FT Foodies: Wolfgang Puck

Do you believe the maxim “never trust a thin chef”?

I don’t think so, it’s not the size of the chef that matters, it’s the size of his knowledge and skills. You see fewer and fewer chefs who are really big – most stay in shape. I have a trainer come to the house.

What are your earliest food memories?

My mother was a professional chef and when she used to make weiner schnitzel and mashed potatoes on Sunday I used to eat it so slowly, so that I could save half of it for dinner.

When did you first begin to think you might cook professionally?

I really got serious about cooking when I went to Provence and worked in a restaurant called L’Oustau de Baumanière and found the chef and owner to be the perfect example of what I wanted to do. We had the best ingredients and it was the most exciting way to cook. He didn’t cook from recipes, he cooked the way he felt from his heart. His name was Raymond Thuilier.

What’s the worst job you’ve had in the food industry?

When I started out I was 14 years old and after three weeks the chef told me I was good for nothing; I almost jumped off the bridge into the river. We’d run out of mashed potato and it was all my fault – there were 15 other people in the kitchen but I was like the last guy in so they blamed it on me.

Is there anybody whose food business or restaurant is a source of envy for you?

I went to The Fat Duck in Bray and I really like that. But I’m not envious of what Heston does; I can appreciate it. Each one chooses his own thing.

As your business has grown do you feel that you’ve missed anything in the life of a chef?

Maybe to have a three-star restaurant. But for me what I love is that we have interesting customers. I always tell people that they are really the critics. If people come three times a week to your restaurant they are the ones who find something they really love.

Is the customer always right?

No, but if you want to stay in business you have to be flexible. I’m not in a restaurant to argue with the customer.

If you had to eat in one country for the rest of your life where would it be?

It would be Italy, in southern Italy probably. Italian food is all about ingredients and it’s not fussy and it’s not fancy. A simple pasta with tomato and basil – when you taste it in southern Italy it tastes different from anywhere else.

Wolfgang Puck is an Austrian-born chef whose US restaurants include Spago, CUT and Chinois. His new steakhouse CUT at 45 Park Lane, London, is due to open in September; www.45parklane.com

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