Skip to main content

How celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck built an empire on mistakes



Photo of CUT in New York City on Yelp

When Wolfgang Puck entered the food world, no one had heard the term “celebrity chef.” The Michelin-rated restaurateur, who built an international empire in fine dining, got his start cooking in the kitchens of French restaurant L’Oustau de Baumanière at just 14 years old.

And while Puck would go on to become a celebrity himself—earning multiple James Beard awards and Michelin stars for his restaurants—his early career highlights include brushes with stars of other sorts. “Raymond Thuilier, the owner and chef of [Baumanière], used to go in the dining room and come back into the kitchen with guests like Elizabeth Taylor,” Puck said. “I saw that.”

The young chef took note, and soon enough, he had celebrities seated in his own restaurant’s dining room. “I don’t know how it happened, how my personality came out to greet all the customers and go from table to table,” he said. “I remember at the beginning, when I opened Spago, I just went to say hello to the people.” But not just to the celebrities, he said—to every guest. “People actually saw that and they said, ‘God, we felt really important because you came to us and said hello to us before you went to the superstars.’”

Now at age 72, keeping customers at the center of his business remains crucial to Puck’s marketing strategy. From his humble beginnings in France to running more than 20 upscale restaurants across the world, personal relationships have formed the backbone of Puck’s empire. In an interview with Full Comp host Josh Kopel, the chef-turned-entrepreneur reflects on these lessons and how he keeps customers coming back after nearly four decades in the industry. 

Photo from Wolfgang Puck

“Feel” is as important as food 

Many small business owners make sacrifices to follow their passions. Puck was no exception: At the age of 14, he left an unsafe family situation at home in Austria to apprentice with chefs across Europe. He faced a slew of difficult bosses, a language barrier, and a toxic workplace culture. But after years honing his skills under legends, Puck became determined to open a restaurant of his own.

“For me, the passion was always food,” he said. “And then the passion became also for hospitality. So when I opened my first restaurant, Spago, on Sunset Boulevard in 1982, I think it changed me. And then we had so many people come up with offers from everywhere. Spago was busy like crazy. It was this instant success.”

Sifting through these offers to open new Spago locations abroad, Puck found himself learning business skills on the job. Experimenting with new concepts, budgeting carefully, and making mistakes helped him expand in those early days. “I didn’t go to business school, I didn’t go to high school, so that was my way of learning,” he said. 

Thrust into the spotlight, he continued to develop a sense of showmanship in his work while still putting his customers first. This remains one of his biggest takeaways for aspiring business owners: “Listen to the customers. The food is important, but how you make your guests feel is the most important thing. Figure out how to give people a new experience—a different experience than your neighbor, and people will always come back.” 

Photos of Spago on Yelp

Mistakes are the best education 

Navigating the business world was not always easy. Puck has made plenty of mistakes in his career—and he encourages aspiring chefs to do the same: “We all make mistakes. And I think for me, making mistakes is not a problem. You have to own up to it and say, ‘You know what? I [messed] up, and that’s it. I move on with my life. And next time, I’m going to be more careful not to do the same thing.’ I think only people who do nothing don’t make mistakes.”

Early in his career, Puck was forced to declare bankruptcy after opening a  brewery-and-restaurant combination that ran out of funds when the beer spoiled. “It was the saddest day of my life because I had to tell maybe 80 employees that in two weeks, we’re going to close. So it was very difficult. But it was a great learning experience.”

Another time, on the advice of a business partner, Puck tried franchising restaurants to make some easy money. This became another learning experience on the topic of quality control, he said: “A friend called me and said, ‘Wolfgang, I love to go to your restaurant, but the last month or so, each time I go, the food is not the same.’ So I panicked. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ I took the overnight flight and went there.” Sure enough, the lettuce on his signature salad was browning, the bread was stale, and there were ribs in the freezer (despite there being no ribs on the menu). 

Immediately, Puck decided to buy the restaurants back. But even after enduring those hardships, he believes it’s important to take risks. “Being scared and having sleepless nights before I open a restaurant—I think it’s the fear of failing,” he said. “You’re always insecure because you always can do better. You might think, ‘Is that good enough?’ So to me, taking risks, being an entrepreneur, that’s part of life. But also that’s part of the excitement.”

Balancing tradition and innovation 

After nearly 40 years in operation, Spago could cash in on its reputation alone. But Puck continues to innovate at his flagship restaurant—an evolution central to Wolgang’s business model. “When you were five-years-old, you didn’t wear the same clothes. You didn’t eat the same thing, probably, as you do now,” he said. “So the same thing is with the restaurant. Always, I think there is a fine balance between tradition and innovation.”

For example, some diners come to Puck’s restaurants for a few famous dishes, which have been served since its inception. Although Puck has renovated the brick-and-mortars and refreshes the menus frequently, there are some items he knows he cannot touch. “If I take off the lobster or if I take off the lamb chops, people will curse me and say: ‘Are you stupid? Are you crazy? You take off my favorite dishes.’”

But he also has to be able to court new customers, who may not be as enamored with the old fare. “We always have to reinvent ourselves, so that way we can attract a younger customer base too,” he said. “If not, you die out—and that’s what happened to most of the restaurants. They focus so much on their client that they have, instead of also thinking, ‘Who else can we get to come to our restaurant?’” 

Since the pandemic, Puck’s strategy has included boosting his social media presence and soliciting feedback—in particular, from his 26-year-old son Byron, who owns and operates the Asian-fusion restaurant Merois in Los Angeles. From Byron, he’s learned that the younger generation often prefers the flexibility of appetizers and cocktails to a traditional, multi-course dining experience. 

