LA's First Celebrity Chef
By Wolfgang Puck
FROM LEFT: Wolfgang Puck taking a rare moment to sit down at Spago; Puck (FAR RIGHT) preparing the night’s desserts with his team of chefs at Spago in the early 1980s
I arrived in LA in 1975 to work at Ma Maison. My first paycheck bounced because the owners had no money in the bank and no customers. I had such a small kitchen that I had to cook leg of lamb and potatoes in the same oven, and we had six household refrigerators in the back alley. A year later we had so many regular customers—everyone from Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire to Kirk Kerkorian and Michael Caine—that Gourmet magazine did a story on us. So we thought, Let’s make the telephone number unlisted for a few months. That became a big story and even made it into People magazine. It was a PR accident that turned out well.
At Ma Maison I created dishes people didn’t quite understand, like duck in two separate courses—a rare breast and then a duck salad for the next course. (This was surprising to most people, as they had never had a rare duck breast.) I was doing fish in puff pastry or small king salmon; both were very popular. Later I made a warm lobster salad with black-truffle butter.
In 1981 I told [Ma Maison owner] Patrick Terrail that I’d found a small place on Sunset and wanted to do an Italianstyle pizza place because there was no good pizza in LA. At the time I owned 10 percent of Ma Maison, so I said we needed to form a new restaurant company and do it 50-50. He said, “I’ll always own 51 percent,” so I said we would have to part ways because I want to own 51 percent, too. It was an ugly divorce. When I opened Spago in January of 1982, Patrick was the only person I didn’t let into the restaurant.
The thing about Spago is that nobody had seen a restaurant that was informal and fun but used great ingredients. It was a whole new thing for LA and for America. The first night I turned around and the restaurant was full. I had been nervous, thinking nobody would show up because supposedly Patrick was telling people I was opening a restaurant above Sunset, with all the hookers below. We started with 26 employees, including Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton and Kazuto Matsusaka in the kitchen. Linda Evans used to come in three times a week for the duck-sausage pizza and a glass of wine. We had sun-dried tomato and goat-cheese pizza, too, which was a complete novelty at the time. Once we got richer we made white-truffle pizza, and we were one of the first to serve raw tuna.
We opened Spago in Tokyo in April of 1983, and in September of that year we built Chinois in Santa Monica. Unlike Spago, Chinois took about a year to catch on because people didn’t understand the fusion of French and Chinese cuisines.
People have been very loyal to us, from the famous to the not so famous. We have a couple, Dr. and Mrs. Fein, who’ve come in once a week ever since the Ma Maison days. Marvin Davis used to come at least 300 times a year— five times a week for lunch and twice a week for dinner.
When I look back on the 34 years of cooking in LA, it seems crazy how fast the time has gone. I never thought about where my career would go—I just wanted to be in charge of my own destiny.