Oscars 2012: Wolfgang Puck Dishes Oscar-Night Secrets

Talking to THR, the Austrian-born chef takes stock of his $400 million-a-year empire, explains why he won't do a TV show and reveals the one customer lie that made him change his ways.
Misha Gravenor

Inspecting gold-dusted chocolate Oscar statuettes, cutting a rack of medium-rare lamb chops and tasting piping-hot mini chicken pot pies, chef Wolfgang Puck was in his element on a recent afternoon in his 7,500-square-foot kitchen tucked into the fifth floor of Hollywood & Highland Center.

The industrial kitchen is the nerve center from which the 62-year-old chef will cater his 18th consecutive Academy Awards Governors Ball, to be held in Hollywood & Highland's Grand Ballroom. Although he has been at it for nearly two decades, Puck -- whose culinary empire began with Spago in 1982 and now includes canned and frozen food lines, appliances and cookware sold on The Shopping Channel, 20 fine-dining restaurants and more than 80 fast-casual eateries -- isn't sticking to tradition this year. Eschewing the standard sit-down dinner, the Governors Ball will feature casual seating and tray-passed food and buffets. Puck also is debuting a 3D chocolate dessert that can be viewed with special glasses.

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It has been a busy period for the Austrian chef, who resides in Beverly Hills with his second wife, handbag designer Gelila Assefa, and their two boys. In November, he launched a namesake restaurant at the revamped Hotel Bel-Air, and in the summer he will close Spago for a redesign by Soho House decorator Waldo Fernandez (don't fret, it'll reopen in September).

While Puck declines to discuss his business' worth, in August he told Bloomberg that it generates about $400 million in annual revenue. As workers assembled furniture for the Governors Ball, he took a breather at a booth in the Grand Ballroom, his black shoes covered with gold leaf from a recent stint in the kitchen, and discussed taking his business public, why he won't host a cooking show and a Governors Ball cooking disaster.

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: Why switch to a less formal party for this year's ball?

Wolfgang Puck: I think it should be a party, not just a dinner. You want people to be able to sit with whom they'd like to sit, not with some people they've never met. Before, you saw one table with Francis Ford Coppola, one table with Billy Crystal, one table with Barbra Streisand, and so on. But they wanted to sit together.

THR: Can you recall a Governors Ball kitchen disaster?

Puck: The first year [at Hollywood & Highland in 2002], all of a sudden the electricity and the gas went out. I always cook everything at the last moment, I want to do it like the restaurant does, and I had cooked probably 800 steaks -- about half of it -- and still had the other half to cook. It took maybe 15 minutes to get it on again, but those 15 minutes were probably the longest of my life.

THR: Does anyone from the Academy consult on the menu?

Puck: Nope. When we did it the first time, I remember [Governors Ball producer] Cheryl Cecchetto came to the old Spago and asked the chef before I got there in the morning, "That's all you're going to do? You've got to give them some choices." And then Matt Bencivenga, the chef, came to me when I arrived and said, "There's this crazy lady and she told us to do more things." I told Cheryl, "I do the cooking. If you want to do the decorating that's fine, but you don't tell us what to do -- if not you leave the restaurant right away. She said, "OK, OK, OK," and we became friends from then on.

THR: How does this event compare with other entertainment industry parties you've catered?

Puck: We do a lot of events, the Directors Guild Awards, all these awards. We used to do the Grammys, but they got so cheap, so we said, "It's not worth doing it." This is really the crown jewel of the award season. If you win a Golden Globe, it's OK, but if you win an Oscar, it puts you in a different place.

THR: You recently partnered with Campbell's for a new line of Italian sauces. How do you approach opportunities like this?

Puck: When I started, I looked at Armani and a few companies like that, which are totally integrated. They have haute couture for a hundred thousand dollars, and then you can go buy socks or underwear for not that much money. And you can get the pret-a-porter, which is still expensive but not crazy. We are a little bit the same. We are both couture, which is our upscale restaurants, then you have our mid-level restaurants, the airport restaurants, and some licensing and so on. Whatever level we play at, we try to be the best.

THR: Are you ever concerned you will devalue the brand by taking it so mainstream?

Puck: I was very worried at the beginning about that. I said, "We go to the farmers market, we go to the fish market, we have Chino Farm in Rancho Santa Fe who brings us the best vegetables." And all of a sudden we sell frozen pizza and canned soup. But the funny thing is, people who come to Spago, they have canned soup and frozen pizzas at home. So if they can get something that they can rely on, I think it's a good thing for them, too.

THR: You're known for saying hello to most of your customers at Spago. Have you always done this?

Puck: No, I grew into it because at the beginning I said hello only to people I knew. One day I got a really nasty letter from somebody who actually lied to his family and friends and said, "Yeah, we can get into Spago, I'm a friend of Wolfgang's." I didn't know the guy, and he just said it to make himself look good. When I didn't say hello to his table, he wrote me this letter and said, "You know, I felt so terrible because I told my family that I'm a friend of yours, which is not true, because I knew you were coming around. You came around and said hello to every table except us." So I said, "OK, from now on, I'll try not to leave anybody out."

THR: Do you ever see yourself winding down with the business?

Puck: I think there's a timeline of like five years from now, where maybe I will sell part of the restaurants or part of the catering business or part of something.

THR: Because you'd be ready to relax?

Puck: Yeah. Also to get some liquidity. One of the reasons to go public would be to get some money out.

THR: So you're considering going public?

Puck: Right now, no. If there would be a climate where the multiples would be good -- maybe.

THR: How has the response been to all the changes at the Hotel Bel-Air?

Puck: I think it has been from some people very good, and some people are very upset. It's a mixed response. You know when people say, "Oh my God, I love the old bar" -- the old bar smelled bad. They had this rotten floor underneath everything. People will get used to it. I like change.

THR: In December, your ex-wife and Spago co-founder Barbara Lazaroff posted on Facebook a critique of plans for the eatery's redesign, saying "ugly is ugly."

Puck: I don't know what reason she made it. The redesign is good for her, too. I think it's time to change. Now, if we were a restaurant with 60 seats, we wouldn't have to do it because we would be sold out three weeks ahead. But we are a big restaurant with a big banquet room. Spago deserves to be on the top, and if we want to stay in business 50 years, that's what we have to do.

THR: You've guest judged on shows like Top Chef, but why not host your own program?

Puck: I did a series for the Food Network, but that's like 10 years ago [Wolfgang Puck]. I did about 100 shows. I could not own the show, so I said, "They're using it over and over again, and I'm never getting residuals. Why do it?" And they wanted to do more technique, get really close up and teach how to cook, which is not a bad thing, but it's just too boring for me. I've gotten offered many jobs to do things. I've said, "How can I leave my business for two months and just do television?" Enough people know me.

THR: Do you watch any of the food competition shows?

Puck: I never watch cooking shows. I did Iron Chef once, and I won, so I said, "OK, now I don't have to do it anymore."

THR: Does it bother you when chefs who may lack your experience cash in quickly with things like TV shows?

Puck: No, not at all. To have longevity is really the most important thing to me. Being married for one year -- or like Kim Kardashian for two months -- is not a big deal. Being with the same woman for many years, it's an accomplishment. Or having great children who you still have dinner with -- they're 30 years old and they want to see you -- that's an accomplishment. For us to have Spago open for so long and still be so successful, I think that's really a great accomplishment.

Email: Daniel.Miller@THR.com

Twitter: @DanielNMiller