Wolfgang Puck may be America’s first bona-fide celebrity chef, but he’s also a prolific and
celebrated caterer. As Puck pioneered
French-Californian fusion cuisine at his
Los Angeles restaurant, Spago, in the
1980s, he also made a name for himself
by catering A-list parties and events —
from famous weddings and birthdays to
the Academy Awards — where he served
caviar, truffles, and other decadent
foods of the era.
As a caterer and restaurater, Puck
was known for using fresh, local produce long before farm-to-table was a
catchphrase. Now Wolfgang Puck Catering provides food service at dozens of
the country’s most prominent venues
— from the Georgia Aquarium to New
York City’s Irving Plaza — and he oversees 80 restaurants around the world, as
well as a line of packaged foods.
We caught up with the Austrian-born chef recently over the phone from
one of his favorite haunts, Los Angeles’
Hotel Bel-Air, as he woke up with a
croissant and a macchiato. Although
Puck often mentions his celebrity pals
and customers, his approach to catering
is decidedly no-nonsense.
You formalized the catering arm of your
company in 1998, but you had been
catering events long before then. How
did you branch into the field?
We catered out of Spago for many,
many years before we formed our own
division. The whole thing started with
[catering] parties, whether it was for
Johnny Carson or Madonna, when she
married Sean Penn in 1985. In 1998,
we separated [the catering arm] and
I took on Carl Schuster as my partner.
He’s in charge.
How would you compare the experience
of catering a large event to a busy night
in one of your restaurants?
There’s always a timing factor in the restaurants, and catering is the same. We try
to run the catering just like our restaurants, in that we like people to have the
same experience. We cook some things at
the last moment [before serving]. That’s
why we don’t use heating carts — we
plate just like we do in the restaurants.
We don’t try to do things cheaply; we do
things first-class. For me, the food also
has to look good, and we have different
techniques to do that, whether it’s flowers or stones or whatever, to put the food
on. I like to make [dishes] look natural
and not institutional on silver platters.
What are some of the largest events
We do the Grammys, for 5,000 people,
where we have 80 buffets just for the
food. I also organized [food at] the
Republican National Convention in San
Diego [in 1996] for 10,000 people. It
was on Balboa Island, and it was huge.
I invited some other chefs to the event
— Jonathan Waxman, the chefs from
Nobu to do sushi — and we had different
food stations, so it was possible for us to
really recreate a restaurant experience.
How do you approach dietary restrictions in terms of menu planning?
In catering, it’s very easy, because we
cook to order for everyone. If they want
vegetarian or vegan options, we do
that. We make gluten-free bread in our
restaurants all of the time. When we do
the Oscars, we make probably 10 dishes
so [guests] don’t have to feel like they
can’t eat. We’re very health-conscious,
and have been forever.
Veggie-centric cooking — and not
just for vegetarians and vegans
— is hot, and the trend is spilling
over to airlines and airports.
Last month, American Airlines
unveiled revamped F&B offerings
that include a kale-and-romaine
salad and lentil chili, at least
in first class. At D.C.’s Reagan
National Airport, the recently
opened bar District features
vegetarian fare such as a vegan
quinoa burger. Keep your taste
buds ready: It could be just a matter of months before dishes such
as peach gazpacho and roasted
cauliflower with black garlic land
on mainstream menus.
ON THE WEB
Learn more about Wolfgang Puck
Catering at wolfgangpuck.com/
F&B is supported by the Louisville
Convention & Visitors Bureau,
Lessons From a Celebrity Chef
‘In catering,’ Wolfgang Puck tells Convene, ‘it doesn’t matter what
the trends are. It’s how you cook.’