Wolfgang Puck's Long, Winding Road To Success
And What You Can Learn From It
Puck lived in a retirement home because it was cheap and near the restaurant. Then he met Lazaroff. ''I wasn't too good at the financials, and I left a paycheck lying around and she said, 'Is this what you make in a week?' and I say, 'No, that's what I make in two weeks."
''Restaurants,'' says Wolfgang Puck, ''are like children. You feel you always have to be there.''
Puck's labor has borne an empire of 11 elite restaurants, starting with the ground-breaking Spago in Hollywood 18 years ago. Besides his top-flight places, he owns 16 pizza cafes, a chain of ''express'' eateries, a frozen food line, has written four cookbooks and appears regularly on ''Good Morning America.''
His huge success is a tribute to his culinary genius -- he was among the first to champion fresh, local ingredients in restaurant cooking -- and years of hard work with his wife and business partner, Barbara Lazaroff.
But, like parenting, the restaurant business is unpredictable and fraught with mishap. Puck and Lazaroff good-naturedly shared their story, with its ups and downs, with a crowd at the Garden Education Center of Greenwich, Conn., last week during a visit to promote his new book, ''Wolfgang Puck's Pizza, Pasta, and More!'' (Random House, $35).
The Austrian-born chef apprenticed at several restaurants in France before coming to America in the late 1970s. ''I didn't like New York,'' he says in his thick German accent. ''It was dirty, with the smoke coming out everywhere.'' So when he got a job offer in Indianapolis, he was excited. ''I worked in Monte Carlo, with the auto racing. So I thought with the auto racing, Indianapolis must be like Monte Carlo. The restaurant owner told me they had Limoges china, so I thought it must be a wonderful city.''
After a two-day trip via Greyhound bus, he arrived in Indianapolis and was introduced to the Midwestern palate. ''I cooked more steaks well done there. Once, I tried to cook breakfast. I know how to make scrambled eggs, cooking them gently so they are soft and runny. The waiters were looking at the plates saying 'What the hell is that?' but I couldn't understand them. Finally a waitress took all the plates and put the eggs in a pot and cooked them into cement.''
The only good thing about Indianapolis, Puck says, is that when he went to the INS office for his green card, he was the only person there. ''No one in their right mind would emigrate to Indianapolis.''
Next he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked at the fledgling Ma Maison (''my first paycheck bounced''), now an institution, and lived in a retirement home because it was cheap and near the restaurant. Then he met Lazaroff. ''I wasn't too good at the financials, and I left a paycheck lying around and she said, 'Is this what you make in a week?' and I say, 'No, that's what I make in two weeks.'''
She made him ask for a raise, but by then he had a vision for his own restaurant: ''I wanted it to be cheap and Italian and we'd call it Vesuvius and have lava rocks.''
Lazaroff shuddered. Puck went off on a tour to promote his first cookbook and she got to work designing a new restaurant on Sunset Boulevard.
The result was Spago, which opened in 1982, one of the first restaurants with an open kitchen and at the forefront of the ''California cuisine'' trend.
It was an immediate hit, and nearly became the victim of its own success, as customers waited hours for tables, Puck remembers. ''Dynasty'' star Linda Evans became impatient one night. ''I saw her walking up to the kitchen asking, 'Where is my table?' and I thought, 'I know this beautiful woman from somewhere.'''
Next, the couple opened Chinois on Main, in Santa Monica, Calif., because Puck had always wanted to experiment with Asian cuisine. And it was an experiment; he had never been to Asia. But he was fearless. ''I heard they used a lot of ginger, garlic and scallions, so I used a lot of ginger, garlic and scallions.'' He pioneered the ''Asian fusion'' cooking so common now.
Puck and Lazaroff next tackled San Francisco, with trepidation. ''In San Francisco, they are such snobs. They think they know everything better about food.''
They couldn't find a name for their new Italian place, so they held a contest, promising dinner for life for the winner. They got 5,000 entries and selected the name Postrio, submitted by an 80-year-old man. ''He said, 'Just send me a couple of pizzas and I'll be happy.'''
By now, Puck and Lazaroff seemed to have hit upon a magic formula: his culinary genius and her design and business acumen. But even this star couple couldn't overcome a poor restaurant situation. Their next venture was in Malibu, Calif., where they opened Granita. The place is hopping in the summer but with little offseason business, they must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain it in severe weather and keep the staff over the winter.
In need of cash to do that, Puck found himself drawn reluctantly by a businessman friend to another city -- Las Vegas. ''I said I would never go to Vegas. It's so gaudy. But he talked so strong and he gave me a big check.'' So the newest branch of Spago opened in Las Vegas in December 1992.
''I had no idea December was the slowest month. The only people there were a rodeo convention, all dressed like cowboys. They thought the open kitchen at Spago was a buffet line -- 'Do you have any hamburgers?'
''My mother couldn't have written a better review in the local paper. Eight tables were booked. I had to get drunk every night to go to sleep. I knew it was a mistake!''
But right after Christmas, ''it took off like an airplane.''
He now has five restaurants in Las Vegas.
Puck has earned celebrity status with his fabulous food and charming personality, but the price is high. ''People expect to see you at the restaurant. They get upset if you're not there.''
His gourmet pizzas are part of his frozen food line, which was inspired by talk-show host Johnny Carson, who would order several pizzas every Thursday. Once Puck asked him why. ''He said, 'I put them in the freezer and eat them over the weekend. They're better that way.''
''It's funny how you get into a business.''
(Source: By Mary Beth Faller | The Stamford Advocate)
What You Can Learn From Wolfgang Puck:
To share your business story confession, email it to: email@example.com