Puck: It's Not Luck

Puck: It's Not Luck

SUCCESS: CUT's steak-centric menu and sleek interior have been a hit since opening last June.

SWEET ENDINGS: CUT pastry chef Sherry Yard wows 'em with stunning creations.


Google the name Wolfgang Puck, and you will find more than 1.8 million listings. Puck, who more than anyone defines "celebrity chef," also reinvented the formula for a great restaurant. He brought us the open kitchen and a new approach to pizzas. And his entry into the Las Vegas scene helped launch the city's reputation as a culinary destination. Now, he has opened two new restaurants. In June, he debuted the stunningly powerful CUT, created by international dean of design, Richard Meier, for the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills. A a few months later, he launched his first venture east, American Grille at The Borgata, an open, sophisticated brasserie created by one of today's most popular restaurant designers, Tony Chi. With Puck's hectic schedule, he still made time to be honorary co-chair of the Bon Appetit Culinary and Wine Focus at the Beverly Hilton to raise funds for Chefs for Humanity. The charismatic Puck recently spun a few tales for RH contributor Libby Platus.

Google the name Wolfgang Puck, and you will find more than 1.8 million listings. Puck, who more than anyone defines "celebrity chef," also reinvented the formula for a great restaurant. He brought us the open kitchen and a new approach to pizzas. And his entry into the Las Vegas scene helped launch the city's reputation as a culinary destination. Now, he has opened two new restaurants. In June, he debuted the stunningly powerful CUT, created by international dean of design, Richard Meier, for the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills. A a few months later, he launched his first venture east, American Grille at The Borgata, an open, sophisticated brasserie created by one of today's most popular restaurant designers, Tony Chi. With Puck's hectic schedule, he still made time to be honorary co-chair of the Bon Appetit Culinary and Wine Focus at the Beverly Hilton to raise funds for Chefs for Humanity. The charismatic Puck recently spun a few tales for RH contributor Libby Platus.

RH: Did you feel pressure to hit two more home runs with your newest hotel restaurant ventures?
Puck: What I really feel bad about is not owning a part of the hotels we go into, because their stock goes up when we open. We did a restaurant at the Four Seasons in Maui. The restaurant used to gross $1.2 million. We went in and remodeled; now we do $6 million, in the exact same place! Recently, we opened CUT, and people say, "I never used to see anybody at this restaurant; now, I can't get a table!" I told a friend, who is very wealthy, "We made a mistake! We should have bought the whole Beverly Wilshire before we opened." On opening night, people went to the front desk and made reservations for five, six weeks ahead, to come twice every week. I really believe that we add some value to a hotel.

RH: What do your restaurants add that is special?
Puck: People want entertainment and restaurants are entertainment today. That's why my restaurants have open kitchens, because they are fun. We don't have stuffy restaurants. The only thing serious should be on the plate.

RH: With all your success, some would say you've done it all. Yet at CUT, on opening night, you were right there at the front of the Regent Beverly Wilshire, as excited as a new chef at his first restaurant. How do you maintain that enthusiasm?
Puck: Like every new baby is special, every restaurant is a new experience and I'm just as excited and nervous about opening. I always think, "What if nobody shows up?"

RH: CUT is an interesting name. In the dictionary, there are more than 35 definitions for the word. Which meaning did you have in mind when you named the restaurant?
Puck: Cutting edge. I thought we had to do something unexpected.

RH: You tend to bring your own best employees into your new restaurants. How do you keep high-caliber people happy?
Puck: I give people part of the restaurant. Then, I pay them really well. So there is no chance that Tom Kaplan in Las Vegas or (CUT executive chef) Lee Hefter or (CUT pastry chef) Sherry Yard will go somewhere else, because they will never get the same amount. And I give them credit. Some restaurant owners are insecure. They would never let their chef out and would never let their pastry chef write his or her own pastry cookbook. I don't make them write a Spago book.

RH: Rocco Whalen, chef at Fahrenheit in Cleveland and a veteran of three of your restaurants, once observed: "Even when Puck is not at one of his restaurants, it still feels like he is there." How do you create a culture that sustains itself?
Puck: I always tell them, the first priority is the customer. Secondly, we don't say, "no." Finally, we buy the best ingredients and try not to screw them up. I never tell a chef, "you know your food cost is too high; buy a cheaper ingredient and make more money." We are in for the long run, and we want to be proud of what we do. Some restaurants start with Prime beef, then go to Choice, but don't say they have changed. We don't try to cheat the customer. Most important are the people who come there and the people who work there. That interaction creates the excitement. The walls are important because you want it to be a nice place.

RH: A number of top chefs started with you at Ma Maison: Mark Peel, Susan Feniger, Josie Le Balch, Gordon Hamersley, Suzanne Goin and numerous others. How does that make you feel?
Puck: I feel like the grandfather of several generations. They opened their own restaurants and they (in turn) have people who have now opened. I think it is a grand family. Most of them are still friends.

RH: How is the pots and pans business? I saw you recently had a selling marathon on the Home Shopping Network.
Puck: It's doing better than any business I have! I was there for three days. We sold 28,000 griddles and 11,000 cooking sets.

RH: What do you enjoy most about being the host of the after-Oscars party?
Puck: To me every year is exciting, almost like my own party. I go up to Barbra Streisand, and she says, "The short ribs with the risotto is so delicious, can I have more?" I say, "Sure!" and walk into the kitchen and bring out more for the whole table. All these important people feel that I should talk with them when I come by the tables. Years ago, I used to say hello to the ones I knew and not the other ones. And people would write in and ask why I didn't come to their tables! Now I make an effort to say hello to everybody. They are all customers and they feel special if I go by and say hello.

RH: Have you always been so outgoing?
Puck: You know, it comes slowly. When I was at Ma Maison, to go out in the dining room and talk to a customer, I was so scared. I remember I used to go out and stand there and didn't know what to say. I said, "Hello," and then you know when you are shy, you look away, then the customer does not become comfortable, there's no interaction. If I walk out and say, "Hi, how are you?" people right away feel welcome and warm.

RH: Now that you are a household name, do you plan to run for governor of California?
Puck: We already have one Austrian in charge. I help in other ways. And I'll stay in the kitchen!