But Puck’s not throwing out the old playbook just yet: He told Full Comp he plans to send Byron to Baumanière—his first career stepping stone in France—to cook for three months. “I want him to know the history: how it happened, where it all began,” he said. Then he’ll let him make his own mistakes.

To hear more from Puck, check out the Full Comp podcast episode and listen below.


Full Comp, episode 159 transcript
Failure is fuel

Josh Kopel:

The holidays are almost here and that means you’re about to get a heck of a lot busier. And the data reflects what you know to be true. Prior to COVID, Yelp observed a 17% increase in diners seated from October to December over the prior quarter. And that was before everyone was trapped in their houses for over a year. Capitalize on that increased demand this holiday season with the all new Yelp Guest Manager. Yelp Guest Manager allows you to manage your guest reservations and your wait list, all in one place. Better yet, it’s fee free until February of 2022 with an annual agreement. Visit restaurants.yelp.com/podcast to learn more today.

Josh Kopel:

Now, here we go.

Wolfgang Puck:

When you were five-years-old, you didn’t wear the same clothes. You didn’t eat the same thing, probably, as you do now. So the same thing is with the restaurant. Always, I think is a fine balance in between tradition and innovation.

Josh Kopel:

Welcome to Full Comp, a show offering insight into the hospitality industry, featuring restaurateurs, thought leaders, and innovators, served up on the house.

Josh Kopel:

There’s more to profitability than marketing. Let’s make sure that you’re not using marketing to fuel a broken machine. Go to restaurantprofitcall.com to book a call with me. We can look at your current situation to see what is and isn’t working, uncover the number one bottleneck restricting your growth, and develop a three-step action plan to get you results. I’m only doing 10 of these a month. So go to restaurantprofitcall.com to book your free profitability audit with me today.

Josh Kopel:

Who do you look to for inspiration? For me, it’s always been Wolfgang Puck. And not just because he’s a talented chef and restaurateur, but because he’s a skilled entrepreneur. Even without a formal business education, the chef has built an international empire. And in today’s conversation, we unpack the critical decisions he made to get to the top and overcome the obstacles along the way.

Wolfgang Puck:

My first 17 years in my life were the hardest one, the most difficult one, and they made me the most sad. My stepfather was a real break ’em, we say in English, and he always told me I was good for nothing. And at that time, people in the countryside especially, they used to drink a lot and everything and beat up their kids. And it wasn’t only my family. Our neighborhood farmer was the same. If you didn’t do the right thing, or you brought back bad grades from school, you got the stick. So it was the thing.

Wolfgang Puck:

So when I was 14, I left my home, finally. My stepfather said, “Oh, you will be back in a week or in a month. And you’re good for nothing. And cooking is not the profession for men, it’s for women,” and so on. And he was ranting and raving like a mad man, which he was.

Wolfgang Puck:

And then I went to do my apprenticeship, and the chef was a similar guy. So I went from one hell to the next hell. It wasn’t a better hell. It was just I was 14 and maybe 4′ 9″ tall. I remember the stove used to get up to here, to my chest, I was so little. And the chef too was crazy and drinking a lot. He used to order a bottle of red wine, a bottle of white wine to cook with every day, but he drank it. He always had two [crosstalk 00:03:27] on his little desk and it was full of wine.

Wolfgang Puck:

And one Sunday, a month into it, we ran out potatoes. And he fired me and said, “You’re good for nothing. Go back home to your mother and so on.” And I was standing on the bridge going over the river, and I said, “I’m going to jump in the river before I go home.”

Wolfgang Puck:

And then an hour later, all of a sudden, I had a light bulb going off in my head, and I said, “I just going to go back tomorrow and see what happens. So I went back and the apprentice who was ahead of me was happy to see me. And he said, “Why you go down in the vegetable cellar and peel the onions and the potatoes and everything down there.” I went and 10 days or two weeks later, the chef comes down and sees me down there. And grabs me, “Get out of here,” and so forth. And I dug my heels in and was holding onto the potato bags, where I was sitting in the middle there. And he called the owner and the owner had a little bit more empathy maybe, and he sent me to another hotel they owned in town. And there, there was a woman chef and she was much nicer. And she really said, “Just shut up, do your job, and everything will be okay.”

Wolfgang Puck:

But after that, I went to France. And it was still hard at the beginning in Dijon because I didn’t speak the language. And French don’t like the Austrians too much because of World War II at that time, the old people. But I worked very hard and tried to learn. And then went to Baumaniere in South of France. And there Mr. Thuilier became my mentor and my idol. And I said, “I’m going to be like him.” It was a three star restaurant, only the best ingredients, and so forth. Everything was cooked to order. So for me, it was really an eye opener. And I said, “I want to be like this guy.”

Josh Kopel:

And I’m curious to know, even with that level of mentorship early on, with a rough childhood, with chef culture being what it is, with industry culture being what it is, how did you stay away from the bottle? There are so many bad habits in this industry. Were you not tempted? What spurred that choice?

Wolfgang Puck:

No. I think when I was so young, I really didn’t drink that much. I had some friends who were older, some waiters who were already 20 or so, I used to go skiing with when I was in Austria. And they snuck me into a club or some bar or some discotheque, whatever it was. And then they just ordered Coke and rum for me because you couldn’t see what it was. I said, “Oh, I’m drinking Coca-Cola,” if somebody comes in. So I never really went and enjoyed drinking like that.

Wolfgang Puck:

And at that time, the condition in the kitchen was miserable. Nobody knew who the chef was. Nobody cared what they did as long as the food came out okay, it was fine. All the credit went to the owner or the manager or the maitre d’. And it’s only later on that it started all of a sudden, “We should give credit to the people who actually do the job, who want to make people happy.” So not to say that the front of the house is just as important, but people go to the restaurant to eat. So it’s pretty important that the chef is known, and a lot of chefs then became superstars.

