Speaker 1 All right, you know, it was a long time ago, I still remember Larry Forgione, who was really a very good friend of Jimmy, and called me one day after Jim died. And obviously I met him a few times before and he said, you know, we should preserve his house. He used to teach cooking classes there. That should be a monument to American cooking, really. And so then, Larry, one day called me up and says, Wolfgang, I think we should do some dinners at the James Beard house. And I said, oh, my God, what a great honor to cook in this icon's kitchen. So here I went then to New York and I remember we sold out and we bought some California wine and only the freshest ingredients, because even then, James Beard already knew that local and fresh ingredients are always better than imported ones. So I embarked with a few of my chefs and I remember we did that. Then we were cooking downstairs, bringing the food upstairs into the dining room. And that was really the beginning. We are chefs collaborated and really we the house, but also then everybody, every chef from all over the country was honored to come and cook at the James Beard house.

Speaker 2 And these guys, they want to be all right. Yeah, that's perfect. Perfect. OK, so also, even before that, the big winner, I think it's about. Oh, you did. Yeah. That was to actually raise the money to buy the house. So I think Larry called for that, too. Yeah.

Speaker 1 Now I know Larry was such a good friend of James Beard and he really was the driving force of preserving Jim's legacy, preserving his house. And so he called me up and says, can we do something in California? Can we do something in Texas? Ballboy Dome in New Orleans. And so all these chefs really got together and cooked in their own town dinners and raised money to buy their house to preserve their house. We do a little bit the kitchen. So I think it needed money. And, you know, James Beard didn't die as a Rockefeller. He wasn't that rich, but he had a beautiful townhouse.

Speaker 2 So tell us about the dinner, as you remember.

Speaker 1 Did you know when we did the first and then at Spago, I had people come who went to Jim's cooking class and the old timers. So they really talk to me about it more so than I know him. And I remember one lady, Joan. She came to me and says, you know, I love Jim because he had the best story. He was really a story teller. She said he was sitting next to a chef cooking and he was just telling about his youth, how he grew up in Portland, how he always used fresh things, even if it was a simple onion sandwich with a little mayonnaise and a little parsley. It didn't have to be something extravagant. But he really loved the local farmers. And for me, it was such a revelation because I grew up on a farm in Austria. So I said, you know, this guy is just like me, except he was a little bigger than me already. But if not, he loved the local staff. He loved to cook with local ingredients. And he always said, you know what, America has the best ingredients. We should use what we have here. We don't have to import anything. We have it right here.

Speaker 2 Tell us about that and why in that same spirit as she believes in American claims, it was trying to do something different?

Speaker 1 Well, when I became when I came to Los Angeles, I was their chef and partner at a restaurant called My Medicine, which at that time was still a more French restaurant. But after a while, I looked around what we have found. We have here in Southern California going to the Chino farm in Rancho Santa Fe. So I decided then we're going to use local ingredients. And just like the shrimps we have here, which could just come outside from the islands here, they are amazing. We don't have to import langoustines from France or from Scotland or Glasgow, wherever it is. We have everything here. And then when I opened Spago, it was really the first restaurant. And I remember I designed the menu. And what did I do on the menu? I said to me, I'm not French. We are not Italian, we are not Chinese. But we really represented Los Angeles, the culture of Los Angeles with local ingredients. So I wrote on a menu of Spago California cuisine and everybody said, what the heck is California cuisine? So I had to explain it to thousands of people. And that's what really cooking should be. You know, I grew up on a farm. We use local ingredients. And then when I opened my first restaurant, I went to the fish market. I knew the fishermen who brought their shrimp. So who brought the local lobster or who bought the local squid? I didn't even serve beef because I said there is no beef farms around Los Angeles. So we had a farmer who raised lamb and chicken and duck. That was about it. But I think for me that was really a stepping stone. And to have people who were that confident years and years before, like Jim and saying use local ingredients, they are better, as good as the best ingredients in the world gave me a lot of confidence.

Speaker 2 Such a coming after you. So when did you meet him first?

