Editor’s Note: 20.21 is now closed.
Meeting a person who has long since crossed over into full-fledged public figurehood, one is never totally sure what to expect. A certain canniness, a certain calculated ironic distance, perhaps? Or the opposite: flash, gimmickry, showy insincerity? Fame has a way of both lowering and unrealistically raising your expectations for a face-to-face encounter. Wolfgang Puck is certainly a famous man, and obviously a shrewd businessman who is as well known for his product lines and casual dining franchises as he is for his restaurants. Going in, one wants to maintain an air of skepticism, to be prepared for the worst. It’s the natural defense mechanism those of us in flyover country have when encountering fame firsthand.
No need, it turns out — Wolfgang Puck is nothing if not a modest, disarming fellow. He’s not at all boisterous in the TV-ready way many celebrity chefs have a tendency to be, but rather speaks in an even, measured tone of voice. One gets the impression after only a few minutes speaking to him that he is in fact a fairly serious man whose commitment is to his craft. There’s actually no real sense of him being either a showman or a bottom-line kind of guy, and no real razzle-dazzle to his presentation, other than a particular gift for anecdote. Instead, like anyone who has made their livelihood mastering a craft, what comes through in conversation with him is an eye for detail and a sense of unaffected earnestness. Even his frequent hand gestures, made while relating a story, seem purposeful and precise.
On the night of a tasting and the eve of a major fundraiser, the Heavy Table sat down with Puck at a side table in the dining room of his 20.21 restaurant at the Walker Art Center. A lively, wide-ranging conversation ensued, as Puck talked about everything from his early days working in Midwestern kitchens in the 1970s and how he stays focused while overseeing numerous operations (he won’t use email, as he finds it “distracting”), to his impressions of the local culinary landscape over the last 20 years, and how his childhood in Austria prepared him for Minneapolis in the wintertime: “I was bicycling to school when it was, you know, fifteen below zero.”
The tasting menu itself was as expertly crafted as one would expect, with the highlight being a miso-sake glazed black cod that was so tender and flavorful I had a minor existential crisis while eating it: “Have I ever really tasted fish? Like, really tasted it?”
Read the full interview with Chef Puck and 20.21 Executive Chef Asher Miller.