

He says: “Last March I came over here, looked at the whole set-up and said this looks like a nice location, if they were willing to make it into a nice restaurant. Just to come in here and take over a Chinese restaurant won’t do; I wanted it to be really nice.”

Designer Tony Chi, who has previously worked with Puck’s restaurants, was hired to work on the design. Initially the plan was to open as early as October 2013, but May 2014 was finally decided as being feasible.

Puck is one who always gets involved in his new ventures, and has a specific “opening team” for this very reason. It consists of six people who “stay here to just set it up right and put everybody in place so they don’t start out on the wrong foot”.

He says he is very confident of leaving this team to organise minute details in his stead. Puck adds: “I have people who are in charge here; like Ray and his sous chef David, they have been with me for many years so they know my style, and they know what I want.”

Puck explains why the concept of Cut fit The Address Downtown Dubai. “If you are in an upscale hotel, they already have their coffee shop downstairs, where they do breakfast, lunch and dinner, so they don’t need us to do that. We should do what we do, and Cut is one of our main brands that we do in upscale.”

Puck has been loyal to the same meat purveyor for the last 35 years — Newport Meat — which also supplies to Dubai. Not only has the firm been supplying Puck, it planted the idea of Cut. He explains: “Often when we talked, they nudged me, and said ‘Wolfgang, you should open a steakhouse, you can do it so much better than these guys do’.”

Puck finally opened the restaurant nine years ago in Beverly Hills at the Beverly Wilshire, two blocks away from Spago, his first brand.

He says: “The Beverly Wilshire wanted us to put a restaurant [in there] and I didn’t know what to do. If I put something similar to Spago, if it’s less expensive, people will go there and Spago would be empty. We own Spago one hundred percent so I thought that would not be a good thing.”

He finally picked on a steak concept, and says: “We opened and it became hugely successful, with
all the celebrities coming in... everybody comes to Cut.”

Talking about his success, Puck says it's important to have great food in a fun environment, which is what Cut in Dubai will also deliver. “We are welcoming and warm with great food. It’s not a place where it’s great food but you feel like you have to dress up all the time. You can come in your jeans and shirt, and that’s fine.”

But how has Puck, who has been in this business for decades, been able to command a loyal following and stayed relevant in the quickly changing food industry? He says: “I really believe it’s an evolution; we don’t stand still. Two years ago I decided to shut down Spago, which has been open for many years, and said we are going to redo it completely, we’re going to redo the menu. Everybody asked why.

“You know, you cannot wait until you start going downhill; you have to change before that. Everything is just like life, it’s a cycle, you go up, until you get to a certain age, it evens out and then goes down.

“In restaurants it’s the same concept, especially these days. Everybody wants new, everybody wants something different. So we have to renew ourselves — which is good for me, I like change. Some people don’t like change, but I do.”

Puck, who also appears on TV, says he thinks many chefs take to the medium when their career is over.

He says: “They might be good on television but many don’t have a great foundation to build on and keep a restaurant successful for years. Some of them do, obviously. But a lot of them I find, surprisingly, are not really that good in the kitchen or they might have a good personality, and just look good on television.

“That is not my aim, I don’t want to be known as a TV chef. I just do a little bit, to stay in the picture so that people don’t say ‘Wolfgang is too old, he cannot do that anymore’.”

Continuing on the topic of foundation skills, Puck says: “I think the most important thing for young people, is that if they want to be chefs, they have to learn the profession. If you want to be a musician, you have to learn how to play the instrument, to read notes ... if you want to be a painter, you have to learn how to mix colours and perspective.”

He continues: “And I think today, often young chefs have no patience. So they want everything done in no time. With technology, you get everything so fast, so they think everything [is the same] but practice makes perfect. So if you make your first omelette, it won’t be as nice as your hundredth omelette.”

Cooking, Puck says, is all about loving your profession. It’s not about reviews, ratings, awards — but the customer.

He says: “I want to make customers happy and make money. I don’t want to be out there, and say I have three stars and then at the end lose money because it’s too expensive to operate. So for me, the stars are the customers who come, and come back. They are the most important.”

He continues: “I have friends who had three stars and they had to close their restaurant. It’s nice that Spago has two stars and Cut has one star, but it’s the customers who really matter.”

Puck says he used to be difficult sometimes in his younger days, but has since mellowed. “Before I used to have so many sleepless nights, and scream, and even yell at the customers. When I was young, a customer wanted a steak well-done and I said no, you have to be joking, I’m not cooking that. Now, it’s not my favourite way but if you like it, that is all that matters. So I became more reasonable,” he says with a grin.

Puck was inspired to enter the F&B industry by his mother, who was also a chef. If he hadn’t, he muses, he might have been an artist.

I point out that he is an artist already, and he says: “Cooking is similar to being an artist, you are so right. In pastry though, it’s like being an architect because you have to measure. As an architect you can go free form a little bit like Frank Gehry but you have to measure.”

And cooking is what he admittedly loves, and is always thinking of ways in which to innovate. As a sign of how he does not like standing still, he reveals: “I’m actually building an experimental kitchen in Los Angeles where we are going to have from wood-burning grills to wood-burning ovens, to modern equipment like centrifuges and Pacojets to see how we can mix traditional with modern, and come up with a better way to cook fish or meat.

“It’s totally separate from my current concepts; I can go there and hang out with some young chefs, see what they do and work with them. Because I think it’s always good to have young people around, they always come up with crazy ideas.”

He adds: “I still love food, I still like the kitchen the most. I also go out to say hello to the customers, which I feel is important because they are in my house. And people appreciate it.”

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