Josh Kopel:

And let’s talk about showmanship, because there’s definitely an element of that in everything that you do. And I’m curious to know, is that who you always were, or is that something that evolved over time?

Wolfgang Puck:

Well, when I saw Mr. Thuilier in Baumaniere, he brought in Elizabeth Taylor in the kitchen. And I remember Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni. Even Picasso came in the kitchen with him, because he also painted and he was a writer. He was a real renaissance man. So it was amazing. And I said, “I want to be like this guy.”

Wolfgang Puck:

And so when I went to Ma Maison in LA, which was at that time a bankrupt restaurant, I started to work hard. And went to the fish market and went out on to the Chino Farm and got great vegetables and fruits, and so forth. The food was good. The restaurant became super successful. But I knew I always wanted to be out on my own. I said, “I want to write my own check, for better or for worse.”

Wolfgang Puck:

So that’s how it happened, that in 1981, I found this space on Sunset, and we built a restaurant. And because I didn’t want to be a chef in the back of the house, so we built the kitchen in the middle of the restaurant, basically. So everybody saw the chefs so, all of a sudden, the chefs become center stage. We were like on stage and people loved it. There was no white-tablecloth restaurant at that time with an open kitchen. And it changed the way people built restaurants. Now, there’s no restaurant, which if doesn’t have an open kitchen. People want to showcase their chefs. And I think that really started where the chefs became the star attraction of the restaurant.

Wolfgang Puck:

And unfortunately, in a way, it diminished the people who were out in front. And I’ve always said, they’re just as important. Because if they don’t greet you right, if they’re not nice, they don’t make you feel good, no matter how well I cook, it’s not a good thing. But I think before that, the chefs were so far below their radar, that nobody except a few guys in France and a few other ones. But in America, there was Andre Soltner maybe, who was known and a few other ones, but maybe still for in America. So I think when we started this evolution at Spago with the open kitchen, that changed the whole status for all the chefs.

Josh Kopel:

You’ve said in the past, many times, that you couldn’t have imagined the level of success you’ve reached, but you also don’t strike me as a man that lacks imagination. And so I’m curious, how did guys like Shep Gordon influence what you believed was possible for yourself? Who helped you dream bigger?

Wolfgang Puck:

I always dream big. If you’re an immigrant, you have to be very positive. If you’re passionate about what you do, you’re going to get good at it. Because you’re just going to spend so many hours doing this thing, and thinking when you’re away, thinking when you’re at home, reading books. At that time there was no TV really, no food TV, no online, no wifi, no nothing. Now, for the young kids, it’s easier.

Wolfgang Puck:

But for me, the passion was always food. And then the passion became also for hospitality. So when I opened my first restaurant, Spago, on Sunset in ’82, so it’s almost 40 years ago in two months, I think it changed me. And then we had so many people come up with offers from everywhere. I remember six months into the opening… And Spago was busy like crazy, it was this instant success. I couldn’t have written a better story about success than this restaurant. I remember the Japanese came and said, “We want you to open a Spago in Tokyo.” I said, “I cannot barely run one restaurant, I don’t want to open in Tokyo.” And then they came back a few months later with the plans, the kitchen layout, everything like I had at Spago here in Hollywood. And they said, “We’re going to open Spago with you or without you.” So I said, “Okay, let’s open it with me.” So we embarked on a trip to Japan.

Wolfgang Puck:

So we had some of our main people at Spago, Hollywood, move to Japan, spend a lot of time there in Japan. And that became successful. And then, some of the others came with an offer and says, “We have this space in Santa Monica.” And I tried to get rid of them. I said, “I’m so busy. I don’t want to open another restaurant.” And they wanted a Spago. So I said, “You know what? I’m not doing Spago anymore. I’m going to do Chinese food from now on”, to get rid of them. I said, “If they’re going to hear from me Chinese food, they’re going to say, ‘Oh, forget it. That’s not going to work.'” And the guy just said, “Okay, I know if you’re going to do it, it’s going to be good and it’s going to be delicious.”

Wolfgang Puck:

So I ended up with a partner, who was not really a nice guy and who I could buy out later on. But we opened Chinois On Main, also with an open kitchen, even with a counter where people could watch us cook and eat at the counter. And so that became the first fusion restaurant. So I had no idea, really, about cooking Japanese food. But I must tell you, I could not make fried rice at that time. But I hired some good people, a few Chinese chefs, at the beginning to work with afterwards because I wasn’t a traditionalist. So I said, “I’m going to do it my way. And I’m going to have stir-fried beef with broccoli. I’m going to make a marinaded New York steak with Chinese tasting sauce, with butter in it to thicken it, and everything.” It was very tasty. And I think it became super successful. And it’s still open now after 38 years.

Josh Kopel:

In those early days, I would imagine, let’s call it the first five years that Spago was open, it had to be like an accelerated business school for you.

Wolfgang Puck:

Totally. And when I left my home, I was an apprentice and I made $50 a month. My mother said… Because I said, “I’m never going to come home again. And I’m never going to ask for money again.” And my mother was really sweet, but my stepfather. So she said, “Don’t worry, as long as you make more money than you spend, you will be all right.” And that stood in my head. When I opened Spago I said, “You know what? I have to be careful not to spend more than I make.”

Wolfgang Puck:

So when payroll came along, I remember I was on a calculator, calculating everybody’s payroll. And I was sweating on the same thing. When the liquor bills were due, or the food bills were due, I was so nervous. I said, “Hopefully, we have money in the bank and everything.” Even I had an accountant, but I was so nervous about the money I was spending. And then, at the end of the day, we were so successful that after one and a half years, I paid back all the investors all the money they put in. So we started with $550,000, but still, it was a lot of money in ’82.

