Wolfgang Puck has opened a steakhouse in Washington, and, yes, he knows how residents in the nation’s capital feel about chefs, celebrity or otherwise, launching yet another dimly lit dining room dedicated to juicy slabs of beef. He’s not exactly apologizing. CUT, Puck’s new property in the Rosewood Hotel in Georgetown, is not really a steakhouse, either, at least when measured by the standards of a previous generation.
At age 70, the Austrian-born Puck continues to redefine himself and his restaurants at a period in life when many chefs are looking to spend more time on their boats. Puck has created a steakhouse with more vegetarian and seafood options than classic cuts of beef (CUT executive chef Andrew Skala is even forging relationships with Virginia beef producers for a rare farm-to-table steakhouse). But more than that, the celebrity chef is also rethinking how he runs his restaurants, especially those in major U.S. cities where the hospitality industry is dealing with a host of critical issues.
Over the course of 90 minutes, Puck talked through a number of important topics as we sat at a table with a view into CUT’s open kitchen, with its large, wood-fired grill. The following transcript of our conversation is edited for length and clarity.
The sight of your grill reminds me about a budding movement to switch kitchens from gas to electric appliances as city power grids increasingly draw on greener sources of energy, such as wind and solar. Do you think it will be easy for restaurants to switch? Chefs love their gas stoves.
It’s because you can see gas. I think that’s an important part, but induction cooking is so much easier. The gas has no power, compared to induction. If you boil water, it takes so much less time. When we built our kitchen in New York, the guy who built the stove, he said don’t put in induction ranges because the electricity is not very stabilized. I still think we should have put in half induction burners. Induction is definitely much cleaner. Faster.
I’m sure you know D.C. is touchy about steakhouses, because outsiders have historically ridiculed the city as little more than a meat-and-potatoes town. Did you think about opening a different restaurant in Washington?
When you look at our menu, yes, we have steaks, but we have so many other interesting things. One of the more popular things we make is a schnitzel, which where I come from we call it “Holstein schnitzel.” It’s made with an egg, anchovies and capers. And I’m sure even in L.A., if I put it on the menu, we would sell a lot.
Did you consider calling the restaurant something other than CUT because of Washington’s history with steakhouses?
Once people see it. I think they’re going to see it’s different. Sure, there are so many steakhouses here. I talked to my son, who is 24 years old, and I said, “How do you guys go out and eat?” He says, ‘You know, Pop, we wouldn’t go to CUT and eat a steak and potatoes. We go to restaurants where we can choose different things.” It’s much more free form. They’re much more into sharing things. I really think that we’re moving in that direction where it’s not about one steak. It’s about sharing a steak for the table.
If you feel you’re really good, you’re not going to be shy about going into the ring and fighting somebody. You say, “Okay, I love the challenge.” There’s always somebody new. A lot of restaurants, especially with younger chefs, they open, and two or three years later, they close down. Why? Because they could not build up a clientele. But when you look at restaurants like Cafe Milano, is it the best Italian restaurant I ever ate at? No. But they make you feel good. So they are always full.
How do you decide where to open restaurants? How much research goes into that decision?
Not enough for sure. [He laughs.] A lot of it is intuition and opportunities. Up until 2007 and 2008, I thought, “The United States is such a big country, why expand internationally, and I have to fly here and fly there.” Then in 2008 when the economy went down, we had five restaurants in Vegas and five restaurants in L.A., and everything went down a lot, especially in Las Vegas. I said, “Oh, my God, this is a dangerous thing, the way I operate.” That’s when I decided to go international. So we signed a deal in Singapore and then in London. From London, we expanded into the Middle East. So now we don’t put all our eggs in one basket.
Many things have been impacting a restaurant’s bottom line, like rising rents, increased food costs and employees who can’t afford to live close to work. Is it getting hard for restaurants to make it in big cities?
Totally. You know, we opened Postrio in San Francisco, and we’re not there anymore. We were there 20 years. When we opened in 1989, people could live in the city. Not in a fancy building, but you could get a nice apartment for a reasonable price. Now it’s impossible. The price of housing is so expensive in big cities that people have to move too far away to make it worthwhile to travel to work. I think the big cities will have a problem, and I’m thinking about how can we actually help people and get them a place to live, especially somebody single and young and starting out. Part of the restaurant investment could also include housing. Buy a building somewhere with 10 apartments and then refurbish it, nothing luxurious. You could offer some people housing, especially workers in the kitchen. I think that would help a lot.
That would be a big shift. You’re suggesting restaurateurs become landlords, too.
And I think this would be good because real estate, in the long run, always goes up. You look at this as an investment. I’m looking into that now to see what we can do. In Los Angeles, for sure, because I live there. Or maybe here, if we grow here. Or New York. New York is very difficult now.
Do you think the economics still make fine dining viable in big cities?
I think you can make it work. It’s just a lot of investment. The return on investment may not be good enough for some investors. Also, it’s an iffy proposition when you remember that the failure of restaurants is very high. But I think there will always be a place. After a certain age, people want a certain luxury.
You turned 70 in July. What are the keys to growing older and remaining active and successful?
Curiosity and wanting to learn and wanting you to expand your horizons. I love to read books, and I read newspapers every day.
Part of it they got right. Part of it they always try to criticize somebody who is very successful. Spago has been open 37 years, and our most successful year was last year. So in the end, who are the critics, really? They are the customers. You know, word of mouth is still the most important thing. You can read the paper, the magazines, be on television, it’s good. But if people are not happy, they’ll go and spend their money somewhere else. With the phone, it’s easy for someone to tell 10 friends about a terrible experience, and these 10 friends will each tell another 10 friends. So the news about something bad spreads much faster than about something good. So I think we have to work customers table by table.
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