Wolfgang Puck is so recognizable, it’s easy to feel like we know him. It could even be argued that he’s the most famous chef in the world. But while many are familiar with the highlights reel of his story — the groundbreaking cuisine served to celebrities at Spago, which originally opened in West Hollywood in 1982; his Austrian upbringing, evidenced by his instantly recognizable accent; and random appearances in popular culture (you know you’re an icon when you land a cameo on “The Simpsons”) — Puck is the first to admit that few know what his life was like before he emigrated to America.
He’s hoping that will change with the recent Disney+ release of “Wolfgang,” a film by the director of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” that takes a look at Puck’s early life.
“I really believe people don’t know where I come from, how I grew up [or] how hard it really was,” he says of the film. “I never talked about my life growing up with my stepfather, how many obstacles there were in the way [or] how much adversity there was. I want the kids and young people to know that adversity makes you stronger. You have to stay positive, and if you cannot go over [an obstacle], you go on the side. You always find a way.”
Perhaps because of that early adversity, Puck describes himself as someone who tends to focus on the present and the future instead of dwelling in the past. In fact, one of Puck’s many disciples, CUT DC executive chef Andrew Skala, says his mentor will call him every week or so and starts every conversation with, “What’s new?”
Lately, what’s new is a sprinkle of tradition. As the movie-watching public learns of his mother’s cooking and the safe feeling of her kitchen, CUT DC in Georgetown will offer a few of Puck’s childhood favorites as specials to promote the movie release. District diners will be able to try his famous wienerschnitzel — a pounded veal cutlet that Puck and his army of chefs fry to golden perfection in 375-degree oil after dipping it in flour, egg and breadcrumbs to order — as well as kaiserschmarren [Ed. note: The special menu items promoting the release of “Wolfgang” are no longer being offered.]
“Traditionally in Austria, it’s like a heavy pancake,” he says of the dessert that his mother often served as a main course. “Then you tear it apart with two forks in a pan, put powdered sugar on it or whatever, glaze it or caramelize it a little bit, and then we serve it together with plum compote. I changed it when I put it on the menu at Spago. I make it much lighter, with less flour and more whipped egg whites. So, now it’s more the consistency of a soufflé, and we serve it with warm strawberry compote.”
When Puck isn’t promoting a movie, he generally tries to keep his nose out of the day-to-day and menu planning at his far-flung restaurants. Like a good parent, he knows that once he has given his chefs the tools for success, he must trust them to go do their own thing — while maintaining the integrity of the brand, of course.
“I really think every restaurant we run should be run by the general manager and the chef. Andrew was with me for 15 or 16 years, so I trust that he’s going to do the best job possible. I don’t want to be the babysitter. I think once I work with people for a long time, and know how they cook or how they are in hospitality, I basically say, ‘You know what? If I can do it, you can do it.’ So I work a lot on trust, really.”
That means even though there are eight versions of CUT scattered across the globe, Puck prefers each one to use local ingredients and let the talents of each local chef shine through. Skala says Puck wanted CUT DC, located inside the Rosewood Hotel, to be something different from the very beginning.
“I started this from scratch, keeping with the ethos of CUT and the brand, but doing something I thought spoke a little bit more about what I wanted to do and what I thought at the time could be relevant.”
Indeed, it might be the only steakhouse to describe itself as having a “vegetable and seafood-centric menu,” and Skala prides himself on converting meat lovers into guests who rave about the vegan leek dish dressed with hazelnuts, preserved lemons, and a white soy and white balsamic vinaigrette — or the cauliflower prepared in the style of shawarma.
But when Puck is in the Georgetown kitchen preparing wienerschnitzel, Skala knows how to give the legend the respect he deserves.
When Puck jokes, “If it’s f–ked up, it’s going to be all your fault,” Skala automatically volleys back with a “Yes, Chef!”
Onlookers erupt with laughter but are perhaps all relieved when he turns around, beaming, and says, “Ahh, perfect. Look at that! My mother would be proud of that.”
Skala’s crisp response: “Yes, Chef!”
Enjoy this piece? Consider becoming a member for access to our premium digital content. Support local journalism and start your membership today.