Master chef Wolfgang Puck celebrates a career of determination and dedication to fine food

Wolfgang Puck is in good spirits. He’s sitting on the lanai of his Maui restaurant Spago, surveying the view and talking about food.

“I feel fabulous!” he says in his familiar Austrian accent, arms flung wide open toward the bay. “How could you not, when you look at this ocean across to West Maui? It’s all so beautiful.”

Spago at the Four Seasons Wailea is one of Puck’s favorite destinations.

“This is a very special place,” he says. “Maui for me is all about the beauty of the land and the ocean. We wanted that to come through in our restaurant. When people come here at 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening and catch the sunset, we want them to see the beauty around them.”

Not that he has much time to spend here. With dozens of fine-dining restaurants (including Michelin-starred Cut, award-winning Postrio, Asian-themed Chinois and signature Spago restaurants), a catering company that provides event planning and food to Hollywood’s elite and a multimillion-dollar franchise operation, Puck barely has time to grab breakfast on Maui and run. But you’d never know it as he sat down with HILuxury on a sunny late morning, casually chatting about food as if he had nothing else to do.

As a figure watched by millions on Good Morning America, read about by millions more through his weekly syndicated columns, and with his signature on everything from kitchen knives to frozen pizza, Wolfgang Puck is possibly the best-known culinary name in the world.

It’s remarkable for almost anyone. But it’s even more remarkable once you find out about the driving force behind this extraordinary man.

Born in Austria in a tiny village near St. Veit an der Glan, Puck grew up in a family where his mother cooked at the local hotel, an hour’s walk from his home.

“My grandmother baked pastries, and my mother was a chef. But what I really wanted to be was an architect,” he says, remembering the first time he saw a picture of the Empire State Building.

“I thought that maybe I could build something like that in the next town,” he says. But there was no money in the Puck family for college or textbooks, and Puck realized he would have to find another career. Cooking seemed an obvious path, though not an easy one.

“My father thought that cooking was no profession for a man, so it was quite difficult at the start,” he recalls. Things didn’t get any easier when Puck finally found work in a large hotel.

“My father told me I was worthless because I took the hotel job,” remembers Puck. “And when I got there, the chef didn’t like me at all, and he fired me after two weeks. He, too, told me I was good for nothing.”

Hearing his father’s words echoed, the young Puck was depressed and contemplated suicide.

“There was a bridge in the town, and I walked there and stayed on top for hours in the cold and dark,” he says softly. But instead of jumping, he climbed down, went back to the hotel and turned up for work the next day – and the day after that.

“I had nowhere to go,” he says. “I could not go home, so I stayed there peeling vegetables and doing whatever was needed. After about two weeks, the chef found me.”

Sent to another hotel and eventually to L’Oustau de Baumaniere in Provence, where then 73-year-old chef Raymond Thuilier took an immediate liking to the small, determined student, Puck felt for the first time that he’d found his place.

“I finally knew this was what I was going to do,” he says.

Working his way through top hotels like Maxim’s in Paris and Hotel de Paris in Monaco, Puck left Europe for America, eventually arriving in 1975 at struggling Ma Maison in Los Angeles.

“When I came to Ma Maison, I was shocked by the kind of food they were serving,” he remembers. “There was really no such thing as ‘American food’ at that time. People were eating gray peas and canned beans. No one was using fresh herbs or goat cheese or sun-dried tomatoes, and when you went to the produce aisles of the supermarket, there was really nothing there.”

So Puck went looking for farmers and began to introduce Americans to their culinary future.

He found Laura Chenel and her chevre in Sonoma, strawberries and melons and dozens of varieties of tomatoes in Santa Fe, and forged partnerships with mushroom farmers and anyone who could provide Ma Maison with fresh, local produce. Using his finely honed French techniques and simple, fresh ingredients, Puck believed that his guests would jump at the chance to taste his new American cuisine.

“They thought it was terrible,” he laughs.

Puck catered a dinner one night for Caroline Hunt at The Hotel Bel-Air, in which everything on the menu came from local farmers.

“A letter came back after the dinner saying the guests were horrified that we had colored the vegetables,” says Puck. Only then did he realize that even in rarified dining circles, Americans had no idea about fresh food.

“Forget it,” he remembers saying. “I’m not cooking a dinner with cans.”

As Puck retells these stories, there’s warmth and humor in his voice. But through his lively, engaging narration, it’s easy to see the steely determination and passion that led to his great success.

“We started to change things slowly,” he says. “And really, it was amazing how we changed in a small amount of time. We did this tuna sashimi with avocado and Maui onions and caviar in 1982 at Spago, and we served our tuna steak rare. There was no other restaurant that served these kinds of dishes. People loved it.”

People also loved Puck’s gourmet pizza. “The thing about the pizza is it changed the way a lot of restaurants thought about their menu,” he says of the iconic creation at Spago, a restaurant so successful that the Los Angeles Times did a cover story titled The Spago-ization of America.

Yet even through revolutionary menus, multimedia branding and syndicated weekly columns and TV appearances, Puck has not lost any of his love for real food or his desire to make every restaurant experience memorable.

Spend an evening at Spago on Maui, and prepare to be amazed at the simple elegance and beauty of the natural flavors of the food.

“On Maui, our staff has access to the bounty of the world’s most incredible food,” he enthuses. “The fishermen come to the restaurant, and whatever they’ve caught is on the menu that night.”

He states without hesitation that the fish on Maui is superior to fish caught anywhere else in the world, and waxes lyrically about the beauty of the Valley Isle’s fresh produce. “The food is just incredible here,” he says.

Preserving that bounty is important to one of America’s most influential chefs. After more than two decades with Spago, Puck is ready with a new mission and a new message.

“We want to be good citizens at Spago,” he says. “Instead of throwing a big party and celebrating our success when we turned 25 (in 2007), we wondered what we could do next.”

What he did was inform farmers, ranchers and fishermen that Spago would no longer use caged chickens, threatened species or animals treated inhumanely during their lifetime.

“It’s not necessary to treat animals the way they do in factory farms,” he says. “Animals that roam free have more flavor. Meat tastes better when animals are well-treated. We are ensuring that that happens.”

His environmental concerns include the oceans, too. “We’ve been overfishing our oceans completely,” he says. “Our children may never know what a real tuna tastes like. It’s important to let the population of certain species come back. We are committed to that.”

And that’s one reason why Spago, Maui is among Puck’s favorite destinations.

“At Spago on Maui, you can taste that the food was just cut, just prepared, just caught,” says the man who imagined designing an Austrian Empire State Building and ended up changing the culinary landscape of America instead.

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