Josh Kopel:

Oh yeah. When I look back on my career, there are very clear inflection points, choices that I made that changed the trajectory of my life. Had I made a different decision my life would’ve turned out entirely different. And I’m curious to know, when you look back on your career, what were those critical decisions that you made that changed your life forever?

Wolfgang Puck:

The decision I made, moving away when I was 14, the decision I made moving to France. And after a year and a half not going back to Austria, but figuring out to work in a three star restaurant, I think that was probably the biggest turning point for my career. When I went, instead of going home to Austria where I had a nice girlfriend, they had the little hotel on the lake and everything, I said, “No. I’m going to go to this restaurant”, because I found out there were two and three star restaurants. The restaurant I worked in had only one star. So that really changed my life, because I think today for young people, if they can find their passion, on top of it, if they can find a mentor, I think you can move ahead pretty fast. And you can imagine what the world could be, what the possibilities could be.

Wolfgang Puck:

So for me, spending two and a half years with Raymond Thuilier at L’Oustau in Baumanière changed my life totally. And then, I went to LA. I could have ended up in Kansas City or in Topeka, Kansas, or somewhere like that where the media is not as big. Could I have been successful in that town? Yeah, but nationally or internationally, maybe not as much.

Wolfgang Puck:

I think in life, hopefully, people make good decisions more often than bad decisions. And it’s like in baseball, if you bat 330, you are one of the top players in the league. And I think we all make mistakes. And I think for me, making mistakes is not what is a problem. You have to own up to it and say, “You know what? I fucked up, and that’s it. I move on with my life. And next time I’m going to be more careful not do the same thing.” I think only people who do nothing, don’t make mistakes. And I think one of the important point is, to learn from the mistakes. And continue to be curious and continue to learn. And for me, that’s really my life. I love to learn. I love to do new things. I love to see new things. So it’s really an important part.

Josh Kopel:

Let’s talk about mistakes. I heard you quoted as saying, “You can be as good as me, when you’ve made as many mistakes as I’ve had.” And I found it to be super inspiring. And for all the other chefs and restaurant owners and operators listening, what mistakes have you made that you hope they avoid?

Wolfgang Puck:

I made a lot of mistakes, but for me, I didn’t go to business school, I didn’t go to high school, so that was my way of learning. I remember when I opened Eureka, which was a brewery and a restaurant, and I thought I had a great idea to make a modern restaurant with a brewery. And at that time microbreweries, in 1990 or so, 1989, there were not many microbreweries. There was Sam Adams and [inaudible 00:16:21] and maybe a few, but they didn’t have a restaurant. So I wanted to do something like we had in our town in Austria, where they had a brewery and a restaurant. I brought over a German sausage maker from Munich to make Weisswurst and bratwurst and all these things. And I had some Chinese influences because they drink beer in China. And the same thing, we made some Mexican influences, because also they have the cerveza which they loved. So I made this restaurant, but I made a bad business plan.

Wolfgang Puck:

What happened is, we financed the brewery 100% with the equipment maker. And then the beer, my brewmaster, did not pasteurize the beer. So the beer we were supposed to sell a million cases a year and we maybe sold 30,000. So we had all this amazing brewing equipment, but we couldn’t sell the beer because the beer got bad in the barrels. So it was really a disaster.

Wolfgang Puck:

But the whole thing was one company, the restaurant and the brewery were all one. So we had to close it down because we ran out of money. And I only could own 10% on top of it because of the tied house law. So it was really crazy. So I said, “I’m going [inaudible 00:17:33], and I only can own 10%.” I think looking back, I would’ve made a better deal than this. I would’ve separated the restaurant. I remember the restaurant in 1990, I think cost like $5 million. And I still remember it was a lot of fun. We did Sean Connery’s birthday party. He loved it because he is from Scotland, they drink beer there and sausages and so forth. So the restaurant was very successful, but the brewery took us down. So we made $500,000 profit in the restaurant and then the brewery lost over a million.

Wolfgang Puck:

So after two years, we were so caught in such a bad stage that I did not want to ask investors to put in more money, unless I could get rid of my partners from the brewery. And they did not want to leave. So only way to make them leave is declare bankruptcy. So I said, “You know what? I’m out of here. I’m going to close the restaurant. That’s it.” And it was the saddest day of my life because I had to tell, maybe, 80 employees that in two weeks, we’re going to close now. So it was very difficult. And it was a great learning experience.

Wolfgang Puck:

And another way, at one point, about 30 years ago or so, I did some cafes. And then I had one guy who went to Harvard Business School, actually. He says, “The only way we’re going to make money is we franchise the restaurants.” So we started to franchise them, but people just wanted to live off my name and nobody kept up the quality. So we had restaurants in New Jersey, in Atlanta, in Nashville, in Maui, all over the place. I remember when my friend who used to run CNN in Atlanta, he called me and says, “Wolfgang, I love to go to your restaurant, but the last month or so, the last two months, each time I go, the food is not the same.” So I panicked. I said, “What do you mean?”

Wolfgang Puck:

So I took the overnight flight, went there. They had a cleaner or maybe a prep guy in the restaurant. I looked the refrigerator and I saw the Chinois chicken salad, chopped maybe a week ago already. And it was all brown on the edges. And they had ribs there. I said, “What the heck do ribs doing at our restaurant?” And so I could see… I walked in a refrigerator. I said, “No wonder my friend called me up.” The bread was a week old and stale to make the sandwiches. So they couldn’t care less about the quality. So then I said, “Okay, I’m going to buy it back and not have this franchise business.”

