Puck's fame, food empire keep growing
By Debra Hale-Shelton
|Pizza maker Henry Sypongco offers a creation to patron James Paradise at the new Wolfgang Puck Express at the Ward Entertainment Complex.
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Yet when he talks about cooking at home, the Austrian-born Puck sounds more like a typical father of two. He says he enjoys cooking dishes such as pizza, pasta and eggs with his sons "something which doesn't take too long."
At 52, however, Puck is so busy cooking up elegant dishes for the rich and famous and accessible gourmet food for the rest of us, he doesn't find much time to cook at home. When he's not traveling, he's at work in one of his Los Angeles-area restaurants almost every night.
And Wolfgang Puck Express recently opened an outlet on Auahi Avenue.
Yet if you think Puck's home kitchen is every professional chef's dream kitchen, think again. He says he doesn't have a fancy stove at home.
The story goes that he planned to remodel the kitchen after he and his wife, designer Barbara Lazaroff, bought their home in Beverly Hills 15 years ago. But when he learned the project would cost $500,000, he says, "I built a tennis court instead.".
Puck, who moved to the United States in 1973, is a short man with a long resume and a made-for-TV personality. His mother was a hotel chef, and he began his formal chef training at age 14.
By the time Puck came to the United States at age 24, he'd already had his classical French training in kitchens in Monaco, Paris and Provence.
In 1982, he and Lazaroff opened their first Spago restaurant, where he became famous for such signature dishes as pizzas topped with smoked salmon and caviar.
Since then, Puck's business has expanded to include about 50 restaurants around the country, four cookbooks (a fifth is in the works), a show on the TV Food Network and a line of cookware.
His face is so familiar he did a cameo on the television program "Frasier." His voice is so familiar, it landed a recent spot on "The Simpsons." His image is so Hollywood that he has catered the Governors' Ball of the Academy Awards for eight years.
Puck is passionate about his work. "It's like you fall in love with someone. It's the same way," he says. "You have passion and instant feedback." His passion recently sent him on a two-day trip to Italy to buy white truffles.
He says he hopes to inspire others and maintain his enthusiasm "When I see a fresh sardine, I want to say, 'This is a fresh sardine. I can't wait to make something of it."'
Is he a fussy diner? To hear him tell it, he's every chef's dream diner. "People may be nervous, but I'm very easy to make happy," he says.
Easy, perhaps, but no pushover. "I never go and eat a burger at McDonald's or Burger King," he says. "I don't like fast food. I don't like big portions."
His favorite comfort food is, of course, schnitzel. Puck was interviewed by telephone and during a visit to The Field Museum in Chicago, where he helped kick off the exhibition "Chocolate" by preparing a flourless chocolate cake, along with catered pastries and plenty of thick, rich hot chocolate.
Right along with the edible ingredients, Puck blended personality, humor and memories of his Austrian childhood into his cooking demonstration.
He would roast the almonds for the chocolate cake if he had an oven, he said. But, sounding a bit like Bob Newhart with an accent, he added, "The museum has to stay a museum, and they're scared we're going to burn it up."
Later, he suggested using parchment paper when baking the cake, so "you don't need a sledgehammer" to get it out of the pan. And he fondly recalled secretly scoffing half of the eggs and butter in his mother's cake batter when he was a child, before she could cook the cake, "and she'd say, `Oh, my cake is dry again."'
For home cooks, Puck has a few basic tips. First, never forget to add a little salt, he says. "Without the salt, most of the time your food will taste bland."
Another ingredient he recommends to brighten flavor is lemon juice (try adding some to a sauce, soup or even a sorbet, he suggests).
And don't overlook the possibilities of vinegar and wine. Reduced wine forms "the backbone" of your sauces, he says. "You don't need the best wine ... just a decent wine, nothing too fancy."
For Puck, fresh ingredients are key to successful cooking.
"The ingredients should be the star of the show in your kitchen," he writes in his most recent cookbook, "Pizza, Pasta, and More!" (Random House, $35).
"Stick to seasonal foods if you want the fullest flavors," he advises. "For the best indication of what's in season, go to your local farmer's market and see what's selling."
Here is his recipe for one such seasonal dish, spring risotto. It serves four.
- 1 pound pencil asparagus, trimmed
- 4 ounces spinach, washed, dried, stemmed, blanched, liquid squeezed out
- 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) of unsalted butter
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground white pepper
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon minced shallots
- 3/4 cup Arborio rice
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 2 1/2 to 3 cups homemade or store-bought chicken stock, hot
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Fried julienne of leeks, for optional garnish
Cut off 3-inch asparagus tips and reserve. Chop the remaining stalks, blanch, drain well, and transfer to a blender. Add the spinach and process to a puree. Pass through a fine-mesh strainer. Reserve.
Blanch the asparagus tips, drain and saute in one tablespoon each of the butter and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Reserve.
In a medium saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons each of the butter and olive oil. Add the garlic and shallots and saute until soft. Do not brown.
Add the rice and saute until well coated with the oil.
Deglaze with the wine and reduce until almost dry.
Using a 4-ounce ladle, add 1 ladle of stock to the rice. Stir the rice over medium heat until the stock is absorbed and the rice is almost dry.
Add another ladle of stock, and repeat the procedure until you have added a total of 2 1/2 cups of stock, or just until the rice is tender but still firm.
Stir in the reserved vegetable puree.
Remove from the heat, and stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the Parmesan cheese. Continue to add stock to the desired consistency. It should be moist and creamy but not runny. Season with salt and pepper.
Divide among 4 heated serving plates, and garnish with sauteed asparagus tips and fried julienne of leeks, if desired. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
(Recipe from "Pizza, Pasta, and More!", Random House, $35)
Here is a recipe you can make in the summer when, Puck notes, "tomatoes are bursting with flavor."
This no-cook gazpacho can be made a day ahead. "If the texture is too thick for your taste, stir in a little tomato juice," Puck advises. The recipe makes 3 quarts.
- 10 (about 2 pounds) Roma tomatoes, cored and chopped
- 1/2 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
- 1 English cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
- 2 medium celery stalks, chopped
- 1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2 cups tomato juice
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 cup sherry wine vinegar
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- For the topping mixture:
- 1/4 cup red bell pepper, cored, seeded, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1/4 cup yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1/4 cup red onion, peeled, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1/4 cup cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice
- 1/2 cup red and yellow pear tomatoes, coarsely chopped
- 3 ripe avocados, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dice
- 1 cup minced fresh cilantro leaves
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Garnishes: 12 to 16 large shrimp, peeled, deveined, butterflied, poached and chilled
- 6 to 8 sprigs of fresh cilantro
- 6 to 8 wedges of lime
Prepare gazpacho: In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients. Cover and refrigerate for one hour.
Transfer to a food processor; pulse until almost pureed, leaving a little texture. Season with salt and pepper. Return to bowl, cover, and refrigerate another hour before serving.
Prepare topping mixture: In a medium bowl, combine all the ingredients until well blended. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
To serve: Ladle 10 to 12 ounces into chilled soup plates. On a large serving spoon, place 1/4 cup of the topping mixture, top with 2 shrimp and garnish with a sprig of cilantro. Carefully place in the center of the plate of soup. Place a wedge of lime on the rim of the plate.
The recipe makes 3 quarts.
To prepare ahead, the basic gazpacho soup can be prepared up to two days ahead before serving (make the topping and garnish at serving time). Keep refrigerated.
(Recipe from "Pizza, Pasta, and More!", Random House, $35)