Chef Wolfgang Puck

One of the most famous chefs in the world, whose innovations have come to define modern American cooking, offers tips for losing weight and feeling energetic.

Chef Wolfgang Puck learned to cook from his mother in his native Austria and went on to become a driving force behind the popularity of California cuisine. Since opening his flagship restaurant, Spago, on Hollywood's Sunset Strip, he's built an empire that encompasses fine dining, catering and franchising/licensing. Puck began his formal training at age 14 and worked as a young chef in some of France's greatest restaurants. At age 24, he took the advice of a friend and left Europe for the U.S. In 2013, he was inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame. He's written several cookbooks, including Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy, in which he shares his classic recipes made healthy.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with Wolfgang Puck, the master chef and entrepreneur whose innovations have come to define modern American cooking. His empire includes a sublime Spago here in Los Angeles as well as some 100 other restaurants around the world.

A best-selling author of cookbooks, his latest is called “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy: Light, Delicious Recipes and Easy Exercises for a Better Life.”

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with master chef and best-selling author, Wolfgang Puck, coming up right now.

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Announcer: The California Endowment. Health happens in neighborhoods. Learn more.

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Tavis: You would expect that master chef, Wolfgang Puck, would have won every major award in the culinary world which, in fact, he has, including being inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame.

But he’s also an Emmy winner, a best-selling author six times over, in fact. His latest text, his seventh, is called “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy: Light, Delicious Recipes and Easy Exercises for a Better Life.” That’s a heck of a combination.

Wolfgang Puck: I know. You know what? We have to eat well and exercise especially if you get old like me. If you’re young like you…

Tavis: Oh, please [laugh].

Puck: You can eat what you want probably and not…

Tavis: Not hardly. But I was fascinated when I got into the book. We’ll talk about the recipes in a second. But as I flipped through the book and went right to the back, I thought it was so cool that you included some of your…

Puck: The exercises I do.

Tavis: Jonathan, can you see this? Included in there is what you can eat healthy and he shows you his exercise regimen. That’s one picture. I’m going to show you another one I love, though. But this one I really love of you and your son working out with you. Yeah, here’s his son [laugh] working out with him.

Puck: Yeah. And at the end, there’s another picture of the whole family.

Tavis: Your whole family, yeah. But it’s cool. So you really want people to take this whole healthy thing seriously.

Puck: Exactly. I want people to eat a little bit with their head too. So when they go shopping, for example, I have two small children at home. I mean, they’re seven and eight. But, you know, we go to the farmers market. We buy really good things and then cook them simple.

You know, like we steam vegetables, grill vegetables. We always have a little fish or some meat. They eat also hamburgers and everything, but everything in moderation. So you don’t eat fried chicken and the next day a hamburger and the next day this.

So I think it’s really important that we teach the children already how to eat better and obviously for us, you know, like portion sizes. You know, America has these huge portion sizes. When people come from Europe and I give them one of our steaks, they said, “I wanted the steak for one, not for two.” [Laugh]

It’s such big portions, which is not really necessary, you know, especially at 10:00 at night. And I tell everybody, you know, you should eat just enough that, when you go home, you can make love and not fall asleep [laugh].

Tavis: The problem with doing that after you leave Spago, – which I’ve done any number of times, go to dinner – the problem with that is that, even when you go, you know, small portion sizes, your stuff tastes so good, you want to order another round.

And that’s the problem I get into. The portion size is right. It’s like I think I’ll have one more order in that ’cause it just…

Puck: Yeah. No, no, no. But I think a lot of people just overdo it, you know. And once in a while you splurge, it’s good, but I think if you’re at home or if you go to a little restaurant or something like that, be careful because at night especially – you know, we are supposed to eat during the morning or during the day when we do exercise, when we are active and everything.

Most of the people eat the big meal at night. So like when I go to a restaurant, Cut, for example, I order a lot of appetizers and then, with my wife, we share a steak for two and we are perfectly fine.

Tavis: So I’m glad you said that. You actually go out to eat to other places?

Puck: I go out to other places too. I have a friend of mine, Nobu Matsuhisa, who owns Matsuhisa down on La Cienega, and also Valentino. I’ll go to Angelinis. I go out a little bit where it gets friendly.

Most of the time now, we end up at the Bel-Air Hotel. Why? Because it’s our restaurant for once, but also it’s very kids-friendly. The kids can run around. You know, they have the beautiful grounds and everything, so it’s a lot of fun.

