Wolfgang Puck

Title: Owner
Companies: Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining, Wolfgang Puck Catering, Wolfgang Puck Worldwide
Born: Saint Veit, Austria; 1949
Career Turning Point: Working under Raymond Thullier at Bon Mani & #269;re, a restaurant in the South of France
Influential People: Raymond Thullier
Hobbies: Tennis, skiing, wine and everything to do with food
Personal: Lives in Beverly Hills with his fianc & #233;e Gelila Assefa and their two sons, aged 18 months and 3 months; and two sons aged 12 and 17 with first wife, Barbara Lazaroff

For many, the name Wolfgang Puck has become more of a brand than a person. Puck oversees a $350 million-a-year retail empire that includes cooking supplies, canned soup, frozen pizzas and a high-end catering business here in town. He owns or licenses 14 upscale restaurants including Spago in Beverly Hills, Chinois on Main in Santa Monica and Cut Steakhouse at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. His 80 express caf & #233;s are in 19 states and three countries. His catering company boasts a long-time contract with the Academy Awards. However, not all has gone well. The catering company brought him bad press earlier this year following the announcement that an employee with Hepatitis A prepared food for several Oscar parties. The express cafes as a group lost money for years, and the frozen pizza business was not a good performer in the past. Those setbacks and others have led to some speculation that the Puck brand is stretched too thin and quality is suffering. Puck maintains that his scrapes are the price of having a well-known name. The two-week wait for a reservation at Cut suggest his fan base remains solid. He's reassumed control over some of his businesses, such as frozen pizzas, and he recently settled a five-year campaign by animal activists by agreeing to ban foie gras and crated veal and pork from his menus in an effort to be more animal friendly. Puck the man, not the brand recently had his fourth child and said he has finally learned the secret to balancing a demanding work schedule with his family life.

Q: You and your fianc & #233; Gelila Assefa recently had your second child together. Does having a baby change things?

A: No, I always loved kids. To me having kids is part of life and my dream has always been to have a family, cook for them, hang out.

Q: So you do cook at home?

A: Well for the kids I do a lot, whenever we have something to cook. On Sundays I go to the vegetable market. It was Sunday night and I was saying let's go out, let's go out but it got late and I made a vegetable soup and a salad and a bit of cheese and that was dinner.

Q: What was your childhood like?

A: My childhood was very rough. My mother was a chef, my stepfather was a coal miner. My stepfather used to drink a lot, my mother was a cook and worked very hard.

Q: So she inspired you to cook?

A: When I was about 10 years old I used to go and see her. It was about 15 miles away from my home, the hotel on the lake and she was working and I used to hang out with the pastry chef, mainly because I loved sweets, and they showed me to do things. So when I was 13 years old, I knew how to make a souffl & #233;, I knew how to make a baked Alaska. I started my apprenticeship when I was 14.

Q: Was there a turning point in your career?

A: When I worked at Bon Mani & #269;re when I was 19 in the south of France and Raymond Thullier, who was the owner and chef, changed my whole thing about cooking. Before I didn't know if I was going to stay in the profession, but when I saw the way that he cooked, what he represented, it changed my life. And then I said that's what I want to be. I want to write a cookbook. I want to own a restaurant and that was it. And he was 72 years old, but he had an energy that was amazing.

Q: So, what kind of food do you eat?

A: I don't go out unless I know I'm going to get good food. I don't go to eat fast food. I buy some organic chicken at the farmer's market and it's so easy: You put a little olive oil, a little rosemary inside the skin and then you roast it with some potatoes, some carrots. Even it you don't make sauce, just have a little mustard with it. Simple.

Q: What's your typical day like?

A: The restaurants are my first love. I spend more time there than anywhere because as soon as I get up in the morning, I think about food, I think about the restaurant. In the morning I come here (to Spago Beverly Hills), and the office is across the street. I'm here during lunchtime, here during dinnertime. Then I go to Chinois in Santa Monica or across the street to Cut.

Q: How do you balance work and your private life?

A: I think that as I get older, I know a little bit better how to balance it and not get as crazy as I was when I was young. When I was young, if I heard so and so was coming to the restaurant, and I'd said I was going to take the day off, I'd have to go the restaurant. The restaurant has to function without me, and it does. Otherwise we would not have that many.

Q: How did you learn to back off?

A: I was married before and I was unhappy. I was always thinking life is empty in a way. I had two great kids, but still I never wanted to go home.

Q: How do you measure success?

A: I think to me success is how we balance our business life with our private life. As I said, I was married before, and I was unhappy. So even though I was very successful, I was spending too much time working. People get divorced and not only because they were in the kitchen.

Q: How did you turn yourself into a brand?

A: When I went into packaged food 15 years ago, I said to create a brand, the vehicle will be the restaurants because they get the most publicity and everything. (Writers and critics) are not going to write about frozen pizza, canned soup or things like that. So restaurants always kept my name out there because we always opened new places.