Wolfgang Puck:

So I tried a lot of different things, and some things worked out better than other ones. I remember one time I went into the parts and band business. It didn’t work at the beginning. I went to QVC and I could not sell, I didn’t know how to sell whatsoever. So then I had $500,000 worth of inventory left and we went to HSN, it became a huge success there. So at the beginning, I thought, “I’m going to give it up. After three, four times, I’m going to give it up.” And now I’m doing it for 20 years.

Josh Kopel:

I want to talk about fear, because you had mentioned it earlier that you have been afraid to be direct in the past. But fear is a through line through your entire career, and I think because you have a really interesting perspective on it. There’s a quote that I think will resonate with you, which is that, “Fear points us in the direction of the right thing to do. And fear isn’t the enemy, being afraid is.” Can you talk to me about how fear has influenced your life and your career?

Wolfgang Puck:

There is fear and there is insecurity. Being insecure is not a bad thing either. Being scared of failure is not a bad thing because it makes you work harder. It makes you think more and makes you more aware of what you do. And I think for me, being scared, and have sleepless nights before I open a restaurant, I think it’s for the fear of failing. So I think the same thing, that you’re always insecure because you always can do better. You always think maybe, “Is that good enough?” So to me, taking risk, being an entrepreneur, that’s part of life. But also that’s part of the excitement. That’s part of the adrenaline in your body to do new things and not be 100% sure it’s going to happen.

Wolfgang Puck:

I’m sure if you’re a baseball player or a basketball player, even if you’re really good, you think often you want to shoot a free throw. The best in the world, miss a free throw. You’re going to say, “How can they miss a free throw? They’re doing that for 20 years. Every day, they shoot a thousand balls and they still miss.” And sometimes it ends up in a defeat. But as the Japanese said, “You’re down seven times, you get up eight times.”

Josh Kopel:

Spago’s coming up on 40 years, you mentioned it before. And I’m curious to know, your reputation is massive, but that’s also not enough to keep a restaurant open for 38 years, especially in a competitive market. How do you stay relevant as taste and culture changes over the years?

Wolfgang Puck:

Well, continuing change is an important part. The restaurants has to have an evolution. If you stay at the place where you were at the beginning, then you’re not going to be successful in the long run. So you have to change. And I tell people, “When you were five years old, you didn’t wear the same clothes. You didn’t eat the same thing, probably, as you do now. So the same thing is with the restaurants.” So we have to change. Sometimes, the look is important and change the whole decor of the restaurant. But always, I think is a fine balance in between tradition and innovation. So if you can figure that out, you have to make people happy who come to your restaurant for a special dish, like a Chinois, for example. If I take off the lobster, or if I take off the lamb chops, people will curse me and says, “Are you stupid? Are you crazy? You take off my favorite dishes.”

Wolfgang Puck:

And I remember one time at Chinois, years ago, we are making a tempura sashimi, which is really good, but I made a really rich sea urchin sauce, a sea urchin champagne sauce with a little wasabi. So was premium, really tasty, but very rich. And one day, I don’t know why, I said, “I want to make a lighter sauce.” So I made some kind of a sauce with tomatoes and ginger and garlic and onion and things. I can then cook that so it was lighter, for sure.

Wolfgang Puck:

And then a customer comes to the restaurant, orders the tempura sashimi. He drove from an hour away. He looked at it and said, “What the heck is that?” And then he called me over and says, “What did you do to my tempura sashimi?” He called it his tempura sashimi. I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Yeah, it’s not the same. I don’t even like it now.” And I said, “Well, I got tired of making the same thing all the time.” And he just looked up to me and says, “You know what? If I’m not tired of eating it, you shouldn’t be tired of cooking it.” And I said, You know? You have a point.”

Josh Kopel:

That’s incredible. You’ve said in the past that you focus on product first and then money, and it’s obviously been a recipe for success for you. But in my experience, great restaurants close every day. They have amazing food. They have amazing service. And for some reason it just doesn’t work. And so I’m curious to know, as you continue to open more restaurants, is there a formula for success? How do you look at an opportunity and know, “This is a great opportunity. This’ll work well”?

Wolfgang Puck:

Well, we have to give our customer an experience. It’s how we make them feel, not how we serve them or anything. If they feel good to spend their money in the restaurant, and we make them feel good, and they feel really good and say, “Wow, this is a great place. They’re really attentive. Their service was great. Their food was delicious.” And they were saying, “You feel good spending your money.” It doesn’t matter if it’s $12 or $120, if you don’t feel good, if the money is spent and they don’t treat you the right way. So it’s how we make the guests feel. What kind of an experience are we to be giving them? I think that’s really, for me, the most important thing. And we have so many customers who are getting old now, obviously, because they’re with me for 40 years. They’re running Hollywood studios, were big producers or were big actors or whatever. And now, they go out very little, over 30 years.

Wolfgang Puck:

But we always have to reinvent ourself, change, so that way can attract, always, a younger customer base too. Because we always want to get new customers. If not, you die out, and that’s what happened to most of the restaurants. They focus so much on their client that they have, instead of also thinking, “Who else can we get to come to our restaurant?” So that’s an important part. And these days with all this different social media things and so forth, if we would stay out of it totally, it wouldn’t be a good thing. Because the young people don’t care what they write in their Los Angeles Times. They don’t read the Los Angeles Times, like I used to do 40 years or 30 years or 20 years ago. But the social media has become a big part. So I think so we have to be aware of that.

Wolfgang Puck:

And one of the great things is, and the luckiest thing for me, I have my son Byron now who is working with me, who is running our restaurant, Merois, up on Sunset Boulevard. He always tells me what’s new, what they do when they go out, where they go to eat. That even being 26 years old, and he just told me, he came back from Mexico, from the Cabo, and says, “We went to one restaurant and it was an amazing tasting menu, with all new style Mexican food.” And he said, he just loved it. And he told me, “You have to go there.” I said, “Well, why we don’t invite the chef and have him come here? That will be even more fun.”

