There are some chefs who need no introduction. Wolfgang Puck is one of them. As one of the original celebrity chefs, Puck has spent the last four decades catering to the world’s most sophisticated palates. Known for changing the way Americans cook and eat with his mix of formal French techniques and Asian- and California-influenced aesthetics, Puck began his fine dining empire in 1982 with L.A.’s Spago. Since that time, he’s opened 101 restaurants around the world from Singapore to London. He also helped change the culinary culture of cities like Las Vegas, where he was the first star chef to create a contemporary, fine dining restaurant. “He’s like the Steven Spielberg or James Cameron of restaurants,” French chef Ludo Lefebvre told the New York Times in 2012. And Puck has the awards to match: he earned the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and was inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame this year.
As gastronomy greatness descends upon Aspen this month for the Food & Wine Classic, Previews Inside Out thought it was the perfect time to sit down with the reigning master chef himself to talk food, wine, dream kitchens and the perfect summer pairings.
Previews Inside Out You have been credited for changing the way Americans cook and eat. Which one of your signature dishes is the best example of this?
Wolfgang Puck To me, cooking is an evolution. Sure, there were dishes like our smoked salmon pizza, our Peking Duck, the chopped Chino Vegetable Salad and so many more. But I really like to create new dishes all of the time. I believe the best example is looking at the big picture of dishes we did. From going to the farmers’ market and the fish market, to introducing fresh products grown in our own backyards, to presenting people with an all-American menu where people could be proud of what we have—these are the big picture elements that go into my signature dishes.
Previews Inside Out What has been the most significant change you’ve seen in the food revolution over the last four decades?
Wolfgang Puck The biggest change over the last three or four decades is that cooking has become a very fine profession. In the old times, nobody knew who the chef was in a restaurant—it was always about the maître d’ or the front man. Now, people go to a restaurant to see and eat what the chef creates. Because of television, we have so many young, really intelligent people going into the food business; whereas years ago, they went into real estate [chuckling].
Previews Inside Out Touché! That brings us to our next question. When it comes to buying a new home, what’s your must-have feature in the kitchen?
Wolfgang Puck I haven’t seen a home yet with a kitchen I just loved. That’s why I’m still searching for a new home. I really would like to design my own personalized kitchen where only I can cook and then build a small kitchen for the housekeeper. And don’t forget the tennis court!
Previews Inside Out What’s your kitchen style? Do you prefer open designs or more formal designs?
Wolfgang Puck My kitchen would be the most beautiful place in the house, so it should be open and spacious enough that my friends and family can watch me cook and enjoy a glass of wine in the kitchen.
Previews Inside Out At home, would you say you cook more in your kitchen or outdoors on the grill?
Wolfgang Puck At home, I basically cook in my kitchen inside the house because it’s a lot of work to fire up and clean up my barbecue for just four people. I also use my electric grill/griddle a lot. I marinate my meat or fish and then grill it—it comes out pretty tasty. Right now, king salmon from the West Coast is available and I love to simply grill it and serve it with a perfect tomato-basil vinaigrette.
Previews Inside Out Now that summer is almost here, what are your top must-haves for great outdoor entertaining?
Wolfgang Puck To me, outdoor cooking is always fun. I love to cook on a real wood or charcoal fire. There’s nothing that can replace a simple burger or a whole grilled fish cooked over a wood fire.
Previews Inside Out What are some of your favorite dishes for summer?
Wolfgang Puck I cook much lighter dishes in the summer; lots of fish. For example, I like to prepare a simple rock cod Veracruz-style with onion, olives, capers, peppers and tomatoes, or a whole black bass roasted in the oven with tomatoes, fennel, lemon, olive oil and some chili flakes. And for dessert, I make my own version of a peach melba, where I poach white peaches in a sweet wine with a little lemon juice and then serve it with homemade vanilla ice cream, fresh raspberries and raspberry sauce. I also like to make a sweet corn succotash, which I can serve at room temperature. I always go to the farmers’ market before doing a party at home, so I know I will get the best seasonal ingredients.
Previews Inside Out Which summer wine pairings are your favorites?
Wolfgang Puck In the summertime, I prefer to drink Champagne. Often, I use inexpensive Champagne and make Bellinis, which seem to be everybody’s favorite. And for Sunday lunch, there’s nothing better than a chilled Rosé de Provence. I also drink a lot of Viognier. If it’s red, Pinot Noirs are my go-to wines. And I save Cabernets and Rhône varietals for the cooler fall and winter days.
Previews Inside Out Can you give us one recipe that sums up summer perfectly for you?
Wolfgang Puck Provençal Salmon with Tomato-Basil Sauce. It’s a quick, delicious and healthy meal your whole family can enjoy.
PROVENÇAL SALMON WITH TOMATO BASIL SAUCE
(Recipe courtesy Wolfgang Puck, “Wolfgang Puck Makes it Easy,” Rutledge Hill Press, 2004)
Yield: Serves 6
This summer salmon recipe allows you to prepare the sauce a day ahead, so that all you have to do at the last minute is broil the fish. The light sauce, with its sunny Provençal flavors, proves how delicious healthy food can be.
For the sauce:
4 large, firm, ripe organic tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
2 shallots, minced
1 bunch fresh organic basil leaves, chopped (about 2/3 cup)
Grated zest of 1/2 organic lemon
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar
1 tablespoon minced fresh organic chives
1 tablespoon minced fresh organic tarragon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the salmon:
6 pieces fresh salmon fillet, about 6 ounces each, preferably wild-caught from Alaska
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 small sprigs fresh organic basil, for garnish
- Make the sauce several hours or the night before. In a nonreactive mixing bowl, stir together the chopped tomatoes, shallots, basil, lemon zest, olive oil, vinegar, chives and tarragon. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a little cayenne. Cover the bowl and leave at room temperature to marinate for several hours or overnight (if your kitchen is very hot, refrigerate).
- About 1/2 hour before serving time, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Cover a baking sheet with foil and lightly oil the foil with olive oil. When the oven is hot, switch it to its broiler function. Brush the salmon fillets with olive oil, season them with salt and pepper and arrange them on a baking sheet. Place the salmon under the broiler about 2 inches from the flame and cook until done (the top should be very lightly browned and the flesh still slightly pink in the center), 7 to 8 minutes. Meanwhile, taste the sauce and, if necessary, adjust the seasonings to taste.
- Spoon a generous amount of the sauce onto the middle of each of 6 heated serving plates. Place the salmon fillets on top of the sauce. Top each fillet with a basil sprig. Serve immediately, passing any remaining sauce separately.