Wolfgang Puck is a culinary figure who needs no introduction. The Austrian-born chef and restaurateur has built a wide-reaching brand that is synonymous with innovation. He famously merged impeccable classic European technique with California products and flair, and the result is over 40 years of iconic cuisine across the globe. His passion for all aspects of the hospitality industry keeps him going, and one of the things he is proudest of is his role as mentor. With dozens of restaurants under his brand, countless chefs have passed through his kitchens and benefited from his tutelage. Many have stayed with him for decades; others take the valuable lessons they learn and go on to their own successes.
One of these former proteges is Denver-based chef and restaurateur Jennifer Jasinski. Jasinski worked closely with Puck for over a decade before branching out on her own, and now is the head of a group in Denver with five restaurants, and a new one about to launch. Jasinski credits her time with Puck as being foundational to her confidence in taking on the challenges of her own brand, and we were thrilled to be able to listen in as the two caught up.
WP: So, what exactly are you doing [these days]? I know I can see you have a brand new restaurant at the museum coming up.
JJ: Well, I’m sitting in our newest restaurant. We’ll open up October 20th or 24th, somewhere around there, and [are] keeping crazy busy. We have five restaurants in our group. We would have had six, but we lost one in the pandemic. I’m working on creating a really beautiful brand that is based in Denver, but does kind of have that feel that you taught me all those years ago: The most beautiful ingredients... I’m still working hard, training good people and I still love the work, Wolf. You know, I still love being the kitchen and creating food and so that’s great. But how about you? You're going all over the whole world now, international.
WP: You know, we expanded a lot internationally. We also lost a few restaurants in Detroit and in Atlantic City [N.J.], which was OK. You know, sometimes you make deals, and they are not the best deals, and they go away, and then you get a better deal. In Las Vegas we moved Spago to Bellagio, which gave us a whole new life. We doubled the business. And then 10 years ago we started to really get opportunities overseas, so we started to expand. First in Singapore and then we signed a deal with the Dorchester in London. Then we have continued within the Middle East in Dubai [UAE] and Qatar and Bahrain. Now, Saudi Arabia is coming up with two locations. We just continue moving forward, and we just opened in June in Budapest [Hungary].
JJ: Is most of the team still intact?
WP: Some yes, but some have moved on. It is not always the best thing to stay too long. Change is hard, but change is good. You know to stay relevant, and to give people new opportunities. I’ve lost a few people that were with me 16 or 17 years, not in a bad way. But moving other people up has been a good thing. It’s [a] good educational thing, and even with the pandemic, even how hard it was, we learned a lot of lessons about our business and how to be more efficient and more effective.
JJ: I’ve learned a lot of lessons, hard ones and good ones.
WP: I think everybody learned how to operate better, more efficiently. And some people had to move on to achieve that.
JJ: Yes, and fighting complacency. It’s hard, especially with people who get so comfortable after some years. What I love about you is how loyal you are, and I'm the same way. But at some point, if the business is suffering, you have to make hard decisions very hard. Because you love these people, but it's hard.
WP: You can tell when complacency sets in, instead of having consistent improvement. That is how it needs to be. I would think every day, “How can I do this better?” You were one of those who thinks like that. I tell everybody when they talk about you, Jennifer worked harder than anyone you know in the kitchen. So, I am so proud of what you are doing, it’s wonderful. You deserve it after you worked your ass off your whole life.
JJ: Well, you’d always make a joke. “Twelve hours is only half a day, you know.” I make that joke to this day to my cooks too, but have to set that same example. When I was 22 or 30 you would work harder than me. So, I felt like I have to show the same energy, I’m gonna work harder than you.
NRN: How did you both handle the challenges the pandemic has brought?
JJ: We shut down our five restaurants, furloughed almost everybody except for a very few people. Obviously, the owners, we all stayed on and just worked. We made a bunch of hard decisions. Did we really need this? Do we really need that? Do I really need that person? Do I really need such a business model? Should I streamline my menu to become more efficient so I should remind the bar program should be lower inventories? Should I make sure there's more cross-utilization of ingredients on the menus? We got in survival mode. I want to be in growth mode, where we can figure out this work and have a more efficient, profitable way to do it.
WP: We really changed the way we operate. Even before the pandemic I said I want to hold every chef and every manager responsible at their location. So that way, we don't need to have corporate overhead, because we have 27 restaurants, we have 80 restaurants in airports and everything, so we keep it really lean on a corporate level. Without this corporate overhead anymore, it has saved us like $2,000,000 a year. I think to move forward you have to have a good blend of tradition and innovation.
JJ: I love your point about tradition and innovation. Because I think that's really key to growth. Keeping the things that people really love and know us for is great. But then also constantly innovating, because if not if we stay stagnant, we're never going to be successful in this world. So, relevancy is important. How do I stay relevant to my guest?
WP: I always remember one customer. We were making this tempura sashimi since the beginning, and one day I changed the sauce. You know, I'm tired of making this rich sea urchin sauce, so I just changed it. And a customer comes, a regular, and orders the dish. He calls me over and says, “What did you do to my dish?” And I said, “Well, I changed it, I got tired of this sauce, I wanted to make it a little lighter.” And he looked at me and said, “You know, if I don't get tired of eating it, you shouldn’t be tired of cooking it.” So, I said, “You have a point!”
JJ: I think a good mix of that tradition and innovation is where to be. I don’t know if I’m ever satisfied with where we're at in our restaurants. I always think we can do better.
WP: It’s about passion. If you’re passionate about what you do, you never go to work because your love what you do.
JJ: So true. One of the great lessons. And I want to just make sure you know how much I thank you so much for all the years you taught me so much.
WP: I’m so proud of you. What you have achieved, and what you have done in your adopted new city. I knew that your hard work and your passion will pay off, I never doubted that.