Tavis: Since you raised that, how is the industry overall responding to the fact that there is this demand for kid-friendly environments? I mean, I look at the way Las Vegas has changed over the years in such a more kid-friendly town. Is the same demand being placed now on the restaurant industry?

Puck: Well, I really believe that it’s the parents’ job to take the kids out and teach them how to act.

You know, if you come with some business people or your wife or somebody, you come for dinner and then, next to you, you have some rowdy kids that might spoil your evening. But if you see the kids properly dressed, they eat, they talk, they have a good time, you’re gonna say, “God, what a nice family.”

So often I see people in our restaurant where the parents let the kids run through the restaurant and they run into the waiter as they have hot food or tray of glasses, so it can be dangerous.

But I’m really all for it to teach the kids early how to eat well. You know, if you eat a good pasta, a good pizza maybe, a piece of fish and a salad, so it’s really important.

Tavis: So this is the big question because this book is somewhat dense. But how did you go about the process of deciding the foods, the recipes, to put in this particular book?

Puck: Well, about seven years ago or eight years ago, I started to have problems skiing; I started to have problems playing. And I said what am I gonna do when I’m 65 years old? I’m gonna be an old man at home and certainly I have young kids. I cannot do that [laugh].

So I said, you know what? I’m gonna have to change my lifestyle a little bit, the way I eat and the way I exercise. Before, I used to go up the hill on Hillcrest or somewhere with my dog once a month and I said that’s the exercise, you know.

Tavis: Once a month [laugh]

Puck: Exactly, and I was very proud of myself.

Tavis: Right [laugh].

Puck: Then at Chinois down in Santa Monica, a guy, Chad Waterbury, who is in the book who helped me with the whole exercise program, says, “You know, you have to really exercise consistently. It doesn’t have to be an hour. Even if you do 20 or 10 minutes, it’s better than nothing.”

So he developed up an exercise program which I could follow which was easy at the beginning whereas now, seven years later, I’m in much better shape. I can do weights which are much higher than I did before or jump ropes instead of doing 30 seconds like when I started out. Now I can do five minutes.

Now I’m not gonna challenge Mayweather yet, but [laugh]…

Tavis: Yeah. Mayweather appreciates that [laugh]. With regard to the actual food in here, though, how was the book laid out in terms of categories?

Puck: So you have all appetizers, soups, hors d’oeuvres, breads, desserts, everything. Main courses, you know, fish, meat. So everything is really laid out and there’s also nutritional information. So you know if you’re on a low-sodium diet, for example, you say okay, I don’t got to put this sodium in it. I add something else.

But I wanted people to do is eat really healthy, eat well, but also delicious and tasty. So a lot of dishes like just the page where you have here which is an Asian salad, Chinese style steamed fish.

You’re gonna say steaming is boring, but you have that with ginger, garlic and chilies and green onions and a little soy sauce with some brown rice and it’s delicious. It’s one of the dishes our good friend Sidney Poitier orders all the time when he comes to Spago.

Tavis: This book is laid out in such – it’s just an aesthetic point. But it’s laid out in such a beautiful way. These photos are amazing. It makes you hungry just looking at them.

Puck: I know. Even when you eat, you know, you eat with your eyes first. So if it looks good, then you’re already happy. You say, oh, I can’t wait to taste it. So we always have to first impression is with our eyes and we smell it and then we taste it. And to me, if you buy good ingredients and cook them right, they look good.

You know, even if you make steamed beans and asparagus and broccoli, if you just cook them right, they will have a beautiful color, they’re crunchy. If you overcook them, they are mushy. My seven-year-old, if I overcook the broccoli and it gets mushy, he sends it back [laugh].

Tavis: Send it back to the chef [laugh]!

Puck: Send it back to the chef, yeah, exactly.

Tavis: You trained your seven-year-old. I kind of feel sorry for any chef at any restaurant who has to feed your kids. When they walk in, they know what they want, I guess.

Puck: Exactly. My eight-year-old one loves white truffles. We go to an Italian restaurant, like they have a pasta, and he’s like, “Can I have mine with white truffles?”

Tavis: And he’s eight.

Puck: Yeah, and an expensive kid [laugh].

Tavis: I see. Since you mentioned Sidney Poitier, this happened, I think, the very first time, years ago. I’ve been just honored and blessed in my life to be a friend of his as you are.

I think the very first time I wanted to come to Spago, the old Spago, it was a special occasion I was celebrating with some friends. I wanted to go to Spago. I knew I had no juice to get into Spago to get a great table, etc., etc. Somehow, Mr. Poitier told me the story of how the two of you met years ago.

