America’s culinary A-Lister, Wolfgang Puck on fame and food
As he launches his first Dubai restaurant, Penelope Walsh meets America’s culinary A-Lister, chef Wolfgang Puck.
Originally from Austria (where he first learnt to cook alongside his pastry chef mother), it was chef Wolfgang Puck’s move to the US aged 24 (and later to Los Angeles in 1975), that catapulted his career onto the road of culinary celebrity. Wolfgang Puck is now known as a Michelin-awarded chef and TV personality, who cooks for the stars at his restaurants and on the red carpet. He can even tell you what the likes of Victoria Beckham and Leonardo Di Caprio really eat. While Wolfgang now operates restaurants across the States (Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, to name a few locations), as well as London and Singapore; the opening of CUT by Wolfgang Puck in The Address Downtown Dubai is the chef’s first foray into the Middle Eastern restaurant market.
‘We opened CUT in Beverley Hills eight years ago now, after that we opened in Las Vegas, and then in London,’ chef Wolfgang tells us of his signature steakhouse concept. ‘I met one of the guys from Emaar when I was in London and we started to talk. He told me, “part of my family lives in San Diego and I live in Dubai and I love your steakhouse here [in London]”. I had been to Dubai eight years ago when everything was under construction, and it didn’t feel right to bring a restaurant here. But when I came last year in March, it was a different story. Now it looks like everything is finished, the Burj is finished, and everything is going well again.’
As Wolfgang speaks, sitting in a restaurant still under the final touches of construction with a few days to go before the official launch, his first Dubai venture, he reveals, is already intended to be the first of many in the region. ‘We are opening in Bahrain at the Four Seasons at the end of the year, maybe November. Every time we travel to the restaurant in Dubai, everyone comes, and to come from Los Angeles is far. But if we have a restaurant in Dubai, in Bahrain, maybe in Abu Dhabi, maybe in Doha...’ Wolfgang hints. A GCC-wide expansion is on the cards? ‘Yes. We want to conquer the Middle East’, he declares. ‘It’s like in Las Vegas. In ‘92, we started with just one restaurant in Vegas, in ‘93 we opened another one. Now we have six, in one city.’ Like Las Vegas and LA, Dubai is already ear-marked as a hub for more than one Puck concept within the same city. ‘In Dubai, we might do a Chinese restaurant,’ Wolfgang tell us, and of the fine dining flagship in Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant empire, Spago, there is more to reveal: ‘We are actually considering bringing a Spago here too. The idea is definitely there to build a Spago here in Dubai. But where, I don’t know.’
‘Spago was the first restaurant. It opened 33 years ago and it is still there. CUT is only eight years old, but it is easier to duplicate than Spago. For example, at Spago the food is more complicated. Here, you have different appetisers, but the main courses are basically all off the grill. It’s simpler than having a squab dish, a chicken dish; a menu with different kinds of meats, and preparations.’
Despite any anticipated challenges in replicating Spago here, Wolfgang’s first Dubai restaurant has apparently faced few issues in coming to fruition. ‘I thought there would be more challenges actually. We have a whole opening team, who have already been here one month training the staff. The chef here has worked with me for eight years, the sous chef, the pastry chef, everyone has worked with us for a while. But it would be difficult if I was to come here and hire somebody from La Petite Maison, somebody else from Zuma, and so on.’
‘It is actually not very difficult to bring ingredients in,’ he adds, ‘because everything is basically imported. We get beef from America, Japan, Australia. So it’s not that complicated to do what we do, here.’ Among the selection of imported beef, now gracing the steakhouse’s debut Dubai menu, is Kobe beef (‘it comes from the Kobe prefecture of Japan. Wagyu is the cattle. You have different grades of Kobe beef, just like wagyu, but it is supposed to be finer quality, because the cows eat certain food’) and both wet-and dry-aged beef (‘wet-aged is just the regular process, it is more typical and less expensive. Dry-ageing is humidity regulated, and removes around 30 percent of the moisture in the beef, so you get a more concentrated flavour’).
As a point of difference from other American steakhouses, which typically use broilers, CUT cooks its meat over charcoal and oak, ‘so it gets that slight smoky flavour’. Also on the menu is the chef’s own favourite, Wiener schnitzel, as well as a Peking-inspired duck, poussin (baby chicken), and local fish and shrimp. Sourcing and working with meat that meets the UAE’s halal requirements (which is not a regulation at his restaurants elsewhere in the world), has also posed no issue chef Puck says.
‘The meat is exactly the same, what is difficult is the vegetables and fruits. We always try to get involved with the local farmers, whatever local means; it might be from Oman or from Abu Dhabi. But I’ve been told the season is coming to an end now, because it is too hot. First, we will stabilise the restaurant with ingredients we know and then we are going to add local ingredients to the menu. I’d much rather have things from over here, locally grown, as long as they are good.
‘If you find the right people, you just have to be flexible. I grew up on a farm. We had tomatoes maybe for a month, that was it, and it was fun and exciting to have the first tomatoes of the season. It is more fun to cook that way, because you have to make changes. Obviously, we don’t change the meats, but we can change the salads, for example.’
Beyond Wolfgang’s identity as a chef and restaurateur, it is hard to ignore his celebrity status in the US, where regular media involvement extends to cooking for the ‘Governor’s Ball’, the official after-party at the Oscars. Working with a team of 300 kitchen staff and 600 service staff, Wolfgang serves about 16,000 at the gala dinner, in addition to 3,000 meals to the staff that work on the awards ceremony, from stage-hands to security. No longer restricted by a three-course seated meal, in the last two year’s Wolfgang’s approach to the Oscars menu has become more modern and informal, with a selection of 30 different small-plate dishes, from salads to macaroni and cheese, served at cocktail tables and couches.
Considering Hollywood’s reputation, however, the menu is not overly strict in terms of diet. ‘There are a few like Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Hathaway that are vegan, but 98 percent of them eat whatever they like. I know Barbra Streisand likes chicken pot pie (one of the dishes on the Oscar menu this year), she likes comfort food. Charlize Theron loves food, too. Most people are hungry by the time they get to the ballroom, they haven’t eaten all day, especially the ladies who have been in hair and make-up.’
We wondered if Wolfgang is ever star struck, or tempted to pinch himself in his role as chef to the stars: ‘I used to be impressed. Years ago I cooked for Orson Welles, Gene Kelly. But really it’s not that complicated, they are just people. As long as they are good customers and like the food.‘ CUT by Wolfgang Puck, The Address Downtown Dubai (04 423 8882).