Josh Kopel:

That’s incredible. I think social media is incredibly important, but your career predates social media. And I think for so many restaurant owners and operators and chefs out there, marketing has always been seen as optional. At the very least, the last thing on the list. But not for you. You’ve always been a consummate marketer. You’ve always put yourself out there, put your brands out there first. And I’m curious to know, what was the inspiration for that? Because, at the time, you couldn’t have pulled it from the industry because no one else was really doing it. So where did that inspiration come from?

Wolfgang Puck:

Remember I said, I was working at Baumaniere. Raymond Thuilier, the owner and chef, he used to go in the dining room and come back. He used to go in the dining room and bring Elizabeth Taylor, who at that time was so beautiful. And all us young chefs were there, “Oh my God, look at this woman.” So I said, “I saw that.” And then, I don’t know how it happened, how my personality came out to greet all the customers and go from table to table. I remember at the beginning, when I opened Spago, I just went to say hello to the people. And the people who I knew were generally famous. I remember Irwin Winkler coming in with Sly Stallone. I remember Clint Eastwood coming in with some other people who I knew. So I went over and said hello to them. And only to the people I knew, and the other ones I didn’t acknowledge. And somebody wrote me a nasty letter and says, “What are you a starfucker? You only say hello to Clint Eastwood. And who we are? We pay with the same money.”

Wolfgang Puck:

And I wrote them an apology letter and I invited them back to the restaurant. And I said, “You know what? Because of you, I’m going to change my way of greeting the customer.” So now, I remember one great thing was at CUT, when we opened CUT in Beverly Hills. So we had on one table Tom Cruise and David Beckham, he was playing here in LA. And I walked in the restaurant and maitre d’ say, “Tom Cruise is there with David Beckham.” And I love soccer and everything. But I went to say hello to every table before. And the last table I went to was Tom Cruise’s table. And he said, “Why you don’t sit down with us?” Because I was telling David, “I’m so happy about the football team.” And so, I sat with them. And then a lot of people actually saw that and they said, “God, we felt really important because you came to us, and said hello to us, before you went to the superstars.”

Josh Kopel:

Seeing opportunity where others don’t is a common thread throughout your life. In 2008, when the economy was in the toilet and so was our industry, you saw the opportunity to expand internationally. And you did so with massive success. What opportunities do you see for yourself and for the industry coming out of the pandemic?

Wolfgang Puck:

Well, I think we learned a lot during the pandemic. Because I think we became better operators because we just could not find enough employees. Before we all ran a little fat and says, “Okay, another assistant, another this, another that, it’s okay. Another manager, another assistant manager.” And during that time, we didn’t have that many people when we came out. A lot of people got their PPP money. So they said, “Oh, you know what? I get $350 unemployment from the state,” and I don’t know how much, “$600 from the federal government so I almost make $1,000. And I do a few jobs on the side.” Some cook for some houses or some wealthy people who needed a cook, a few times a week. And they didn’t want to come back to work because it was a better lifestyle for them.

Wolfgang Puck:

But now, I think it changed because the federal government don’t hand out free money anymore. People are going to have to start to pay rent and so forth. So this whole thing changed a lot. And I think now, we learned how to do better. So sometimes, just doing this big volume is not the answer, especially for a luxury restaurant. So I think we should think who we are, so we have to really decide who we want to be. Do we want to be a cash and burn factory? Or do we want to really take care of our guests? And I believe if we take care of our guests and make them happy, so on the way out, they will say, “I can’t wait to return.” We will stay successful when I’m gone and my son takes over or his kids take over.

Josh Kopel:

I want to talk about Byron for a minute, if that’s okay with you?

Wolfgang Puck:

Sure.

Josh Kopel:

When you look at his future, and his future in hospitality, what do you wish for him? What parts of your life do you hope he emulates? And what parts do you hope he avoids?

Wolfgang Puck:

Well, I really think it would be great if he uses my knowledge as the foundation, and then continue to experiment and do things his own way. Because he, sooner or later, has to be his own personality, but the result should be the same. How are we going to make our guests happy? How are we going to give them a great experience? However, he will do it, maybe, a little different for me. But I think at the end of day, the result has to be the same. And he just opened his first restaurant called Merois, which is an Asian restaurant, the next edition of Chinois. And I think it’s very successful. It made money after two months opening. So it was really good, financially, but also the food is really good. And I think, you know what? I told him already, “You have to get a good assistant who can take over in six months.”

Wolfgang Puck:

Then I’m going to send him to Austria, to Vienna, to cook for three months in one of my friends’ restaurant, which is really a great restaurant called [Shirak 00:33:06]. And then I’m going to send him for three months to Baumaniere, also to cook there, which was my big stepping stone. So I think I want him, also, to know the history, how it happened, where it all began. And I wanted to send him to places where they have an amazing innovation to.

Wolfgang Puck:

When I went to Harvard Business School, and Harvard Business School is all about case studies. And Professor Groysberg did a case study on me. And he started the whole thing about our innovation restaurant called Rogue. We had this Test Kitchen, or we called it Rogue. And there, you had 16 courses, and every two weeks, we changed the menu. So it’s a difficult thing to do to change everything, make it interesting. I had chefs from all over, from different restaurants come. I had two resident chefs who were amazing. When they started my case study, he thought that that was the most important part, to keep innovation going. And I think, really, when you look in life, innovation, at the end, pays off.

Josh Kopel:

I’m sure if Byron, or any of your other children, choose to carry your torch moving forward, they’re going to be worried about making the wrong choices, or hurting your company, or hurting your legacy. And I would assume that the only way to avoid that is for you to really clearly define success for them in your eyes. And I’m curious to know, have you done that? And if so, what does success look like for them in your eyes?

