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The Life Interview

Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck took up cooking to escape an unhappy home

The celebrity chef started work in a kitchen at age 14 to leave an unhappy home

It was 1975 and chef Wolfgang Puck was worried. The 25-year-old’s Los Angeles restaurant, Ma Maison, was bleeding.

“It was very quiet. We lost US$18,000 in the first month. That’s US$600 a day,” he says.

Nothing like Ma Maison existed at the time.

Diners were seated in an open-air terrace instead of in an enclosed room. Artificial grass stood in for carpet. There was no dress code.

Then, Orson Welles, gourmand and director of classic films such as Citizen Kane (1941), found the restaurant and became a fan of the Austrian chef’s French nouvelle cuisine, applied to California ingredients.

The film-maker became a regular and other stars followed. It got so packed that Puck and main owner Patrick Terrail delisted its telephone number.

Food has to taste like food. Food has to take into account the seasons - what's fresh, what's available. I'm not a food engineer. Molecular gastronomy won't change the world the way nouvelle cuisine did. That last time I was at elBulli, I had 37 little things, sat there for five hours. I couldn't wait to leave.

WOLFGANG PUCK on molecular gastronomy and its temple, the now-defunct elBulli restaurant in Spain

Puck, now 66, is on a stopover in Singapore, checking up on his restaurants at Marina Bay Sands – the steakhouse Cut, opened in 2010; and California cuisine-inspired Spago, opened last year.

The Puck empire now covers more than 100 restaurants, both fine-dining and casual. Other corporate arms cover ready-made foods, books, catering and kitchen appliances.

The most recent offering, and one that Puck himself is keen to talk about, is the online cooking school, wolfgangpuckcookingschool.com.

We are seated in Spago’s rooftop location on a Thursday morning, the skyline of Singapore on one side of us and the sea on the other.

“I’ve decided not to write cookbooks any more and do it online. My kids, everybody is online, nobody wants to read,” he says about his video-streaming venture.

He is at an age when most men would be protecting turf, but he is busy breaking with the old ways.

At the recently opened test kitchen, his team is playing with centrifuges, vacuum distillers and sonic emulsifiers.

With the tools, it is extracting new essences from corn and carrots. Customers are unlikely to taste them directly as might happen in a molecular restaurant. The Puck philosophy is to fold the new into the familiar.

“I like to play with different things, but to put them in to our perspective. We don’t want to make something that is ‘out there’,”he says.

The concentrated extract of carrots, for example, might be used in a carrot cake, a souffle or a dip for dim sum.

That ability to shape food into new but recognisable forms spurred him in 1983 to combine Asian and Western techniques in Chinois, the Los Angeles restaurant that helped spark the fusion craze.

Lately, he has toyed with the idea of applying the same updates with Mexican cuisine, he says.

“Somehow, I’m running out of time. I do so many projects. It was easier when I had one or two projects. Now I have a lot of different things going on,” he says.

For the last 22 years, one of those projects has been taking charge of the Governors Ball, held after the Oscars ceremony.

This year, the father of four was helped by sons Byron, 21; Alexander, 10; and Oliver, nine.

Sons Cameron, 26, and Byron come from his second marriage to Ms Barbara Lazaroff, who today holds the post of co-founder in the Wolfgang Puck group. He is now married to Ms Gelila Assefa, mother of Alexander and Oliver.

Puck whips out his phone and, like any proud dad, scrolls through pictures of his sons. Byron is a student at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration.  “He works with me and he will take over,” he says.

His own journey began when, at age 14 in Austria, Puck left home to escape an abusive stepfather, a coal-miner, because “he was mean and drunk and he slapped us”, he says.

At that time, the teen was the oldest, with two sisters. A brother would come later.

The boy wanted to be an architect, but his family could not afford the school fees. His mother was a pastry chef in the summer at a resort hotel.He would drop into the kitchen, work and observe.

He decided that the way out of his home lay in cooking.

An adept showman now

"My father told me, 'You are good for nothing'. He wanted me to be a carpenter or mechanic. He thought that cooking was not a profession for men. It was for women."

Soon after Puck started his posting, things went wrong.

As was the practice, he was given menial jobs, such as peeling and cooking potatoes. One day, he underestimated the number of potatoes he had to prepare, causing a spud shortage at lunch service. The chef sacked him.

Dejected and fearing that he would go home in shame, thus fulfilling his stepfather's predictions, he walked to a bridge over a river.

He stood there, thoughts of jumping swirling in his mind. As time passed, that idea was replaced by a new resolve: He would get his job back.

