When we go to a restaurant, we order and get the dish fully formed. If it’s a fancy, Michelin-rated spot, the edible presentation might look like something that could hang in the Louvre. We eat it without any thought of how the ingredients were sourced, mixed together and put under heat to create the finished masterpiece.
The same could be said, both literally and metaphorically, for this week’s guest on “Renaissance Man.” Superstar chef Wolfgang Puck, who is best known for his Beverly Hills bistro, Spago, talked about his very humble, very harsh, sometimes heartbreaking beginnings in a small Austrian town.
“I didn’t know we were poor in the countryside,” Wolfgang told me. “We had no electricity, no plumbing in the house. We want to go to the toilet, you had to walk like at least 100 feet. So they got a little shack outside. That was our toilet and in winter, we had 4 feet of snow. So it was not a fun thing to go out at night in the darkness.”
His mother was a chef. His stepfather, however, was physically and emotionally abusive. At 14, his mother landed him an apprenticeship 50 miles away in a hotel, so he was able to escape. Unfortunately the chef in charge was just like his stepfather: irrational and abusive. When they ran out of potatoes, he tossed out young Wolfgang and told him not to come back.
Distraught, he decided to jump into the river, but thankfully he had a change of heart. And he had a plan. Wolfgang pulled a brilliant move out of the George Costanza playbook. Even though he’d been fired (in George’s case, he quit) he went back like nothing had happened. Not that it went well. The chef still wanted him to leave, but Wolfgang, who was a child far from his home wasn’t budging. Eventually, the owner of the restaurant realized the situation and put him to work in a smaller hotel with a different chef. His tough early days molded his resolve.
“We have so many young kids out there who are in broken families. You know, the father is abusive. The father is alcoholic. But I really think sometimes adversity makes you stronger. You know, these crazy times with these crazy people who have no mercy, no empathy, you know, they make you fight even harder,” he told me.
When he was 17, he finished his apprenticeship.
“I moved farther away. I moved to France and started to work there. Still didn’t know if I was going to stay in the cooking profession,” he said. “But then when I was 19, I went to a three-star restaurant in the South of France. And there I found my mentor … He was the first one who trusted me.”
He was talking about Raymond Thuilier, the chef at L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence. The older chef changed his life. He also provided Wolfgang a glimpse into his future as a celebrity magnet. In that Provence kitchen, he saw famous folks like Elizabeth Taylor, Pablo Picasso and French President George Pompidou strolling through.
When he said, Picasso, my head spun. THE Pablo Picasso. I needed a story. Wolfgang had one. One night, the legendary artist walked in and he became enamored with the color of the duck sauce Wolfgang was making, which is high praise because the man knew his hues.
“Picasso came and looked into the pot and says, ‘Oh, beautiful color.’ And he wanted to put his finger in. And I said, ‘Don’t put that in. It’s boiling hot, please.’ And so he walked away,” said Wolfgang, who proceeded to tell stories about celebrities from the “beautiful” Taylor, to an inebriated Peter O’Toole and Flava Flav and his fried chicken. Talk about range. But it’s a testament to how good food and a good personality can bring unlikely people together.
The chef’s incredible journey from the Austrian countryside to international culinary rock star, has been made into a documentary called “Wolfgang” on Disney+ that just premiered late last month.
Confession time: I was once at Cut at the Four Seasons and saw Wolfgang holding court, but I was too intimidated to speak to him. How foolish. After our talk, I realize his charisma is just as electric as his cooking.
In this episode, he asked me to give him some pointers on his jump shot in exchange for him helping me sharpen my cooking skills. And we talked about the NBA playoffs. He’s a big fan of the game. After all, when he arrived in the states, he first landed in Hoopsville, USA: Indianapolis.
“Bobby Knight was the coach [at the University of Indiana]. And I mean, when Indiana played, I mean, it was crazy. I had a girlfriend who went to school that one day she took me to a basketball game. I said, ‘Jesus Christ, I didn’t know this. People are so crazy.’” He nailed that. I played for the Pacers for six seasons, but he was there before my time. His favorite Pacer was George McGinnis, a k a “Big George.”
His other recollection of living and working in Indiana: “I cooked more steaks well done in Indianapolis in one year.”
I’d wager that most of those orders came from people who looked like me. My people, we don’t like to take risks in case the person at the helm can’t cook and we end up with gut pain or salmonella. We’re cautious. We like our grub well done.
Initially, he refused to do it. He even told Paul Newman’s publicist to order chicken if he was going to ruin a steak like that.
“But then when I opened Spago, I said, you know, this is a business. I want to make customers happy. It’s not about me. It’s about the customers. So that really changed my life. I said, you know, I can’t be so arrogant and say I’m cooking the way I like it. I have to cook the way it customers like it.”
It’s safe to say patrons more than liked it. Now Spago, which he opened in Los Angeles in the ’80s, has locations worldwide, including his newest in Budapest, Hungary. He sells cookware, cookbooks and prepared foods and has so many restaurants across the globe that you could win the geography bee by studying his website. Not bad for a guy who left home as a young teen and earned his education laboring behind the line.
After reading LA Reid’s memoir “Sing to Me,” where the music executive talked about going to Harvard at 35, Wolfgang was inspired. He wanted to do the same. He talked about it in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, which prompted the dean of the business school to reach out. His problem: “I never went to high school.” But since he was running a business, he qualified for the Owner/President Management program.
“I went to school. I was so nervous. I don’t use a computer. I have my assistant who does that,” said Wolfgang. His son and daughter-in-law went to Harvard Business School and lived in Boston, so they tried to show him how to work the computer before his program started. But it didn’t click with him, so the international culinary superstar went back to basics. He showed up to class with a yellow pad and a pen. He called it a “great learning experience.”
Wolfgang noted that he has a never-ending appetite for learning new things, adding that his curiosity is one of the main ingredients of his success. Also, he never takes no for an answer (See: Young Wolfgang tangling with the chef who tried to boot him from the kitchen).
Like a ballplayer, Wolfgang said a good chef will learn the fundamentals and keep things simple. He then said something shocking. The Wolfgang Puck, owner of a gajillion restaurants, told me that he doesn’t like to plan menus. He likes to improvise and fly by the seat of his pants. Or in his immortal words: “For me, cooking is spontaneous and I always tell the people that cooking is like making love,” he said. “You don’t make a big plan before.”
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.