By eight o’clock last Thursday night, the dining room at 20.21 in the Walker Art Center was buzzing with activity. Executive Chef Asher Miller had told us earlier that there were 120 reservations for the evening, most made in the last day or two when word had gotten out that Wolfgang Puck would be in the kitchen that night. The menu had changed radically since being announced a few days earlier, we were told, and in fact no one at 20.21 was even sure Puck would be in attendance until very recently. All of these factors contributed to an air of controlled frenzy in the room as diners, waiters, cooks, busboys, PR folks, and a few autograph seekers dashed back and forth between the open kitchen area, dining room floor, and bar.
At the center of this activity was Wolfgang Puck himself, who took in all of the excitement with a look of bemusement as he moved through the room, stopping to chat, shake hands, pose for photos, and give directions to the staff. Chef Miller greeted us for a moment and then ran back to work, just as Puck was making his way over to join us at a small table on the side of the dining room. He greeted us warmly, sat down, and then talked to us for about 20 minutes as he sipped a glass of water, taking us through his own personal history and, not coincidentally, the history of the last 30 years of fine dining in America.
I’m interested in the fact that 20.21 is located in an art museum. I believe I read in one interview that you said if you weren’t cooking, you’d be painting.
If I could be really good, I’d want to be an artist — I would like to do it, but I’d be so worried that I wouldn’t be good enough, and it’d make me unhappy.
What is the interplay between art and food?
It’s an expression of yourself. You have to learn a technique: just like you have to learn about perspective and how to mix the colors, we have to learn how about how to put textures together. How is it visually appealing? Is the smell appealing? If the taste is right…
I’ve always associated you with California. But your first restaurant job in America was in Indianapolis?
Do you feel like there’s any specifically Midwestern traits you picked up working in Indianapolis?
I think the people are really nice in the Midwest. It’s so different than the East Coast or the West Coast. But when I came, we certainly didn’t have any ingredients. I remember most people ordered steak well-done. Most people used a knife and fork — they cut it into pieces, and then they ate it.
So is there an educational aspect to being a chef? You have to bring things to people they might not expect?
Yes, but I think you can’t overstep your boundaries. People don’t want to be told how to eat. I think it was an interesting experience — I came from Paris to Indianapolis. I took the job because I worked in Monte Carlo. I used to go to Monte Carlo and Monaco — I love auto racing, so I thought that would be perfect. There must be something beautiful in Indianapolis if they love auto races! And I left in November — it was cold, it was gray… I said, “Where is there something nice to see?” And they all looked at me and said: “Nice to see?”
Things have changed quite a bit since when you were in Indianapolis.
Yeah. I remember when we opened Spago in 1982 — goat cheese and sun-dried
tomatoes were all something new! It was like with olives — who wants to eat olives except in a martini? Even with wine! I remember when I came to LA, and I had friends who belonged to a country club. And we’re all there for dinner, and I said: “Could I have some wine?” And they said, “You want Burgundy or Chablis?” And these were the richest women!
What do you attribute that change to?
The media. Television, magazines, and stuff like that wrote and wrote about food. And all of a sudden, cooking became — you know, a big thing. But when I came to Los Angeles, I was out with a friend who was a race car driver. We go to a club, and I dance with a very beautiful girl. And then she asked me what I do, and I say I’m a cook. And she says “a cook?” The song was over, and she left!
Imagine that scenario playing out today. It’d be like, “Oh, where? I cook a little myself!”
Things change so much. One of the great things is when you look at how cooking has become a very sought-after profession. I remember like six months ago, when I was in San Diego with my wife for a few days, and there was a young kid, maybe 9 years old over there in the pool, and he says, “Oh, I know you.” And I say: “Yeah? Well, what’s my name?” And he says “You’re Wolfgang Puck from Spago.” And then so we talked, and I said, “So what is your favorite food?” “You know, I love a New York steak with béarnaise sauce.” So I asked him what it is, and he actually knew what it was.
Your field has gotten a lot more crowded in the last 15, 20 years — how do you stand out?
I tell all my chefs, if you cook, you have to have a few dishes which are memorable, that you remember. I think there are a lot of great restaurants, when you eat at them, two weeks later you can’t remember exactly what it was… “We had a nice dinner. What did we have?” Like I was in Paris last year, we ate at a famous chef’s there, and we had a big, fabulous dinner, and I don’t remember what we ate. Then I went to a guy who used to work with me, who has a bistro, and I probably had the best cow’s liver I have ever had in my whole life. I will always remember that piece of cow’s liver.
How do you stay engaged with all these projects?
I compartmentalize everything. I don’t use a computer, and I don’t do email. If I have to Google something, I tell Maggie, my assistant: “OK, find it and write it out for me.” Like my wife, she emails, she wakes up at 2 or 3 in the morning, and she sees the Blackberry is flashing, all of a sudden, she’s looking at it and fiddling around with it. I have a telephone, but I don’t even know where it is now, to be honest. Generally, when I’m in restaurants, I never carry a phone with me. I think I do what I do so I stay just with that. If everyone would call me all the time, “Well, I want this, I can’t get that,” it would be impossible, so now they all have to go through Maggie.
I lost a telephone — I did an appearance on a show, and I was in a restaurant. I had had this phone for 10 years maybe, an old phone like this [points to the bulky digital recorder]. I was making a joke. I left the liver and stomach in a duck, so in one, I put my telephone in, so the joke was: “If you didn’t know, now the ducks come with a telephone.” And when I put it in, the blood went inside and everything got all sticky. I brought it to the repair guy, and he said “We can’t repair that! Are you crazy?”
As Puck returned to his duties for the evening, Miller took a short break from the kitchen to talk about juggling the various demands and rewards of working with both a major chef and a major art museum.
How do you feel like you reconcile being a Minnesota restaurant with being a part of the Wolfgang Puck brand? How do you bring the Minnesota into the Wolfgang Puck, and vice versa?
It gets right down to the menu and what people want to order when they come in — some
things we’ll never be able to get rid of, like the blue cheese potato gratin, the pork chop. They’ll always be here. And even, surprisingly, the chicken salad. It’s an Asian thing, but it seems to ring a bell with Minnesotans. The whole menu runs the gamut, from international, with fancy multilayers and bizarre flavors, right down to the pork chop.
It’s very carefully thought-out that way, and designed that way. When we first opened, the menu was very French. The Asian thing was a little more timid. I don’t think he was sure how Minnesotans would react.
Was it a matter of finding out the audience wasn’t as timid as they thought?
People only think that they’re timid, and when they sit down — the descriptions on the menu are actually worded not to scare people. And when it shows up, what are you going to do? You might as well try it. And that’s where he gets it.
I’d heard at one point he said he’d never have cilantro in any of his kitchens, ever… and now it’s in pretty much everything we make. And that’s how he stays new – he surprises you all the time. Because he doesn’t like it doesn’t mean other people won’t like it.
How is it being situated in a contemporary art museum? Do you feel like that colors people’s expectations, or your own expectations?
It’s definitely a partnership. This is their space; they created it as an environment. It’s not branded, there are no Wolfgang Puck signs anywhere — it’s a very minimal look. Even the chairs are theirs, the tables are theirs. They’re painfully aware that there’s a food operation, and we’re painfully aware that there’s art on the wall.