He did, but only after a tense standoff with the chef who fired him. The boy stood his ground, refusing to budge in the face of repeated orders to go away, to go home. Eventually, the chef gave up.

Puck was sent to work in a smaller hotel, where he flourished under the guidance of a woman chef who took pity on him. He also scored high marks in his vocational culinary course, to the shock of the chef who fired him.

The teen was intrigued by French techniques after observing chefs from France at a food festival in his town "put bottles of wine into coq au vin, into boeuf bourguignon, sooosh, then reduce it all the way down", he says, miming someone up-ending a bottle. Austrian chefs drink wine, rather than pour it into food, he says.

So taken was he that he took a few French-language classes and hopped on a train to Dijon, where he started work in a small restaurant. That was a stepping stone that led to jobs in Michelin-starred establishments in Provence, Monaco and Paris.

Training under Raymond Thuilier at the L'Oustau de Baumaniere in Provence, he learnt the difference that using fresh local ingredients made and that a chef could be more than an anonymous craftsman.

"Thuilier was not just the chef and owner, but he was also the mayor of the village, a painter and a very good writer of cookbooks. He was a Renaissance man. Totally my inspiration and mentor," he says.

By 1973, the career trail led to the United States and stints in New York and Indianapolis. In 1975, it led to Ma Maison in Los Angeles.

The West Hollywood eatery was struggling when Puck first donned his chef's whites there. His first salary cheque bounced. Owner Terrail offered Puck a share in the restaurant to entice Puck to stay on. He did.

Word spread about the restaurant with its casual atmosphere, serving light dishes with a local touch. Fine dining in Los Angeles in those days meant dark rooms and a formal dress code.

It was there, after Ma Maison became a hit with the Hollywood elite, that Puck learnt to be comfortable in front of people, a skill that would put him on American daytime news shows, launch his own cooking series and see him sell kitchen gadgets on the Home Shopping Network.

Ma Maison ran a cooking school. Puck was asked to step out of the kitchen to show movie-star students how to cook. It was terrifying, he says, but teaching forced him to come out of his shell.

The silver-haired man people see on television, smiling and endlessly genial, is a persona shaped a great deal by Spago, opened in 1982, in West Hollywood.

The room featured an open-plan kitchen, one of the first of its kind. It gave him a bird's-eye view of operations, but also exposed him to the public eye. He had to get used to the attention.

At a time when celebrity chefs come in all flavours, including autocratic, as exemplified by Gordon Ramsay, there is an old-world sweetness to Puck that comes across on camera and in person.

It was not always like this. When he was in his 20s, like most proud chefs, he banned changes or substitutions.

Want sauce on the side? No, he would say. "If that's how I cooked it, that is how I'm going to serve it to you," he says of his younger self.

Over time, he came to see that his ego was in the way. The food business is built on repeat guests, not gawkers who come once and never return.

"It's not about me. It's about what's on the plate and whether people feel good about it. Cut in Singapore is successful because we have a lot of regulars. It's doing more business today than five years ago," he says.

Greg Bass, 35, chef de cuisine at Spago in Singapore, has been part of the group since 2004, including a stint at the Beverly Hills flagship.

"Growing up in Wolfgang's restaurants, you see that the culture is, you never say 'no'. There's always something that you can do. Everyone can feel comfortable here," he says.

Mr Adam Crocini, 39, director of food and beverage at Marina Bay Sands, was until late 2013 managing Wolfgang Puck restaurants in Las Vegas, Maui, Washington, DC, and Singapore. He talks about how when the boss drops in, it is not just to meet and greet diners and VIPs.

In Maui, for instance, Puck watched a member of staff slice a whole fried fish at a diner's table. Afterwards, he called a meeting to show everyone the right way to wield the knife.

"For him, it was all about the technique, the style and the end result was a little bit better. He's a showman - it's all part of the experience," he says.

There are no sure things in business, which helps explain why Puck still fusses over the right way to slice a fish.

Eureka, a restaurant with an attached brewery he co-owned in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, opened and shut quickly with heavy losses. He handled the food; other partners took care of the brewery.

The food was a hit and aficionados loved the unpasteurised beer. The problem was the brew spoilt in the bottle so quickly, it was impossible to store and sell enough to cover the cost of making it.

"I learnt from that to not do something I can't control. If tomorrow, the chef leaves," he says, pointing at Spago's kitchen, "I can go in and run the kitchen. Would I like to do it every day? No.

"But I can do it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2016, with the headline 'Cooking to escape'. Print Edition | Subscribe