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Puck Goes Back to His (Ginger) Roots

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Before he rocked western culinary civilization with Spago in 1982, Wolfgang Puck had worked in his native Vienna and Paris. He went to the U.S. in 1973 and landed in Indianapolis, Indiana, not exactly a gourmand's Mecca -- in fact, it's heartland Midwest meat-and-potato country.

When he moved to Los Angeles in 1975 to take over the kitchen at a French restaurant named Ma Maison, giving French traditional a modern California spin, it did not take long for Hollywood's elite to give the bistro a lot of buzz. Then, in '82, he opened Spago in BevHills, now synonymous with California cuisine. But it wasn't until 1983, with Chinois on Main, in Santa Monica, that he delved into Asian cuisine, pioneering what became the "fusion" food phenomenon.

The rest is modern day culinary history. Today, a plethora of ventures falls under the Puck corporate umbrella: restaurants, a catering business and bistro franchises, plus books, TV shows and even a line of cookware. In all, industry experts estimate that his epicurean empire brings in about $350 million in annual revenue.

With his most recent openings this past fall behind him -- Wolfgang Puck at the Hotel Bel-Air in Beverly Hills, his 20th fine dining restaurant, and CUT at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore, the third in his steakhouse chain, the Austrian sat still, if only briefly, last month with me in the al fresco section of his flagship Spago to access which way the east-west winds are blowing at Puck Inc.

What was your introduction to the East's style of cooking?

Interestingly, I only remember a few cheap Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants in Paris. But in L.A. in the late '70s, on my Sundays off I used to go down to the tiny Asian section and sample foods from Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Thai Town and Koreatown. I loved tasting what to me were new spices and trying to figure out their methods of cooking.

When I opened Spago, I put tuna sashimi on the menu. In '82 you never saw that in restaurants serving American or European food. Or course I had to make it reflect both East and West. So instead of just soy sauce I made a little salad: tuna with avocado, Maui onions, and a sprinkle of caviar on top. My vinaigrette was soy sauce, lime juice, olive oil and little chili flakes. That was my very first foray into combining Asian, Californian and French.

Spago was so successful when it opened. Why did you depart from that formula and open Chinois on Main, which some say was the first American fusion of Eastern and Western cuisine?

First of all, I don't buy into all these something-slash-Asian phrases -- Pan Asian, Cal Asian, Pan Pacific. As soon as it's named, it becomes a "trend" that everyone can jump on and imitate, rather than innovate. It's not as simple as adding ginger and soy sauce -- and voila, Asian fusion.

We opened the second Spago in Tokyo and the more I went there, the more I became influenced by the simplicity of the East. When a restaurant space became open in Santa Monica, the lucrative thing would have been to open another Spago, but I always followed my palate, not my pocketbook. Though chinois actually comes from the French adjective for Chinese, I did not intent this to be a Chinese restaurant in the same way most people thought then -- spring rolls, chow mien, spare ribs, shrimp with lobster sauce.

People didn't understand it at first -- they called it French Chinese. Of course I got negative responses from traditional American Chinese restaurant owners -- "How dare you cook Chinese food -- you're not even Chinese." But I believe authenticity is about evolution, not repeating your grandmother's recipe. Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors -- it's how you combine them that sets you apart.

You were among the chefs who helped popularize the phenomenon we now call "celebrity chef," along with all the cooking and reality chef TV shows that have followed. Do you regret being at the forefront of that?

The title of celebrity chef is sort of bogus. Do we have celebrity shoemakers, celebrity butchers? The good news about showcasing chefs and the TV shows is they've attracted a lot more smart kids to the profession than 30 years ago. On the down side, though, these young chefs all say they want their own restaurant and their own TV show. Very few say "I want to have the best restaurant in town." Yet all this exposure has made people think and talk more about food. That makes diners more sophisticated, more discerning, which in turn challenges chefs to stay on top of their game.

Some would say it's counter-intuitive to open an upscale steak joint in Singapore, where almost 50 percent of the population is Buddhist and Taoist, vegetarians by religious decree. What were you thinking?

It's a myth that generally Asians are more vegetarians. The Japanese are the kings of red meat, but it's expensive. The Chinese and Vietnamese love their pork. Many Indians, especially the Muslims, can't live without their lamb. But, for example, the Chinese can't get good steak so they fry it in cornstarch to make it more tender. But once they discover the taste of great beef, they're sold.

Another important difference: our steaks are cooked over charcoal and wood. A broiler doesn't do anything to enhance the taste. Quite the contrary.

The other hurdle is a matter of education; the Chinese are just learning the art of fine European dining traditions. They like all the food at once in the center of the table, so they can pick from plates with their chopsticks. I've watched when we'd send out the first course, a salad, and they'd ask the waiter, "This is it? Where's the rest?"

What has been the biggest obstacle for you to overcome personally on the road to success?

My shyness, without a doubt. Maybe it was because my mother was shy. I know when my father would yell criticism at me from the sidelines of the soccer field I wanted to just disappear. In my old school pictures I'm never looking into the camera. Even when I was 27 I was the shyest guy. The first cable TV cooking show I was on -- I still couldn't look into the camera.

I rarely went into the dining room to say hello to guests. I would go see only people I knew. Unfortunately, those people happened to be famous, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Billy Wilder, Orson Well, and Gene Kelly, my tennis partner. So I got the reputation for being snobby; people would write letters: "Oh, he goes over to Arnold and Orson, but I'm not important enough?"

Here I was in the hospitality business and people perceived me as being inhospitable. I got the message fast. Now I make it a point every night to go to every table and greet them. People love it. I think it's not so much about meeting the "celebrity chef" as it is about making a personal connection between what's on their plate and a real live human being who was responsible for it. And, by the way, it breeds loyalty. Wouldn't it be great if airline pilots came around and greeted every passenger? I bet it would result in more frequent fliers.

What can we look for next coming out from under your chef's hat?

I am definitely moving more toward simplicity. When I was 27 if I didn't put 15 things in one dish I wasn't happy. It had to be as many as possible and I was so proud of myself. Now I am the opposite. I put in a couple of four things and let the flavors and textures be the stars. Today I'm more into gastronomy, which is literally the art and appreciation of preparing and eating good food. It's as much for the eyes as for the mouth.

That's why I have been drawn back to the Japanese style. So we're completely redoing the Spago menu and its décor this winter, with much more Japanese influence. They are the purest, most aesthetic and most spiritual about their food and the presentation. They'll place an edible flower just so perfectly off center on the plate. They start with the best produce they can find. This is just like my philosophy, which I always put this way: "We buy the best ingredients and then we try not to f--- them up."

Perry Garfinkel, who writes frequently about Asia, is the author of "Buddha or Bust" (http://www.perrygarfinkel.com).

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