And I think, if my memory serves me correctly, on this particular occasion, I actually picked up the phone, called Mr. Poitier and asked him could he help me get into Spago on a particular night.

He made a phone call, of course. 10 minutes later, I’m at Spago. So we got a nice table and had a great time, as I recall. But the story of how the two of you met that he told me, such a great story.

Puck: Yeah. You know what? I was this young chef in the south of France in Les Baux in a restaurant called Baumaniere, one of the great restaurants. I mean, the owner there was 73 years old. He had all this passion. He really was my example for the rest of my life because I modeled my career after this guy.

But one day, I see this beautiful blonde girl there and then this handsome African American man, and I just saw one of his movies. I forget which one, if it was “In the Heat of the Night” or one of these big, you know, great movies.

And we saw them there in Baumaniere and then we go to the swimming pool which we were not supposed to because we were employed, so they didn’t want to have the cooks hanging out with the guests.

So I went there and I started to talk to him and Joanna. And he says that he lives in Los Angeles and he told me the story where he came from, you know, from Cat Island…

Tavis: Cat Island, yeah, sure.

Puck: In the Bahamas and everything. So I got really interested. And then, fast forward, you know, at Ma Maison, he was having dinner with Billy Wilder one night. Billy Wilder is originally from Austria.

I got to see him and I see Sidney there. I said, “You probably don’t gonna remember me, but I met you at Baumaniere with Joanna.” Sure enough, he says, “Oh, no, no, no. I remember you.” He was a good actor. He’s a good actor [laugh].

Tavis: He acted like he remembered you [laugh].

Puck: We were like the best friends. And then, since then, we became friendly all the time. He always came back to the kitchen at Ma Maison, then at Spago. Obviously, we had the open kitchen, so we became really good friends to a point where now he is actually the godfather of my young children.

Tavis: It’s a great story.

Puck: And, you know, if there’s anybody in the world to look up to, it’s Sidney. I mean, he is a class apart. I mean, anybody who looks, hears him speak, the way he carries himself, if you want to be a man, I want to be Sidney Poitier. He doesn’t have to do nothing. All he has to do is be Sidney and everybody looks at him and says wow.

Tavis: He’s a rare example in this town, I think, of someone who is, when you get to know them, they are as advertised. So what you’ve heard about him and the roles you’ve seen him, he’s the authentic deal.

Puck: He is the real deal. He is what you see is what you get. And I told him one day, I did a favor for him, and he said, “What can I do for you one day? I would like to give something back to you.” I said, “You can speak at my funeral, but keep it short.” [Laugh] He’s the best speaker there is.

Tavis: He can do it, he can do it. So which leads me to this question. This is a town that, obviously, is chock full of celebrities and you do the Governor’s Ball every year. After the Academy Awards, you feed all the stars after they’ve starved themselves for days to fit in those dresses. You are the guy that feeds them when the ceremony is over.

How do you manage that? How do you own the restaurants that you own in this town and other places and put together a team that makes – your team does this with Tracey?

Puck: Tracey’s our manager.

Tavis: I love your Tracey.

Puck: She is amazing, yeah.

Tavis: Whenever I come in, she’s always so nice to me. But your team treats everybody that way.

Puck: Exactly.

Tavis: And everybody comes to have a food experience. They love the food, but it’s also the way that you treat people.

Puck: You know what? You’re so right because it’s a whole experience. If I give you the best food and the waiter or the manager or whatever is not nice to you, you say I gonna go someplace else to spend my money, you know. Who needs that?

So I think it’s a whole package and I tell everybody be in the hospitality business, which means we have to be hospitable to everybody. It doesn’t matter if they come from Iowa, from Missouri or from Beverly Hills or Manhattan, you know.

A lot of time, people make reservations two months ahead and have this expectation about coming to Spago or to Cut or to any of our restaurants. And then if we wouldn’t be nice to them, they will go home and be disappointed, you know.

Or if I would only go over because it’s Sidney Poitier and I’m gonna say hello to him, or Lionel Ritchie or Michael Douglas or somebody like that, they would say, well, Wolfgang didn’t come to me. So I always make a point to go to every table and welcome everybody.

Tavis: I see you walking around all the time, yeah.

Puck: So I think it’s really important that we treat people really special when they come to our restaurant, no matter what profession they are, no matter how famous or not famous they are.

Tavis: How do you manage all of this? It’s not just this book. It’s the other books, The New York Times best-selling books you’ve written, all the restaurants, the frozen pizzas, all the stuff that you’re into now. How do you manage all of that from a quality standpoint?