Q: What's your biggest challenge in business?

A: Finding good chefs.

Q: Why is training a chef so difficult?

A: It looks so easy and they learn how to do three dishes, but they forget the chef has to be a businessman, a manager and a cook. And each one at a certain point has to take the lead, so when you do the food planning, the forecast for the week or for the month, you have to be a businessperson. When you want to go and manage the people, everybody has problems.

Q: What's the best advice you ever got?

A: For me, it is not to do something that I don't know. If you are an expert in something, that's what you should do. If you're a lawyer and go into the restaurant business, you have a good chance of failing because you're not an expert.

Q: How do you keep control over the sectors of your businesses?

A: I have really good people here working with me who think the same. I don't have to tell Lee Hefter or Sherry Yard (at Spago Beverly Hills) what the dessert should be like. They know. They started young with me, so they know. They think like I do. It's not like all of a sudden we go off in a different direction.

Q: You took a real hit in the press last month with the Hepatitis A scare. What's that like?

A: It's very difficult because you're completely helpless. It's not like you did something where you could say, 'I could change that.' I can't change anything because I can't control all the people who work.

Q: What does this kind of press do to your brand?

A: I think you just have to weather it out like a sailor. When it's sunny, sailing is easy. When it gets stormy, you just have to hang in tight and weather it out. It did not affect our business at all in the restaurants.

Q: Your express caf & #233;s hit hard times a few years ago and there were problems with the frozen pizza business, too. Do you think you're overextended?

A: I let somebody from Harvard Business School control the express cafes, somebody who made up big spreadsheets and great projections and wasn't an operator, so I almost went down. And it cost money to come back out of it. So now I have somebody who I trust. So now we have money in the bank. We have a few licensees who are really good, a few we are still going to try to shake out, but overall we are much, much better off.

Q: You sold your frozen pizza business to Con Agra, but eventually bought it back after a poor showing. What's different about the new version, which is prepared by the Schwan Food Co.?

A: We are producing it right here down in Torrance. And I said I want it to be exactly the way I want it. Now if there's something wrong, I can go down there, bring Sherry in and tell her to fix the crust and I'll work on the toppings and we'll rectify it.

Q: So you don't think you've taken your brand too far?

A: I think just like if you look at Armani or Pierre Cardin, their brand extension is pretty vast, too. Some of them even growing out of their own fields and doing different things, like Armani building a hotel, or designing a hotel in Dubai or having restaurants. So I try to stay in the food world. I'm not going to do clothes or shoes or jewelry or sunglasses or anything like that. So think as long as I stay in food, I'm OK.

Q: Are you going go open more restaurants? And since you can't be there in all of them, why?

A: We'll open more restaurants because I have all these chefs who all want to be a chef in a restaurant. We open as we train our people.

Q: You've gotten a big following based on the Home Shopping Network infomercials you use to sell your products. Why does that format work so well for you?

A: Because it's completely free form. Most of the Food Network shows are too scripted and too uptight. And it's not fun. If I could find something fun, I would love to do a television show where you can show people cooking is fun.

Q: What projects are next on your agenda?

A: Right now I'm working on a TV show for kids. We have so much obesity, so much diabetes. So I'll be animated, the oven, the stoves, the blender, the garbage can, everything will be animated so it's going to be a like a crazy kitchen. But I want kids to learn something also. We talk about nutrition and geography, where it comes from, and things like that.

Q: You're starting a line of baby food. Why?

A: Each time Gelila or I buy some baby food, it tastes so horrible. So no wonder kids get older and are eating fast food, because it starts out being the most boring thing.

Q: What's behind your commitment to go all-organic?

A: I think at the end of the day we have to be able to say the source of our food is as good as it possibly can be, and if it's organically grown vegetables, if it's certain fish we have to farm, we'll do it, but you have to do that right, too. With some farm salmon, they're so close together and they give them all the chunks to eat and so all of a sudden, the whole thing makes no sense anymore. So I think there has to be a certain balance.

Q: What economics do you consider when you look one of your restaurants?

A: With many restaurants about two-thirds of the profits are food sales. The other third is beverages wine, alcohol and stuff like that. You can't sell it at a loss, not for long. So you say, if I buy a steak for $10 and my overhead and my labor cost is that high, I'm going to multiply it by three to cover the costs. I think it's the same thing with wine. Now, it doesn't mean you have to multiply it by three; it depends what your markup is. If I buy a bottle of wine for $500, I say I can sell it for $700. I don't have to charge $1,500, because I still made $200.

Q: But isn't it better to make more?

A: I'd rather sell 10 bottles than one bottle. That way people also think that they get a good deal. I always want people to think they got a good deal.

Q: You're 57 years old. Are you planning to retire?

A: For me, I think the worst thing would be to retire. I don't think I could ever find anything I love as much as cooking.

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