This Austrian Chef Defines California Cuisine
Written By: Susan Krupa Wolfgang Puck WP Kitchen + Bar
Photographed By: Joe Magnani and Jared Schlachet of Jsquared Photography
With over 25 fine dining restaurants and over 70 casual dining locations scattered across airports and various cities globally, you may have already eaten at one of Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants. Or maybe you’ve bought one of his wines or delicious soups at the grocery store, read one of his seven cookbooks, or seen him on TV. Regardless of where you first encountered the name Wolfgang Puck, chances are you have heard of him. He is indisputably one of the first celebrity chefs working today and is largely responsible for the acceptance of California as more than a state full of movie stars and beaches but a legitimate cuisine. He defined California cuisine as we know it today: a fusion of Asian, Mexican, blended with French and Italian styles but made with fresh, local ingredients. So, how did a chef from Austria come to define cuisine on the West Coast of the United States? The story is one of a boy who found his calling early in life and never looked back.
Wolfgang’s mother was a chef herself in Austria, and he often could be found cooking by her side. Due to his early interest in the kitchen, Wolfgang started training to become a chef when he was just 14. Heading to France as a young chef, he worked at a series of fine dining, Michelin-starred restaurants where he developed and honed his skills. When a friend suggested he move to the United States at age 24, he headed not to America’s culinary capitals of New York or Chicago or Las Vegas but to Indianapolis, Indiana in 1973. Two years later, leaving the cold and snow behind, Wolfgang headed west, never looked back, and became part owner of Ma Maison in West Hollywood. It was here he cultivated California cuisine and became locally known as a chef on the rise. Then came Spago, his first creation in 1982, and from there the rest is history. Immediately popular for its unique menu items including inventive pizzas with toppings such as smoked salmon and caviar, the restaurant put California cuisine on the culinary map. Spago picked up two Michelin stars and a James Beard award along the way while Wolfgang earned the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef not once, but twice. He had arrived. Wolfgang Puck WP Kitchen + Bar
Now, with Wolfgang Puck restaurants scattered throughout the world, his name has become a brand unto itself. However, his life and cooking are still based in California where he can frequently be found at the Santa Monica farmers market with his kids picking up the freshest produce. When he cooks at home, he focuses now on simpler meals in contrast to his early days of his training and as a chef when he thought “If I have 25 ingredients in one dish, then I have achieved something, ” Puck says. These days, he looks for dishes that are far less complicated in preparation but allow the principle ingredients to be the star. And when the dishes are served at home, he likes to serve everything family style so everyone can taste a little bit of everything. In this way, it brings everyone to the table and if it were up to him, “every restaurant would be this way.” Wolfgang Puck WP Kitchen + Bar
This approach is felt in the newly renovated and renamed, WP Kitchen + Bar in Palm Desert (previously Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar). It’s more upscale now but still casual with seasonal menus based on what’s fresh and dishes that feature the main ingredient. In this way, it’s reflective of the way that Wolfgang cooks at home. Plus, there are a lot of small plates for sharing so you can try many different dishes if you’d like. The style of the food is true Californian with inspirations of Mediterranean cuisine, and some include a bit of the spice indicative of the Mexican influence. This mix of cuisines is on full display with dishes like Crispy Calamari served with spicy marinara or a Fennel Sausage Pizza with ricotta and caramelized onions. The bar has also received praise for its selection of tequilas and mezcals that complement some of the spicier dishes. Also, they have a housemade sangria that you can enjoy while sitting and relaxing on the outdoor patio. So, whether you come for an after-work drink, work lunch or leisurely dinner, there is surely something for everyone in your group to enjoy. Wolfgang Puck WP Kitchen + Bar
And the food will change with the seasons. Winter months will see heartier soups and stews and more grilled meats. But what exactly will be on the menu is yet to be determined. Part of the reason for the success of Wolfgang’s restaurants is that he allows the individual head chefs at each location to bring their creativity and ideas to the table because after all, he can’t be cooking at all his restaurants every day. So, he supplies to the format and the vision but allows each chef to experiment and try something new, to let their own talents shine through. In this way, WP Kitchen + Bar differentiates itself from chain restaurants where the recipes are coming from headquarters, and there are line cooks who are churning out the same dishes day after day. Wolfgang Puck WP Kitchen + Bar
This is a restaurant unto itself with a head chef who takes Wolfgang’s vision and translates it into dishes based on the season, the available ingredients, and direction of the menu. This is why so many people who have come to work for Wolfgang Puck stay for years—they are not soldiers in Wolfgang’s army but creative individuals who are given the tools to create. The WP Kitchen + Bar chef may make something not on the menu at any other Wolfgang Puck outlet, but if it passes muster with the kitchen and waitstaff, it may end up being a favorite local dish. Because of this, when you visit WP Kitchen + Bar in Palm Desert, you may be able to order one of Wolfgang’s signature dishes, but you can try a dish truly available nowhere else. Wolfgang Puck WP Kitchen + Bar
Signature Dishes: Wolfgang Puck WP Kitchen + Bar
Smoked Salmon Pizza with red onion, and dill crème fraîche
Barbecued Chicken Pizza with mozzarella, cilantro, grilled onions
Chinois Chicken Salad with celery, snow peas, napa cabbage
Tortilla soup with chicken, lime crème fraiche, and avocado
Pork Schnitzel with Austrian potato salad, cucumbers, and mustard sauce
Puck’s Cook Books:
Wolfgang Puck Adventures in the Kitchen
Wolfgang Puck’s Pizza, Pasta, and More!
Live, Love, Eat! The Best of Wolfgang Puck
Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy
Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy
Wolfgang Puck Cookbook
Wolfgang Puck’s Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen
Native Knowledge: Wolfgang Puck is involved in many charities including Meals on Wheels and a foundation for Alzheimer’s research (in fact, a portion of the proceeds from his signature wines go to Alzheimer’s research). He has always said that “if we want the community to be interested in us [his restaurants], we have to be interested in the community.” So, Wolfgang Puck as a company tries to get involved in something in each local community where they have a restaurant.
Native Knowledge: If you ask Wolfgang whether he would have a solid espresso machine than a stove, he’d say, “no stove. I’ll just eat prosciutto and cheese.” The chef loves his daily double espresso macchiato and every morning they roast their own beans in their home. The beans come to them courtesy of his mother-in-law who sends them raw beans from Ethiopia (his wife also hails from Ethiopia).
Native Knowledge: Wolfgang eats at his own restaurants frequently. Recently, while in the Cancun airport, he waited 20 minutes in line at one of his newer concepts, The Kitchen Counter, for a pizza. Unrecognized by the employees working there, upon ordering (and paying), he was told it would be another 15 minutes for his pizza to be prepared. He just wanted to see if all this time and waiting was worth it—and it was. The pizza was nicely cooked and had good spice (he even snapped a picture of it).
WP Kitchen + Bar
73-130 El Paseo
Palm Desert, CA 92260
Spago Beverly Hills
176 N Canon Dr
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Wolfgang Puck’s Global Brand Graces Palm Desert