Wolfgang Puck:

Yeah, I really believe they should be not afraid of making mistakes. They should not be thinking everything going to be perfect. For me, even today, I still feel insecure about doing things. So insecurity makes you work harder. Insecurity makes you do more things. And a lot of people ask me, “Wolfgang, why are you still in the restaurant? It’s 10 o’clock at night. Why you are not at home watching TV or be with your family?” I said, “Because I love them.” So I love what I do.

Wolfgang Puck:

So I just hope that Byron, or maybe Alexander, or Oliver, will do the same thing. Now I have my oldest son, he loves to cook, but he just got his PhD so he’s going to be a professor. So I don’t see he going to be in a restaurant with us, but maybe, you never know. So I think as long as they find their passion, as long as they’re willing to learn, as long as they have their ears and their eyes and their mouth ready to experiment new things and listen. And I always tell them, “You know what? If you talk, you talk about something you know already. If you listen, you might learn something new.” And I think that’s the same thing about innovation. Let’s try something new. Let’s continuously improve.

Josh Kopel:

It’s an industry podcast, and at the end of every episode, I like to give the guests an opportunity to speak directly to the audience. There are thousands of restaurant owners and operators listening. Do you have any advice or words of encouragement?

Wolfgang Puck:

Well, I really think for everybody out who is in the restaurant industry, especially in the upscale restaurant industry, listen to the customers. And just remember, the food is important, but it’s how you make your guests feel is the most important thing. So figure how to give people a new experience, a different experience, than your neighbor. That way people will always come back. And I think, for me, I listen to the young people. I listen what they think, how they go out for dinner. My son doesn’t like to go to a fancy restaurant where you get an appetizer and a main course. He thinks it’s too boring. With his friends, they go from one place to the other, and then maybe go to a good place and have a main course or something. But meanwhile, they have three cocktails and five appetizers already. And I say, “That’s really interesting.” So we have to figure out that we make the young people happy and our regular customers happy. And I think that’s the only way is to keep tradition and innovation mixed together to be successful in the long run.

Josh Kopel:

That’s Wolfgang Puck. For more on the chef, visit Wolfgangpuck.com.

Josh Kopel:

If you want to tell us your story, hear previous episodes, or check out our other content, go to restaurants.yelp.com/fullcomp. Thank you so much for listening to the show. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, please leave us a review. A special thanks to Yelp for helping us spread the word to the whole hospitality community. I’m Josh Kopel. You’ve been listening to Full Comp.

Did you find this post valuable?

Click on a star to rate it.

Since you found this post valuable...

Follow us on social media for more great business resources!

We're sorry you didn't find this post valuable.

How could we improve it?

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

Business resources, delivered to your inbox

Get the latest blog content, info on virtual events, and the occasional freebie.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

By continuing, you agree to Yelp’s Terms of Service and acknowledge Yelp’s Privacy Policy.