Puck: Well, I tell everybody in the restaurants, the first thing is we buy the best ingredients and then we try not to screw them up [laugh] really which means we have to train the people the technique to do it really right, to cook it the right way.

If it’s a simple chicken, but we have to sear it in a very hot pan to get the skin really crispy. Or if it’s the fish, we have to keep it lightly underdone. If not, it might get dried out.

So we have like a school where we train the people the right way. So that way, when we open a new restaurant somewhere, it’s easier because we have already the right people.

Like we just opened a few weeks ago in Dubai. Now I had the chef who is in Dubai now. He was the chef at the Bel-Air. He went there four months ago. The sous chef came from Cut. He went there three months ago. The manager, Andre – I’m sure you will remember him – he is there.

So I have a whole team there so they can assure that the quality is right and nobody gonna tell them can you buy some beef? It’s a little cheaper. We might make more money. I say no. First, we are for quality. You know, that’s what people expect from us. That’s what we have to deliver all the time.

Tavis: Let me shift gears somewhat here, delicately, I hope. What’s your sense – we just had a conversation on this program a couple of nights ago about this issue, this notion of organic and food that has been, you know, changed and transformed.

What do you come down on this notion of, again, people believing that organic is better and the whole conversation about how we’re going to eat our food in the coming months and years?

Puck: You know what? It would be – ideally speaking, you would like to have food which is not unaltered which has no pesticides on it, which was grown more natural with the natural fertilizers and things like that. But the truth is, it cannot happen everywhere.

You know, if you live in Kansas City or Nebraska, in the wintertime, where you gonna get the compost from? From Central Valley in California or from Florida. So they are transported far away. It’s farmed on factory farms. It’s not the quality really that we have here in California. We are lucky here. We have great, fresh ingredients all year round, but not everybody is that lucky.

But also, it’s a money issue. Organic vegetables tend to be really expensive in comparison to regular ones. You could go shop at Walmart or some of these stores and get broccoli or whatever for less than half the price what I buy at the farmers market. So you’re gonna say, well, how come? It comes directly from the farmer.

Well, it’s the small farmer who grows a little bit of this, a little bit of that. They bring it to town and we buy it and they know we’re in an opulent neighborhood. Probably they jack up the prices a little bit. And, you know, they should make their money because it’s hard work.

So, ideally speaking, and I tell people to eat fresh whenever you can. Organic is better or natural is better, but mainly eat less of the processed food. You know how you go through the aisles in the supermarket? People buy all this processed food. When you don’t know the ingredients which are in one dish, don’t buy them. That’s what I tell people now.

You know, you look at the loaf of bread. It stays soft all year long probably, but you don’t want it. It has no nutrition and then people get bigger and bigger and bigger and obesity is obviously a big problem because we don’t eat the right thing. And processed food, obviously, has more salt in it, has more fat in it, more sugar in it. So you gain weight very easy.

Tavis: To your point about the wealthy and the not so wealthy, say nothing of living in California because where is there greater economic disparity than in our state anyway, not something we’re proud of here in California. The gap between the rich and the rest of us is too wide.

But that said, too often there are books like these that are put out where even if you wanted to eat healthy, even if you wanted to do what Wolfgang Puck is suggesting you do, you ain’t never heard of half of these items. Nowhere in your neighborhood can you find them.

How do we put together books like these that are applicable to everybody where they can find the ingredients that you’re telling them to…?

Puck: Well, for example, fish. I could put fish in here which you never see in a supermarket. But my friends, other chefs, are gonna say, oh, that’s really cool. He has Dover sole or French du bois or all these ingredients you really can’t get in a regular supermarket.

So what I did with this book, all the ingredients which are in there, you can find in your local supermarket. Now sometimes you might have to look in the Asian section to get soy sauce or to get some sweet Tai chili sauce.

But once you get used to the flavors and everything, it’s really easy to find it. If not, ask the store manager. They generally tell you what they have because it’s their business to know what they have.

And I think the Asian section, they have a lot of different spices which a lot of people don’t use every day. But once you get used to a little spice, a little ginger maybe, you know, a little green onions, a little chili flakes to spice it up, not for the kids probably, but if you cook at home for yourself, spice it up a little bit.

Tavis: What’s your process for the stuff that you create? I mean, Spago, I guess not too long ago, kind of changed the menu. You kind of redid things and I was anxious to get there to see what was new and how it tasted. But what’s your process for creating new dishes? How do you do that?

