After 30-plus years of being at the forefront of American — nay, global — dining, one could forgive world-renowned toque and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck for slowing down a bit.
But, as we learned while waiting at his award-winning local restaurant, The Source, for the seemingly inexhaustible chef to break free from a swarm of admirers who refused to let him go until they’d snapped a picture or regaled him with tales of the countless meals they’ve enjoyed at his establishments, the man remains more important to the culinary world than ever.
And he’s utterly consumed by the intersection of food and politics.
Friends in High Places
A nonpartisan host if ever there was one, Puck said he’s been friendly (“Mostly dinners or fundraisers,” he explained) with all the U.S. presidents dating back to Gerald Ford.
Puck, whose restaurant empire sprouted in West Hollywood with the opening in 1982 of his flagship Spago, said he was perhaps closest with fellow Los Angelenos Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
To wit, he recalls one of his defining political achievements: cooking for the G-7 economic summit held in Williamsburg, Va., in early 1983, at which he served Reagan, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, French President Francois Mitterrand and other world leaders.
“It was a big early moment, to meet all these heads of state all at once,” he said of the prestigious invite.
In the intervening decades, Puck has socialized with magnetic pols the world over. The night before our interview, in fact, he said he had catered a fundraiser for Newark Mayor and New Jersey Senate hopeful Cory Booker — “He seems like a very energetic, very likable young man,” Puck suggested — hosted by Hollywood mogul Jerry Weintraub.
Still, he remains most captivated by one fellow globetrotter: President Bill Clinton.
“I don’t feel like I’m an important person. But when you have a discussion with him, he really focuses in and looks at you,” Puck said of 42’s uncanny memory and tractor-beam-like draw.
Picking Our Battles
A firm believer in personal responsibility, Puck seemed almost of two minds when it comes to government involvement in food issues.
For instance, he praised first lady Michelle Obama for keeping healthy eating on everyone’s radar, but he feels the “Let’s Move!” campaign is still missing the mark.
“To talk about the kids is great. But it’s not really the kids who decide,” Puck stressed, putting the onus on parents to invest more time and effort in planning and preparing good, nutritious meals.
“I think that really is still a very difficult point here in America because people don’t know how to cook. Or they don’t want to take the time to cook,” he argued. “So it’s easier to go to a fast-food joint and pick up some fried chicken and some french fries and feed that to your kids, than making them some spinach.”
He admitted to occasionally indulging his youngest sons, Oliver and Alexander (7 and 6, respectively), with trips to Johnny Rockets or In-N-Out burger (their favorites), or perhaps splurging on hot dogs while taking in a Dodgers game.
But when eating at home, the menu gravitates toward lean proteins, brown rice, steamed vegetables (broccoli, corn and carrots top the list), fresh fruits (pears and apples abound) and simple salads (mixed greens tossed with balsamic, oil and salt).
And the family meal is just that — a communal dining experience.
“I think we all should eat the same thing,” Puck said. “My mother never cooked for kids.”
Of course, not all of us grew up eating at Puck’s kitchen table. And he’s well aware of the sobering disconnect between food trends and family budgeting.
“Organic is fantastic. But, first, it’s not available everywhere. And second of all, it’s very expensive,” he said of the high costs of buying designer foodstuffs.
Federal subsidies are a solution, albeit one that could use some retooling.
“Ideally speaking, the government should subsidize the farmers who grow organic vegetables just the way they subsidize people who grow corn to make ethanol,” he suggested, adding that the federally supported farmers could then return the favor by supplying local schools with fresh vegetables.
On the other end of the spectrum, he’s not opposed to taking unhealthy options totally off the table — particularly when it comes to school lunch programs.
“They shouldn’t have all these sodas with sugar. They should have healthy options — or no options almost,” Puck said, very much carrying water for pop-policing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Still, Puck doesn’t want the state to have the final say.
“We should not wait for the government to tell us what to do,” he counseled.
Instead, he urged everyone to be mindful of not only what they put into their bodies, but how much of it they consume.
“Eat enough so you can go home and [still] make love. Then you’ve eaten the right amount,” he quipped.
The one glimmer of hope: Many today are taking eating and nutrition much more seriously than those who came before.
“There are so many young people … who talk about food, love food and that’s really their main topic. And they are much more in tune with what is right and wrong,” he said. “And I think if this generation is going to have kids, I think they will do a better job.”
“It feels like a European city … so I like to come here,” Puck said of his frequent trips to the District. He comes by, of course, to check on his restaurant and chef Scott Drewno, but also to visit family (his sister-in-law lives here).
When he does step out for a bite, Puck said he makes a point of catching up with pals José Andrés and Michel Richard, ticking off Zaytinya, Citronelle and the revamped minibar as spots he’s stopped to sup in recent years.
But he’s most excited about the fresh crop of local chefs who are putting out exceptional food first and worrying about everything else later.
“Before, especially in Washington … everything was very formal and very complicated almost and not fun. People forgot that going out to a restaurant you should have fun,” he said, equating some dinner outings to church-like experiences “where you have to sit still and pray.”
He’d much prefer to be dazzled by the food than an elaborately appointed foyer.
“To have friendly service and prompt service is always important. But it shouldn’t have this formality,” he posited.
Along those lines, Puck said he’s planning a soup-to-nuts renovation of The Source’s kitchen and bar area, tossing out terms such as “sexy” and “inviting” for the décor, while leaning toward smaller plates (dumplings, rolls, etc.) and vibrant cocktails for the carte.
“I want people to come for comfort, yes. But I want to take them on an adventure, too,” he said of his desire to shake things up.
Puck also remains open to the idea of expanding his operations here in Washington.
“I think it’s time, maybe, to do another restaurant. We just have to find the right location,” he said.
So, might we all one day be jockeying for a seat at Spago East or CUT–DC? Puck didn’t rule that out entirely.
But, like every great chef, he’s most interested in starting from scratch.
“I think if I would do Spago, I would do a new version right from the start where people don’t come and just get one big dish. Maybe where you have to order two or three things. Make it more interactive and make it more so people can talk about the food,” he predicted.