Welcome to L.A. Week on First We Feast. As part of our continuing initiative to devote more coverage to Los Angeles, we’ll be running special features all week to explore the city’s ever-evolving food scene—from its most vaunted chefs, to its gritty underbelly.
We’ve talked to nearly 70 chefs about their career-changing dishes since launching this column, from legends like Daniel Boulud and Wylie Dufresne, to rising stars like Alumette’s Miles Thompson. For our first-ever L.A. Week, we could have turned the spotlight onto new-school power players like Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, the guys who introduced the city to inventive offal at Animal, or Jessica Koslow, whose famous Sqirl jams put the bounty of California produce in the spotlight. But you can’t really do justice to L.A.’s evolving dining scene without paying homage to the legendary Wolfgang Puck. Before there were the cans of organic soup and the branded skillets; before he was feeding Angelina Jolie lobster BLTs off the Oscars red carpet; and before his restaurant empire expanded to flashy locations like Las Vegas, Singapore, and Dubai, Puck changed the way Angelenos—and ultimately, Americans—eat.
In 1975, the young Austrian chef made his first splash in Los Angeles with the one-time West Hollywood icon, Ma Maison. Every night, celebrities and business moguls thronged the plant-filled patio to sip a gratis kir and order salmon fumé and chicken with whole-grain mustard sauce. Long before farmers’ markets were de rigueur for chefs, Puck scoured them religiously, loading up on the produce that made its way onto the evening’s menu. By fusing these fresh, local ingredients with classic French techniques and global nods, he ushered in the attractive new genre of California cuisine. Fatigued eaters, who long equated fine dining with the hefty steaks at Chasen’s, were captivated.
I’ll rest when I’m dead.
After the heady Ma Maison years, Puck set out on his own, opening the transformative Spago in 1982 with partner and now ex-wife Barbara Lazaroff, on Sunset Strip (it moved to Beverly Hills 15 years later). There, in a groundbreaking casual fine-dining setting, his nouvelle cuisine found the stage it needed. Although his food always nodded to France—working at Raymond Thuilier’s Provence retreat, L’Oustau de Baumanière, was a turning point for Puck, who went on to work at the likes of Maxim’s in Paris, and La Tour in Indianapolis—it also flaunted Mediterranean and Asian influences.
This successful cross-pollination quickly made Spago a haunt for celebs eager to try light, vibrant tuna sashimi with ponzu sauce, and angel-hair pasta with goat cheese and thyme. In particular, the restaurant became synonymous with its newfangled pizzas—groundbreaking wood-fired pies cloaked in luxe ingredients like smoked salmon and caviar.
Post-Spago, the hits kept coming—Chinois, home of Puck’s ever-popular chicken salad, and buzzy steakhouse, CUT, among them. “It all moved pretty fast after that. It was like, ‘Oh my God, this is crazy,’” says Puck. “I just kept going. I talked to my sister in Austria today and she said, ‘I don’t know where you get the energy from.’ I told her, ‘I’ll rest when I’m dead.”’
Puck may forever be associated with the tortilla soup and lobster Cobb salad that helped make him famous, but he never wants to stop growing. “I want to be married to my craft, and my craft is not one dish,” he says. “It’s nice that people ask for [those classics], but I always look for what’s next.”
With plans for restaurants in locales such as Bahrain, Puck continues to evolve and expand his multi-platform enterprise. From disappointing pizza that inspired his own dedication to pie-making, to serendipitous Chinese New Year feasts, here are 10 of the meals that keep the globe-trotting and prolific chef looking forward.