Speaker 1 I think when we first in I think the first time I met Jimmy was at the cooking class and I forgot if it was important because I went up there a few times or if it was in New York or something like that. So I got a little confused about that. But I said, maybe, you know what? At the Stanford Court in San Francisco, you are actually there, right? The first time I really met James Beard was at the Stanford Hotel, which I see because in San Francisco. And then the second time we really got to talk is when Cook's magazine or somebody came out with the Who is who in cooking in America. And I remember Jim was sitting there on a big chair and everybody came by to him and like, kissed his ring like it was the pope. And what was so great about him, nobody was intimidated by him. Nobody saw they had to compete with him or whatever because he did something different than what we do in the restaurant business. You know, he was a cooking teacher. He was really a prophet about American food and American cuisine and everything.

Speaker 2 All right. So, yes, you know, Jimmy did vaccines in the 20s. And then I know you were telling people who don't know what was so special about this.

Speaker 1 Well, I actually talked with him about me working at Maxim's. And I he and then I talked with him about me working at Maxim's in Paris. And then he said, oh, my God, I ate there. But I said, not when I was there because I just came a few years before to America. Now he's heading now. That was like 40 years ago or something like that. And so we talked about this store is how amazing the restaurant was, what it really was for me and for him coming from this country to eat in this super elegant restaurant where all the high society of Paris was there. And I think to me, it's still today. One of the great experiences I had, the way Jim talked about it, I think it really was a great experience for him, too, because it was a first class restaurant with great food and great service. So I learned a lot there. And I think that's probably ate a lot there.

Speaker 2 OK, great. You were also, I think, the first person to win the James Beard Award. Yeah. So tell us about that.

Speaker 1 Well, I think it was really an interesting time and really to keep the legacy of Jim alive. I think Gayle Greene and some people came together and says, we're going to give out an award for chefs, for young chefs or for sommelier or for best restaurants in America, a little bit like the Oscars of cooking. So I remember when I went to New York when they had the first presentation of the James Beard Award, and then I didn't even think I got a witness said they have so many chefs in New York and everywhere else. And here it was. All of a sudden they called up my name and I remember I was so excited to get it. We all went to Larry's restaurant, an American place. And I said, Larry, I cannot walk around with the medal. Let's hang it behind the bar. So I was hanging behind in Larry's restaurant for a year or two. And each time I came up there, you don't forget, this is mine. And then I actually was the only one so far who won it twice, I won the championship twice, which was really I think they might have forgotten that I won already or something. But, you know, I'm the only one in America so far who won the championship twice. And Speigel won for a restaurant of the year, which is a great honor. And I remember Shariat won for best pastry chef when she worked with us leave or won for best new chefs. So we got quite a cabinet full of trophies from James Beard. In America and that time, you know, in the sixties, fifties, up to seven days, really, there were not many chefs who were known nationally. You know, you had James Beard and you had Julia Child. This had to do I can about cooking in America. And they changed the way people cooked at home, really. So for me, it was a total. Now, I forgot what the question was exactly.

Speaker 2 What how how did James influence the chef as a household name?

Speaker 1 OK, ok. OK, OK. The chef. Yeah. You know, Champion was probably the first chef who really made our profession respected and made a chef a personality. Even he didn't do as much television, but he wrote books and he was in the newspapers and he wrote columns and everything. So he was really the first superstar chef without being a restaurant chef. But I think he had a national following. Everybody out there knew who James Beard was. So it took me many years to get to that point.

Speaker 2 Yeah. And now it's like everybody's got a brand, right? Yeah. Flak for endorsing. Yeah, baby,

Speaker 1 you know, that's James. James Beard was probably the first one who actually endorse products and people came up to him and, you know, he had a big appetite. He loved good wine and they subsidize his lifestyle. I would have done probably the same thing. And I feel people we are not happy and said, how can he endorse some of these products? He said. You know what? Orson Welles did it. A lot of other people did it. You know, they just did it in Japan or something else. Now, today, that has changed for me. For example, you know, we have our own products. I don't have to endorse other products. Now, people are confident to have a chef present his own products to own wine or frozen pizzas or Cancio. But really, the one who started it first was Jambin.

Wolfgang Puck
Interview Date:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
"Wolfgang Puck, James Beard: America's First Foodie." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 05 Apr. 2016,
(2016, April 05). Wolfgang Puck, James Beard: America's First Foodie. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET).
"Wolfgang Puck, James Beard: America's First Foodie." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). April 05, 2016. Accessed May 26, 2022


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