Austrian-born chef and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck came to the US in 1973 and has since built an international culinary empire. The Michelin-starred chef, who caters for the Oscars and is the star of TV food shows, is also active in philanthropic endeavors through his charitable foundation.
How did your cookery career begin?
My mother was a professional chef, so from the age of about 13, I used to go with her to work; it was either that or learn to be a bricklayer or a mason with my father, and I hated that! I loved the pastry section at the restaurant my mother worked in. They made incredible Baked Alaska, and it’s where I tasted canned fruit for the first time. I had some pineapple and thought it was just amazing.
What sort of food did you eat as a family back home?
I grew up on a farm, so when my mother made soup, or a salad, she’d just go into the garden and pick what she needed. As soon as the first tomatoes were ripe we used to make delicious sandwiches on dark rye bread with butter, parsley and a little onion. It sounds so simple but when the ingredients are straight from the ground, it’s an amazing thing.
Your first job was working for the legendary chef Raymond Thuilier at his restaurant L’Oustau de Baumanière. What was that like?
Raymond was about 72, and he had this passion and love for ingredients that I’d never seen before. When I met Raymond I just thought, “Wow, I want to be like this guy. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” Famous people were coming in all the time, even the Queen of England and Picasso. When Peter O’Toole was making a movie in the area, he always used to eat lamb, well-done, with a Cartagena Pinot Noir, and we’d stay up chatting late into the night. Then I’d take him back to his room on my little motorbike; he used to drink quite a lot of whisky after dinner.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever had cooked for you?
One of the most interesting was recently at the Carolina restaurant at The St. Regis Punta Mita Resort in Mexico. The young local chef there, Jose Mesa Arroyave, cooked my wife and me the most amazing Mexican food ever. It was so beautifully presented and not what you’d expect: charred octopus on a crispy tortilla with a black bean purée, a deconstructed tortilla soup served in a spoon as an amuse-bouche, a quail taco and ceviche… I don’t often get surprised, but this was a revelation to me.
How would you describe your new Spago restaurant in Istanbul?
It’s in one of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever been to. Every room has an amazing piece of art in it, and the restaurant itself is on the eighth floor with an incredible view. We have a big, beautiful terrace that takes up almost half the space. It’s not too formal, just cool and relaxed, and in the evenings it’s like one big party. We have a DJ at the bar and everyone goes from table to table. It’s great if you’ve just arrived in the city, because you can still sit by the bar and relax, soaking up the atmosphere.
How have you gone about planning the menu?
The very first thing I always do in a new place is to go to the farmers’ market and the fish market and see what ingredients are best in the area. I love to support the local suppliers and they have amazing fish in Istanbul – turbot, wild sea bass, shrimp – and the lamb is the best that you’ll find anywhere. We do an amazing Chinese-style dish with it where the lamb’s marinated in soy sauce, chilli flakes, mirin and spring onion, and then just grilled over a charcoal fire. Of course, if you still want our signature smoked salmon pizza, you’ll be able to order one here, too.
Any ingredients that you’re particularly fussy about?
I love proper chocolate, and I get that from Jean-Paul Hévin in Paris. I always have some in the freezer. I won’t touch cheap chocolate; it has to be 70 per cent cocoa and it has to have some flavor. And if I’m ever hungover, I have to have proper coffee. I’ve been into the kitchen of one of the fanciest hotels in Paris to show them how to make a cappuccino right. For $800 a room you deserve good coffee.
Who would you love to cook for?
Picasso, because I’d love to talk to him. Mozart, because maybe he could play the piano. And Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, because I love them. They’d have to enjoy food, though; there’s nothing more boring than cooking for somebody who doesn’t really enjoy great food and wine.
Your address: The St. Regis Istanbul
Wolfgang Puck in the kitchen
Yuzu blueberry Baked Alaska
The terrace at Spago at The St. Regis Istanbul, which
serves Puck’s cutting-edge, farm-to-table cuisine