Mother’s Wiener Schnitzel and Mashed Potatoes
My mother was a professional chef and excellent cook. When I was a kid, her wiener schnitzel and mashed potatoes were my favorite. She fried it in oil, and pork fat and a sprig of rosemary gave it an amazing aroma, especially in the winter when it was so cold out. I only ate half of it for lunch and saved the other part for dinner. I didn’t need to eat anything else. (Photo: Steve Giralt/Parade)
Restaurant Steirereck (Vienna, Austria)
Steirereck was the first place I went to in Vienna where I said, “This is a world-class restaurant.” There was a cart with probably 15 different breads. The chef there, Heinz Reitbauer, made us some noodles with cheese and potatoes, like we have where I’m from, and venison with lingonberries. He made the classics but in a modern way, even serving things in mason jars. (Photo: Relais Chateaux)
Kitcho (Kyoto, Japan)
When I found out I was going to Kyoto, in the early ’80s, I wanted a reservation at Kitcho. It was very difficult, but I got one and my ex-wife and I had an amazing experience. Every table had its own room and it was quiet in its own way, with gracious service. We ate all these dishes I never had before, but I still remember the scallops we cooked—as much or as little as we wanted—on hot stones. (Photo: Trip Advisor)
Moulin de Mougins (Mougins, France)
A long time ago, before I even opened Spago, I was on the French Riviera with a girlfriend who didn’t care about food. I left her at the hotel and went to go see my friend Roger Vergé at Moulin de Mougins, where I ate alone on the terrace. I still remember I had a lobster salad with black truffles, stuffed zucchini flowers, and then for dessert, wild strawberries with vanilla ice cream. It was a perfect lunch and I was happy to be alone and concentrate on just the flavors instead of conversation. (Photo: Moulin de Mougins)
L’Oustau de Baumanière (Les Baux de Provence, France)
This is the restaurant that really changed my life. I saw Raymond Thuilier and I said, “I want to be like this guy.” He was the mayor, a painter, a real Renaissance man who cooked from the heart. He was always changing his recipes. Sometimes he’d add lemon, sometimes he’d add cayenne, and that was so interesting to me. Whenever I made something at the sauce station, he’d taste it and say “add salt” or “add pepper.” I was not only inspired by his cooking, but the food he made—the rouget with olive oil, the soufflé—was all really amazing. One time he didn’t know I was on vacation in Austria and he asked where I was. We had just gotten a telephone at home; before that, there used to be one line in the village. He called and said I needed to come back in two days because he wanted me to be the chef of the sauce station. But I wouldn’t make it back in time if I took the train, so I flew. It was my first time on a plane. He’d go back and forth between the dining room, talking to guests, and coming back into the kitchen and yelling at everybody. But without him, I might have become a doctor. (Photo: oustaudebaumaniere.com)
La Grenouille (New York, NY)
Charles Masson was a nice man. When I came to New York to work at La Goulue, I called him up and he said, “Why don’t you come to La Grenouille and have dinner with us?” It was an elegant restaurant. Everyone had on a coat and tie and the food was so good. The lamb was like we did it at Maxim’s, and that Grand Marnier soufflé? I thought, ‘Oh my god, they have really good restaurants here.’ Charles’ friend needed a chef in Indianapolis and I love auto racing, so I decided to go there. I thought it was going to be like Monaco. (Photo: Yelp/Ciprian T.)
Lai Ching Yuen (Hong Kong)
I went to Hong Kong and a friend who knows the restaurants really well there gave me all these great recommendations. He said I needed to go eat squab at this place, crab at this one, and to just make reservations. But it was the week of Chinese New Year, and naturally all the small restaurants were closed then. I was staying at the Regent, what is now the InterContinental, and the manager said, “Why don’t you eat at our Chinese restaurant in the hotel?” I was like, ‘Oh my god, I have to eat at a Chinese restaurant in the hotel when there are all these dishes I want to try?’ But there was no other choice. Lai Ching Yuen turned out to be upscale, with white tablecloths and a great wine list, and the chef sent me out food that was amazing. I came back the next three nights and told him to cook me whatever he wanted—baby pig, duck, scallop tempura with pear. It was the nicest surprise. (Photo: Time Out)
elBulli (Roses, Spain)
My wife and I were in Barcelona and we drove two hours to elBulli. It’s almost in France. We hoped there was a hotel. To eat dinner in Spain at 8:30 and not 10 was early, but we had 37 different dishes. It was crazy. There were beautiful metal plates and see-through ravioli that melted on your mouth. It wasn’t anything you would cook at home, and it’s not the kind of place you would go back to the next week, but the restaurant was about selling an entire experience, not just food. One dish alone would not have had an effect; it was all of them, and the presentation and setting, together. (Photo: A Day at ElBulli)
Troisgros (Roanne, France)
To see a fancy, little, three-star restaurant next to a train station made an impression on me when I was young. How could anybody think to build a restaurant of this quality in the middle of nowhere? People only came to Roanne to eat here. Obviously we had the salmon with sorrel, their famous dish, but their black truffles were the best I ever had. (Photo: CNN/Parts Unknown)
Pizza at Chez Guy (Gevrey-Chambertin, France)
We heard that pizza was everywhere in Italy. We drove from Austria to Grado, on the Adriatic Sea, where we had a terrible one. It was heavy, soggy, and made just for tourists. But the first real good one I had was in Provence, at Chez Guy. They made pizza basically the way we do now. They shaped the dough and it was crispy, but a little chewy, too, with good mozzarella. The mother made the tomato sauce and it was cooked down with onion, garlic, and oregano. (Photo: wolfgangpuck.com)