[gravityform id="4" title="false" ajax="true"]
<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper gform_legacy_markup_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_4' ><div id='gf_4' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div> <div class='gform_heading'> <span class='gform_description'></span> </div><form data-form-name='Newsletter Signup Popup' method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_4' id='gform_4' action='/businesses/how-celebrity-chef-wolfgang-puck-built-an-empire-on-mistakes/#gf_4' novalidate> <div class='gform_body gform-body'><ul id='gform_fields_4' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id="field_4_1" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible gf-email" data-field-class="gf-email" data-js-reload="field_4_1"><label class='gfield_label screen-reader-text' for='input_4_1' >youremail@address.com</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_1' id='input_4_1' type='email' value='' class='large' placeholder='youremail@address.com' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_4_2" class="gfield gform_validation_container field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" data-js-reload="field_4_2"><label class='gfield_label' for='input_4_2' >Name</label><div class='ginput_container'><input name='input_2' id='input_4_2' type='text' value='' autocomplete='new-password'/></div><div class='gfield_description' id='gfield_description_4_2'>This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.</div></li></ul></div> <div class='gform_footer top_label'> <input type='submit' id='gform_submit_button_4' class='gform_button button' value='Submit' onclick='if(window["gf_submitting_4"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_4")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_4")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_4"]=true;} ' onkeypress='if( event.keyCode == 13 ){ if(window["gf_submitting_4"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_4")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_4")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_4"]=true;} jQuery("#gform_4").trigger("submit",[true]); }' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_ajax' value='form_id=4&amp;title=&amp;description=1&amp;tabindex=0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='is_submit_4' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_submit' value='4' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_unique_id' value='' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='state_4' value='WyJbXSIsImE0YjFiMmUxY2IxMWVhYTljM2FhNzdkODk4NDUzZmY0Il0=' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_target_page_number_4' id='gform_target_page_number_4' value='0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_source_page_number_4' id='gform_source_page_number_4' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_field_values' value='' /> </div> </form> </div> <iframe style='display:none;width:0px;height:0px;' src='about:blank' name='gform_ajax_frame_4' id='gform_ajax_frame_4' title='This iframe contains the logic required to handle Ajax powered Gravity Forms.'></iframe> <script> gform.initializeOnLoaded( function() {gformInitSpinner( 4, 'https://blog.yelp.com/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery('#gform_ajax_frame_4').on('load',function(){var contents = jQuery(this).contents().find('*').html();var is_postback = contents.indexOf('GF_AJAX_POSTBACK') >= 0;if(!is_postback){return;}var form_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_wrapper_4');var is_confirmation = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_confirmation_wrapper_4').length > 0;var is_redirect = contents.indexOf('gformRedirect(){') >= 0;var is_form = form_content.length > 0 && ! is_redirect && ! is_confirmation;var mt = parseInt(jQuery('html').css('margin-top'), 10) + parseInt(jQuery('body').css('margin-top'), 10) + 100;if(is_form){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_4').html(form_content.html());if(form_content.hasClass('gform_validation_error')){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_4').addClass('gform_validation_error');} else {jQuery('#gform_wrapper_4').removeClass('gform_validation_error');}setTimeout( function() { /* delay the scroll by 50 milliseconds to fix a bug in chrome */ jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gform_wrapper_4').offset().top - mt); }, 50 );if(window['gformInitDatepicker']) {gformInitDatepicker();}if(window['gformInitPriceFields']) {gformInitPriceFields();}var current_page = jQuery('#gform_source_page_number_4').val();gformInitSpinner( 4, 'https://blog.yelp.com/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery(document).trigger('gform_page_loaded', [4, current_page]);window['gf_submitting_4'] = false;}else if(!is_redirect){var confirmation_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('.GF_AJAX_POSTBACK').html();if(!confirmation_content){confirmation_content = contents;}setTimeout(function(){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_4').replaceWith(confirmation_content);jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gf_4').offset().top - mt);jQuery(document).trigger('gform_confirmation_loaded', [4]);window['gf_submitting_4'] = false;wp.a11y.speak(jQuery('#gform_confirmation_message_4').text());}, 50);}else{jQuery('#gform_4').append(contents);if(window['gformRedirect']) {gformRedirect();}}jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [4, current_page]);} );} ); </script>
[gravityform id="4" title="false" ajax="true"]
<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper gform_legacy_markup_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_4' ><div id='gf_4' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div> <div class='gform_heading'> <span class='gform_description'></span> </div><form data-form-name='Newsletter Signup Popup' method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_4' id='gform_4' action='/businesses/how-celebrity-chef-wolfgang-puck-built-an-empire-on-mistakes/#gf_4' novalidate> <div class='gform_body gform-body'><ul id='gform_fields_4' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id="field_4_1" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible gf-email" data-field-class="gf-email" data-js-reload="field_4_1"><label class='gfield_label screen-reader-text' for='input_4_1' >youremail@address.com</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_1' id='input_4_1' type='email' value='' class='large' placeholder='youremail@address.com' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_4_2" class="gfield gform_validation_container field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" data-js-reload="field_4_2"><label class='gfield_label' for='input_4_2' >Email</label><div class='ginput_container'><input name='input_2' id='input_4_2' type='text' value='' autocomplete='new-password'/></div><div class='gfield_description' id='gfield_description_4_2'>This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.</div></li></ul></div> <div class='gform_footer top_label'> <input type='submit' id='gform_submit_button_4' class='gform_button button' value='Submit' onclick='if(window["gf_submitting_4"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_4")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_4")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_4"]=true;} ' onkeypress='if( event.keyCode == 13 ){ if(window["gf_submitting_4"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_4")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_4")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_4"]=true;} jQuery("#gform_4").trigger("submit",[true]); }' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_ajax' value='form_id=4&amp;title=&amp;description=1&amp;tabindex=0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='is_submit_4' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_submit' value='4' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_unique_id' value='' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='state_4' value='WyJbXSIsImE0YjFiMmUxY2IxMWVhYTljM2FhNzdkODk4NDUzZmY0Il0=' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_target_page_number_4' id='gform_target_page_number_4' value='0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_source_page_number_4' id='gform_source_page_number_4' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_field_values' value='' /> </div> </form> </div> <iframe style='display:none;width:0px;height:0px;' src='about:blank' name='gform_ajax_frame_4' id='gform_ajax_frame_4' title='This iframe contains the logic required to handle Ajax powered Gravity Forms.'></iframe> <script> gform.initializeOnLoaded( function() {gformInitSpinner( 4, 'https://blog.yelp.com/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery('#gform_ajax_frame_4').on('load',function(){var contents = jQuery(this).contents().find('*').html();var is_postback = contents.indexOf('GF_AJAX_POSTBACK') >= 0;if(!is_postback){return;}var form_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_wrapper_4');var is_confirmation = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_confirmation_wrapper_4').length > 0;var is_redirect = contents.indexOf('gformRedirect(){') >= 0;var is_form = form_content.length > 0 && ! is_redirect && ! is_confirmation;var mt = parseInt(jQuery('html').css('margin-top'), 10) + parseInt(jQuery('body').css('margin-top'), 10) + 100;if(is_form){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_4').html(form_content.html());if(form_content.hasClass('gform_validation_error')){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_4').addClass('gform_validation_error');} else {jQuery('#gform_wrapper_4').removeClass('gform_validation_error');}setTimeout( function() { /* delay the scroll by 50 milliseconds to fix a bug in chrome */ jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gform_wrapper_4').offset().top - mt); }, 50 );if(window['gformInitDatepicker']) {gformInitDatepicker();}if(window['gformInitPriceFields']) {gformInitPriceFields();}var current_page = jQuery('#gform_source_page_number_4').val();gformInitSpinner( 4, 'https://blog.yelp.com/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery(document).trigger('gform_page_loaded', [4, current_page]);window['gf_submitting_4'] = false;}else if(!is_redirect){var confirmation_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('.GF_AJAX_POSTBACK').html();if(!confirmation_content){confirmation_content = contents;}setTimeout(function(){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_4').replaceWith(confirmation_content);jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gf_4').offset().top - mt);jQuery(document).trigger('gform_confirmation_loaded', [4]);window['gf_submitting_4'] = false;wp.a11y.speak(jQuery('#gform_confirmation_message_4').text());}, 50);}else{jQuery('#gform_4').append(contents);if(window['gformRedirect']) {gformRedirect();}}jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [4, current_page]);} );} ); </script>