Wolfgang Puck has given the world a taste for California's delectable cuisine

January 19, 1992|By Kirsten A. Conover | Kirsten A. Conover,The Christian Science Monitor

Gosh, it's almost as if Wolfgang Puck reinvented the meal. He brought us gourmet pizza. He rendered casual dining chic. He caters to the stars. If he's not the king of California cuisine, he certainly gets credit for catapulting it to fame.

This year marks a decade of success for Chef Puck, a celebrity among celebrities. In 10 years he has opened five restaurants to critical acclaim, and they continue to do phenomenally well. Mr. Puck recently visited the Monitor to talk about "Adventures in the Kitchen" (Random House, $30), his third and newest cookbook.

He is a casual talker with a boyish smile. He has been described as having a shape like a fireplug; today, he looks especially artist-like, with his black turtleneck and combed-back hair. He speaks in a German accent similar to that of his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger (they are both from Austria) and is as affable in person as he is on "Good Morning, America" or "The David Letterman Show."

One of Mr. Puck's secrets, it appears, is simply that he loves to cook. Cooking is his vocation and his avocation, he says. But with his passion to please others through cooking comes a sense of insecurity: "I could have 300 happy customers, and one complains about something -- for right or for wrong, I go home and I am so miserable. I cannot sleep," he says. "It drives me crazy."

Mr. Puck's talent for cookery has been compared to that of a musician with perfect pitch. His cuisine has been described as inventive, interpretive, free-spirited, Californian, new-worldly, even "Puckish." But when asked how he would describe his cuisine, Mr. Puck cocks his head and answers: "I think it's -- myself."

"I cook what I like to eat," he says, as he thumbs through some photos in "Adventures." A sampling of the recipes includes Puck's pizza, pasta rounds with spinach-ricotta mousse, tempura sashimi with uni sauce, shrimp skewers with almond pesto, chicken lasagne, pork loin with Thai sauce, three-chocolate frozen mousse, and even chocolate chip cookies.

Given such cross-cultural creations, Mr. Puck might be considered a show-off if it weren't for his humble demeanor and his extensive classical training. Mr. Puck started working in a restaurant in Austria at age 14; his mother was a hotel chef. Later, he cooked around France, including Maxim's in Paris. In 1973 he moved to the United States and Indianapolis's La Tour. He wound up in California, starring at Ma Maison before venturing out on his own.

California cooking has evolved into a top-notch cuisine, says Mr. Puck -- a first for America, he says. Before, American cuisine and restaurants were considered second-rate overseas. Even in America the first-rate restaurants were not "American," they were French, Italian, or maybe Chinese, he explains.

But California style has changed all that. "I think it's the first time -- except maybe the golden arches, the burger franchises -- that we actually exported a style of restaurant to other countries," says Mr. Puck. "We now have people come from Europe to learn in California."

He refers to not only the style of food -- including a lot of fresh greens, fruit, not-too-heavy sauces -- but also the style of restaurant. "Generally, the restaurants are very airy, very bright, not stuffy at all," he says. Barbara Lazaroff, his wife and partner, lends her interior design and architectural expertise to Mr. Puck's restaurants. California-style eateries have popped up in New York, Chicago, and even Japan.

"We opened a Spago in Tokyo," Mr. Puck notes. "Even the Japanese, who are so Francophile, and they're really dreamy about French food; little by little they look at California and come and say, 'Oh, we want to do restaurants like in California.' "

How did a first-rate American cuisine come about? "Finally, chefs in America started to own their own restaurants. And that's what happened in France: When chefs started to own their own restaurants, they could make up the food they really wanted to cook, not what somebody else told them to cook . . . [Ownership] is a very important part because it gives you freedom."

Choosing food and inventing dishes is a very democratic process, says Mr. Puck, at least in his restaurants. There is some structure, but spontaneity and improvisation are key. Some dishes even come about by mistake, he unabashedly admits. One time they made "shrimpcakes" because they ran out of crab for crab cakes, for example.

For a menu to work, Mr. Puck and his staff must strike a balance between keeping the selection of dishes bubbling and offering the favorites or "classics" people have come to expect.

At Chinois, for example, they still offer dishes they served at the beginning: tempura sashimi, "a very Chinese lobster risotto," and Mongolian lamb chops. If Mr. Puck takes them off the menu, customers ask why. "And I tell them, 'Listen, I'm tired of cooking the same thing.' They say: 'Listen, we are not tired of eating it.' " Since a restaurant is a business, the customer is always right.

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