Wolfgang Puck's multicourse career

Spago guy keeps his plate full with restaurants, more

April 02, 2003|By William Rice | William Rice,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Walking with three hungry companions and a pizza he has just made for them toward a table in Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art's cafe, the chef makes eye contact with a table of elderly women and cannot avoid stopping to greet them.

"Hello, I'm Wolfgang. Do you want a slice of pizza?" he asks.

"We do," they respond. Less than a minute later, all the pizza slices are gone. The chef turns to his companions with a boyish grin and says, "I guess I'll have to make another." And he does, effortlessly preparing another personal creation.

This is not unusual.

Entering any of his restaurants at mealtime, he will gravitate to the kitchen (which is open to the dining room) to cook, hold court for customers and joke with the crew in rapid succession.

"I feel most comfortable when I am in the kitchen," he says during a recent visit to Chicago, where he has established Spago Chicago, Puck's at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Wolfgang Puck's Grand Cafe in Evanston, Ill., two other cafes at O'Hare airport, plus a catering operation - just a few of the 70 units the celebrity chef has opened around the country.

Personable yet hardly humble, the Los Angeles-based chef moves about without an entourage, conversing with customers and strangers on the street as though time were standing still. His humor is spontaneous and wry, his devotion to cooking as genuine as his Austrian accent. He has the endurance of a Roman legionnaire.

"The reason I move about so much is that I become bored," he says. "I fear that if I had only one restaurant, I would come to hate it. I've overcome this by doing too many things."

Puck, 53, oversees 12 fine-dining restaurants including the famous Spagos, 36 casual dining cafes and 22 "quick casual" units. He sells Wolfgang Puck cookware and appliances on the Home Shopping Network (to the tune of an estimated $15 million in 2002); his packaged foods are sold in supermarkets (pizzas, entrees, sauces, canned soups) as well as hotels and offices (coffee).

His catering company did the annual Academy Awards banquet last month. His fifth cookbook, Live, Love, Eat! The Best of Wolfgang Puck, was published by Random House last fall; he has been a regular on cable television's Food Network since 2001, and he has a new weekly newspaper column.

His memory ("selective," he noted) is of a happy boyhood in the Austrian town of St. Viet. His father was a laborer determined to achieve at various tasks and sports. His mother cooked in a restaurant. At 14, Wolfgang was apprenticed to a hotel chef. He left behind his youthful dream of becoming an architect and three years later said goodbye to Austria.

For seven years in France, he mastered the techniques of haute cuisine. Even more important to his future, he learned to make thin-crust pizza in Provence. He came to the United States in 1973 and soon headed west to Los Angeles.

He was hired at an eccentric French restaurant on Melrose Avenue called Ma Maison that numbered Gene Kelly among its backers and Orson Welles among its regular customers. A celebrity in his own right by the early '80s, he opened Spago on a hillside overlooking Sunset Boulevard. With his pizzas and rustic but elegant main-course dishes, the chef caught the essence of casual chic.

Soon Puck found another new wave to ride. At his Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, Calif., he began to beguile customers with East-West fusion creations such as rack of lamb flavored with mint, cilantro and chutney.

Puck remains a subscriber to the "uneasy rests the head that wears the crown" philosophy. An early venture, a brewery and brewpub called Eureka, failed in the mid-'80s, as did Aubergine, a labor-intensive, fusion restaurant concept, at the end of the '90s.

In Live, Love, Eat!, Puck touches on ideas that he says will be reflected in his columns. "It is more oriented to the home cook than my earlier books," he says.

And has he a recipe for success? "Yes, do what you love and get lucky!"

William Rice is a writer for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Grilled Chicken Breasts With Garlic and Parsley

Preparation time: 15 minutes; cooking time: 20 minutes

Makes 4 servings

12 cloves garlic, peeled

1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves

salt

freshly ground white pepper

4 boneless chicken breast halves, skin on

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

Heat water to boiling in small saucepan. Add garlic; cook 1 minute. Drain. Cool 1 minute; slice thinly. Put in small bowl. Add parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste; toss garlic-parsley mixture together.

Loosen a pocket between skin and meat of each chicken breast, taking care not to separate the skin completely from the meat. Stuff about 2 teaspoons of garlic-parsley mixture in each pocket. Place chicken breasts on a plate; cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until ready to use. Refrigerate remaining garlic-parsley mixture in covered container.

Prepare grill or heat broiler; grill chicken breasts until just cooked through, taking care not to overcook, about 8 minutes per side. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat; add reserved garlic-parsley mixture. Cook until garlic softens and mixture is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir in lemon juice and chopped parsley. Season with salt and pepper. Place each chicken breast on a large dinner plate; spoon the sauce over each breast.

Per serving: 260 calories; 13 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 95 milligrams cholesterol; 365 milligrams sodium; 4.3 grams carbohydrate; 30 grams protein; 0.4 gram fiber

- Adapted from "Live, Love, Eat! The Best of Wolfgang Puck" (Random House, 2002, $35)

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