Wolfgang Puck talks Spago in Beaver Creek
Vail CO, Colorado
BEAVER CREEK, Colorado ” A year after Spago opened in the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck sips a cappuccino at one of the tables.
His younger self might never have believed this scene. Puck, 59, is spending the week visiting his chic Beaver Creek restaurant, and enjoying a ski retreat with his children and wife, designer Gelila Assefa.
“I thought it would be nice to spend Christmas in the snow since I didn’t do that for probably 40 years,” he said.
An aura of easy confidence exudes from the famous chef. Perhaps he has always given off that secure vibe, or maybe it stems from owning a vast restaurant empire. Only Puck’s European accent betrays his roots growing up in a small village of 50 in Austria, where his father scoffed at his dreams of becoming a chef.
“At the beginning, my father told me, ‘I’m good for nothing and cooking is not a profession for men. It’s a job for women.'” Puck recalled.
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Puck believed otherwise, and today he is the owner of 15 fine dining restaurants, including Spago in Bachelor Gulch.
A few years ago, Puck spoke at a meeting of Ritz Carlton officials in Laguna Beach, Calif.
“I said, ‘You guys build hotels and restaurants for old people.'” Puck recalled. “It’s like retirement homes. You walk in, it’s boring.”
Hotel restaurants, Puck insisted, would have to change their philosophy to stay competitive.
After that speech, the owner of the Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch asked Puck if he would be interested in opening a restaurant at the hotel.
For Puck, the offer was appealing. A longtime skier, he liked the thought launching a project on Beaver Creek’s slopes.
Spago emerged with a chic look. Polished metals contrast with rock walls and chairs covered in brown and white spotted cowhide. Puck did away with the antlers that hung on the walls of the previous restaurant (“I don’t want a deer looking down on me and I’m eating venison,” he explained.)
As for the food, Puck stood by his ambitious philosophy: Find the best ingredients and prepare them with style. Spago is famous for its tuna tartare in a miso cone, fish prepared Hong Kong style and chinois-style lamb chops.
A little over a year after Spago opened, the formula is a success. Although the Ritz doesn’t disclose profit figures, Spago has earned mentions in such national publications as Travel and Leisure and USA Today. With a master sommelier designing the wine list, Spago rivals the nation’s top wine bars.
Reflecting on the past year, Puck lists among his victories the fact that Spago has become a destination.
“I had somebody here yesterday for dinner and he said, ‘I dreamt about your chicken since last year’ and he said, ‘If I am on death row and they’re going to ask me for my last dinner, I’m going to say, ‘I want the Spago chicken with the big black truffle,” Puck said.
Looking to the future, Puck wants to hold a small-scale wine festival at the Ritz. With regard to the ever-evolving menu, he said a braised lamb rack done Moroccan style with lamb stew and couscous could be part of the spring menu. His only regret? Not taking over Buffalo Bar in the Ritz and turning it into a grill.
Today, the Wolfgang Puck brand is a household name but success was far from instant for the chef.
As a child, Puck liked to hang out with the pastry chef at his mother’s hotel in Austria, and by 14, he was working at a different hotel restaurant in Austria, where the chef gave him some discouraging advice.
“You are good for nothing,” the chef told Puck. “You better go back to your mother.”
Things started looking up for Puck when he scored an apprenticeship with a chef at L’Oustau de Baumaniere in France. Puck marveled at the celebrities who flocked to the eatery, everyone from the queen of France to famous bullfighters.
“The chef took me under his wing on the sauce station to make sauces,” Puck said. “He liked me because I didn’t just say ‘yes’ to him. When he made a sauce and said ‘taste it,’ I tasted it and said, ‘Well, I would put a little pepper and a little lemon juice in it.'”
After moving to the United States, Puck landed a successful gig as chef and part owner of Ma Maison restaurant in Los Angeles. But he wanted to start his own eatery.
When a restaurant space became available in Los Angeles in 1982, Puck opened his flagship restaurant, Spago. Puck rose almost instantly to fame.
“After three months, it was so crazy already,” he recalled. “I didn’t know where to put the people and what to do.”
Spago’s fame started the ball rolling. Today, Puck owns 15 fine restaurants, a chain of airport eateries and a line of grocery store products, and boasts a long list of television appearances on shows like “Las Vegas.”
Puck said he plans to open a Dallas restaurant called 560 in January, along with a bar and grill in Los Angeles in March.