Puck stops here: “Everybody goes to New York,” he says, in his first Manhattan restaurant. “I said I have to stay in LA and defend LA.”
Image: James Farrell for Forbes
When Wolfgang Puck was a 14-year-old boy living in the small Austrian town of St Veit, he saw a picture of the Empire State Building. The 102-storey skyscraper inspired two thoughts. The first: “I want to build something like that.” The second: “What lies beyond our mountains?”
The answer was New York City.Unlike those who try to make it there first, Puck would take more than 50 years to bring his culinary talents to Manhattan. Over the course of those decades, he became the rare celebrity chef who built an empire without the help of the New York restaurant world.
In fact, Puck has been ev- erywhere but New York: After dropping out of school and working in kitchens in France, he started his American career as the chef at La Tour in Indianapolis (“I love auto racing—I used to live in Monte Carlo. Indianapolis sounded amazing,” he says of that decision) and earned a spot in the culinary firmament with the 1982 opening of Spago in Hollywood.
That his locally sourced, Ital- ianesque concept—which showed that good food doesn’t have to be stuffy by putting smoked salmon and caviar on pizza—now sounds ordinary is proof of how dramatically Puck changed the dining landscape.
He cemented his status as the king of California cuisine with the opening of Chinois in Santa Monica and Postrio in San Francisco and by catering the Oscars (he’s on his 23rd year)—and it’s an honour he’s proud to keep.
“Everybody goes to New York. Thomas Keller was in LA, and he goes to New York,” Puck says. “I said I have to stay in LA and defend LA.”
But with restaurants now in Las Vegas, London and even Bahrain Bay, the call of Manhattan became too strong to resist. Last fall, Puck opened Cut, his steak-house concept, in New York’s Financial District. It’s his 27th fine-dining restaurant and his sixth Cut.
“I think New York is the Holy Grail,” says Tom Kaplan, Puck’s longtime business partner. “We’re really proud to be there, and we know we have to earn our stripes.”
Indeed they do. The city’s most prominent culinary voices have given Cut a bit of a New York welcome (in December, The New York Times critic Pete Wells wrote that “nothing on the menu breaks new ground”), though Puck insists the place has been busy and has already established a rotating cast of regulars.
Cut is a distinctly Puckian creation—the chef himself had a hand in curating everything from the rich interior design to the music playing overhead to, of course, the menu, which has been dusted with influences from his signature Spago.
Big-eye tuna tartare with wasabi, togarashi crisps and tosa soy starts the menu and gives way to dishes like handmade tortelloni, bone marrow flan and Wagyu beef sashimi with Japanese cucumbers. Main courses are a carnivore’s dream: There’s locally sourced angus filet, 28-day aged prime beef from Creekstone Farms in Kansas and 35-day dry-aged cuts.
And Puck is banking on New York’s storied history as a mecca for meat lovers. During a recent lunchtime rush, he was working the dining room in his chef ’s whites, shaking hands with diners and asking them if there’s anything he can do. He likes to visit a dining room twice a night, but sometimes these rotations take longer than they should because he gets caught up in conversations.
Puck’s famously ebullient demeanour belies his tenacity and shrewdness as a businessman. The 67-year-old chef has grown his brand into an enterprise doing north of $400 million in annual sales (in addition to the fine-dining segment, whose restaurants can reap upwards of $13 million in sales per location, the Wolfgang Puck companies boast 72 casual dining spots, a line of kitchenware and even eponymous canned soups) by partnering with airports and hotel and casino chains like MGM Grand, Sands and the Four Seasons. If a hotel or casino provides the capital to build and operate a restaurant, Puck’s team works for a management fee that comes off the topline and an incentive fee that comes off the bottomline.
uck doesn’t seem worried about the new restaurant’s success: Now that we’re in New York, we might as well have two
These types of deals mean that in finally moving to New York, Puck is largely inoculated against many of the challenges that face Manhattan-based restaurateurs (challenges that shuttered Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill and forced Danny Meyer to relocate his Union Square Café after 30 years).
Cut is operated by the Four Seasons, and Puck leases the space in the newly opened downtown hotel.
So if not for the real estate risk, what took him so long to get to the big city? Puck and his partners describe the protracted wait for a Manhattan outpost as a matter of strategy: Holding out for the right time and the right location.
“It took a long time to get this project off the ground, to get the building built,” he says. “We ac- tually started five years ago. So it was five years in the making.”
It was the recession in 2009 and its effects on Las Vegas—a city that houses six of his restaurants, fine and casual—that prompted Puck and his partners to focus on expanding internationally. The Singapore Cut opened in 2010, and London’s version in 2011; Spago and Cut spinoffs in exotic locales soon followed, but Puck says it was the London trips that made him realise that he “might as well” stop in New York on his way from Beverly Hills to the Old Smoke.
“In my mind, he’s taken a pretty big risk there,” says Paul Pruitt, a restaurant consultant who has done work for the beef-driven BLT Restaurant brand. “And that’s probably what’s played in his mind a little bit as well. He could’ve never opened in New York and retired respected and beloved. It takes some gravitas to put yourself out there at this stage in your career when you really have nothing to prove.”
But Puck doesn’t seem all that worried about the success of his new restaurant. “Now that we’re in New York,” he says, “we might as well have two.”
He also has a plan that has nothing to do with a kitchen. A high school dropout, Puck has an unfulfilled wish—one covered in ivy.
“I have done almost everything I wanted,” he says. “My new thing is I want to go to Harvard. They have this executive’s programme. I’m going to go next year.”
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(This story appears in the 17 March, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)