World-renowned Austrian-American chef and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck has recently opened, in Budapest’s Matild Palace hotel, the first European outpost of his iconic Spago restaurant, which stars as his signature culinary experience. He shares some thoughts with Diplomacy&Trade on how his career has evolved and how the experience accumulated is put to use in the Hungarian capital.
Answering the question of what he considers himself, Wolfgang Puck says that “I think it is interesting because we always expand our universe in our head. So, who am I? First of all, I'm a father, I'm a husband. Really, those are the most important things so, when I die, if I have a tombstone that says ‘he had a great restaurant’ it wouldn’t mean as much as having the kids say he was a great father and also maybe my wife would say, a good husband.”
Skipping high school, going to Harvard
He adds that in the end, it is curiosity that drives his life. “I love to do things I never did before. Why did I come to Budapest? Because I really don't know it. Instead of going somewhere safe, I always try to go to the frontier and learn something new; first about the people and then about the place. So, when I look at myself, I say who am I? I’m a person who is really curious and who likes to learn. That may sound crazy as I never went to high school, I stopped school when I was 14.”
Four years ago, he was interviewed by a journal and was asked what his dream was. He answered his dream would be to go to Harvard. A week later, the dean of the Harvard Business School called him: ‘Wolfgang, when would you like to come to Harvard?’ The chef says he tried to find excuses like he never went to high school or never went to college but the dean replied: ‘it's okay, we have a program for you: Owner/President Management (OPM) requiring participation three times a month, over a two-year period’, in which, instead of students, one is in the company of business people. “For me, it was so interesting to hear and see, and also find out, why Harvard is so famous. You know, anybody can build a nice building, but it's really the teachers there, the passion they have that is really amazing. And for me to finish that program and get a degree, and to have my kids come to my graduation, was really exciting. Did I ever think I would do that? No, but I was curious,” he notes.
Driven by passion
Despite the fact that Wolfgang Puck did not finish school, he became successful in the very difficult restaurant business, which requires management skills: suppliers, staff, pricing, costing – so many tricks of the trade that one must have eyes on all the time. As the restaurateur highlights, “first of all, if you're driven by passion, if you really love what you do, somehow you make it work. You don't have to go to Harvard Business School to learn how to run a restaurant. We are in the hospitality business, so the first thing we must do is make our guests feel good.” His mother told him when he was 14 and he left his home: ‘Just remember: you have to make more money than you spend. So that you don't come back home and ask for money…’
An empire of restaurants
Certainly, Wolfgang Puck took her mother’s advice and learned how ‘to make more money’; today having 40 restaurants, an empire spread throughout the world. One would think the control of this empire must be very difficult, but the chef points out that building out this network took place over a 40-year period. “It wasn't like we started five years ago and now we have 40 restaurants. Over a long time, we developed a great team and giving young people opportunities is really an important part of the process. We are now in the second generation as my son, Byron is working with me. He is really important for the future. My wife is involved in choosing architects, designing and framing the restaurants so everything looks right. This gives us a stronger grasp on projecting to the world who we are.”
Cooking should reflect the people
The original Spago restaurant in Los Angeles is labeled ‘California cuisine’. In order to explain what that means, Wolfgang Puck recalls that when he opened Spago in 1982, he actually designed the menu himself. “I said, cooking should reflect the culture of the people and their surroundings. The culture in Los Angeles is really many different cultures that come together. How many cities are there where you find a Chinatown, Little Tokyo, a Korea town, a little India, the Latin community and everything else? I strongly felt that our cooking should reflect the cultures in the city, should reflect the city itself. So, that's how I decided in 1982 to put raw tuna on the menu and make a pizza but make it different, make it ours. We have to be innovative. We have to make the best quality, and the reason we are lucky in LA is that we have the best ingredients available there. California has a really dry climate so if you go to the farmers’ market, you get the best and freshest produce. And the same thing is true for the fish market. If I buy fish, where do I go? Where all the Japanese chefs go from Little Tokyo. So, we bought the same fish as they did. We cooked some but also served some raw, and I also learned from the Chinese part of the city. Basically, what California meant for me was a reflection, a mirror of the different cultures and people who live in LA.”
A restaurant with rooms upstairs
When asked how his business philosophy translates to Budapest, the restaurateur stresses that “we need to show who we are. “We're not going to make something Hungarian because that is already here. Instead, we are going to add a few scents, which are Hungarian. I'm sure the local Hungarians who will come to Spago have their favorite restaurant where are they get goulash soup so, I don't think we have to do that. We have our brand and need to show who we are.”
The other thing he points out is that if he is traveling, he does not want to eat at a hotel restaurant. “People want to go to independent restaurants, so we always say in this case of the Matild Palace that ‘we have a restaurant with rooms upstairs’. In a way, because of the pandemic, we are lucky because we meet so many local people rather than tourists nowadays. Some of our managers get to know them and some of them have come to our restaurant three, four times already in two weeks. And, I think that will be beneficial for us in the long run, they tell their friends and they come back with new friends. I think, as always, we have to be interested in the local community, to get them interested in us,” Wolfgang Puck concludes.
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