Puck: Well, for example, I might go in the kitchen when I come back. In the car, I think about something and I tell Tetsu, who is the chef, I said, “Tetsu, let’s make something special. Let’s make it this way or that way.”

Like how can we cook, let’s say, a salmon better? So you can sauté it, grill it, whatever you want to do. So I said, “Why don’t we cook it really slow at like maybe 120 degrees which is way away from boiling, and then cook it for two minutes on a hot charcoal grill.”

So you get this tender salmon and then you don’t really need that much on it, you know. So it’s really for me to take what’s important and then the inventions, they come as you work.

If I go to farmers market, sometimes I dream about it. Many times I make it and I throw them away [laugh]. You know, it tasted good in my head, but it’s actually not that good [laugh]. So that’s why we have a big garbage can.

Tavis: So it’s just kind of trial and error?

Puck: It’s trial and error and sometimes it takes me a long time to make the dishes really work. Like when I started to make Peking style duck, I don’t know how many ducks I messed up like probably in the hundreds, you know.

I tried to get the skins crispy, that the meat is chewy and tender. Oh, my God. I had the ducks hanging in my sink. They fell off the rack because they started to get bad [laugh]. But now I have it perfect, but it took me months to do it right.

With bread, even. Right now, I’m working a lot on gluten-free. So we started to make a gluten-free bread and I started normally it’s cakey and boring tasting and a lot of people have celiac and things like so. So now I added flour from where my wife comes from, Ethiopia, teff flour. They use it for their Injera there.

I added that to gluten-free flour and then I added maybe some olives to it and I added maybe a little spice to it. And when I added some raisins and some dried fruits in it, so make different flavor. I said, you know what? I can eat gluten-free bread like that anytime.

And now we are making also gluten-free pizza dough. I haven’t perfected it yet. I tried one just before I came over. It was too thick a little bit, but the flavor was there already. So now I have to make it a thin crust.

Tavis: So you say you’re going back to work on your bread now.

Puck: I’m gonna go back to work on my pizza crust, yeah, the gluten-free one because I think it’s important to help people who have certain diseases who cannot tolerate gluten, you know, to give them something good to eat too.

Tavis: I want to let you go ’cause I don’t want to hold you up from your…

Puck: I have to serve dinner, yes [laugh].

Tavis: From your perfection. A funny story, though. I had recently – the director, Jon Favreau, was on this program recently…

Puck: Oh, yeah?

Tavis: And he was telling me when he was working on his movie, “Chef,” that he came to work out with you and you put him through the paces.

Puck: I know, I know…

Tavis: He said you cracked the whip a couple of times, yeah.

Puck: My big test is – with him was the same. They all talk a lot, you know. And then I said, “Okay, Jon, if you’re so smart, make me an omelet” and you could see he started to sweat [laugh]. It was at the Bel-Air Hotel. Finally I said okay.

He said, “You know what? Why you don’t show me?” And then I showed him slowly and everything and I gave him not a regular pan. I gave him a nonstick pan so it’s a little easier.

And you know what? He did a good job. I know he was spending time in the kitchen, so I said, “At least if he plays the chef, at least he should know a little bit.”

Tavis: Well, he told me you got him straight.

Puck: Yeah [laugh]. We had a good time with him. He was good. I didn’t see the movie yet.

Tavis: Well, he got Jon Favreau straight for his movie, “Chef.” Now he’s getting all the rest of us straight with a new book that all of  us…

Puck: I know. If Jon Favreau can cook, you guys can cook [laugh].

Tavis: The book from Wolfgang Puck is called “Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy: Light, Delicious Recipes and Easy Exercises for a Better Life.” I think you’ll enjoy it. Wolfgang Puck, I’ve enjoyed this conversation. Thank you for your time, sir.

Puck: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here since we are both from Indianapolis.

Tavis: That was the first place you cooked.

Puck: My first place I cooked.

Tavis: In Indiana.

Puck: And I have to tell you this story very fast. So I’m in Hawaii at this swimming pool. I swim up to the bar and I start talking and they ask me where are you from? I said, “I’m from Los Angeles.” And they said, “No, I meant before.”

I said, “Before? Indianapolis.” And they looked at me and said, “Oh, my God. I didn’t know they had such a thick accent in Indianapolis.” [Laugh]

Tavis: Yeah. Can anything good come out of Indiana? Yes! Wolfgang Puck and me, and a lot of basketball.

Puck: Yeah [laugh].

Tavis: There you go. Good to see you, Wolfgang.

Puck: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Announcer: The California Endowment. Health happens in neighborhoods. Learn more.

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 24, 2014 at 2:20 am