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Corner Office

Don’t call Wolfgang Puck a celebrity chef

Kai Ryssdal Dec 17, 2015
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You’ve probably heard the statistic that 90 percent of restaurants fail in the first year. That’s not true. It’s actually more like 60 percent in the first three yearsBut the sentiment still holds. It’s really hard to open a successful one and even harder to make one last. 

So how did an immigrant with no high school education, let alone a culinary school degree, become the most famous chef in America and build an empire worth over $400 million? It’s a harrowing story that involves poverty, abuse, child labor, a firing or two, an attempted suicide and huge heaping helpings of gumption, drive and stick-to-itiveness.

Wolfgang Puck is widely considered the first modern celebrity chef. But don’t say that to his face.

I hate the term celebrity chef. That’s not who I am. I don’t walk around in a Brioni suit. I don’t look out for the money first. I like to make projects as good as I can and hopefully we make money off of it.

And money off it he has made. Puck has an illustrious portfolio of 27 fine dining restaurants, more than 80 Wolfgang Puck Express locations, a line of cookware, six cookbooks, prepackaged foods and a catering business that handles the Oscars, the Emmys and the Governors Ball.

But it may be his influence on culture that has been his crowning achievement.

When we opened Spago (in 1982), we were the first restaurant with an open kitchen. I went to the farmers market, I went to the fish market. Before,  you had all these fancy restaurants that poured your seafood on an iceberg and some ketchup with horseradish and everything. That was the traditional thing, and maybe they cut a steak in front of you. But there was no imagination because it wasn’t a chef who ran the restaurant. It was some owner or a maître’ d or a director of the restaurant. So when I started Spago, and Paul Prudhomme started Portmanteau in New Orleans and with Alice Waters up in Berkeley, we were really the first chefs who controlled the destiny of the restaurant. We cooked whatever we felt like. Not what somebody told you. 

Spago also pioneered the gourmet pizza movement. And Puck’s cultural reach has spread far outside of the U.S., to restaurants from Bahrain to Istanbul to Dubai. Despite all his success, the 66-year-old continues to work six days a week in his Bel-Air Hotel restaurant and is on the road more than 100 days a year, checking in on his businesses. 

When you love what you do and you have passion for what you do it’s easy. My wife said, ‘You should slow down,’ and I said, what am I going to do then? I always tell people I’m only at the beginning. The beginning was all right so far.

 Production by Tommy Andres

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