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WOLFGANG PUCK

On the Record, Off the Menu

Crossroads: Looking at 1996 and beyond with influential figures in the worlds of art and entertainment.

December 27, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

Wolfgang Puck first caught the attention of Los Angeles diners as the chef at Ma Maison in the late '70s, where he cooked fish en croute and lobster salad for a rapt audience night after night. Fifteen years ago when he decided to open Spago, which he envisioned as Trattoria Spago with red-and-white checked tablecloths, the editor of Bon Appetit took Puck's partner and wife, Barbara Lazaroff, aside and told her she had to stop him--at least that's the way Puck tells it. He went ahead, thinking he could always go back to French cooking if it didn't work out.

Now he has restaurants in Las Vegas and Chicago, plus Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, Granita in Malibu and a fleet of Wolfgang Puck Cafes, and the new ObaChine in Beverly Hills with a fancier place yet to come at the site of the former Bistro Garden. The 47-year-old super-charged Austrian chef stopped for a few minutes to discuss the state of restaurants.

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Question: The restaurant scene in Los Angeles has been slow for the past few years. Do you sense that things are beginning to move in a different direction?

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Answer: It's a cycle. We have come to the end of downsizing and creating restaurants that are less expensive only. In Beverly Hills, there's an Italian place serving pizza and pasta on every corner. All with entrees under $15, probably. For that price, you cannot do really good cuisine. You can give simple, good chicken, yes, but if you want to get into interesting ingredients, that costs money.

Q: What do you see happening in terms of the rest of the city?

A: In comparison to Chicago and San Francisco, where people actually live and work downtown, Los Angeles is difficult because the downtown area has become isolated from the rest of the city.

Q: In fact, a good part of recent restaurant openings have been in either Pasadena and Beverly Hills, both places where you can walk.

A: It's nice to get out of the restaurant and actually take a walk. You feel like you're part of a city. I think L.A. has to become more of a place where people can actually interact in the city and not just in the restaurants.

Q: Looking at the bigger picture. . . .

A: From the perspective of 1996, basically a lot of interesting things came from L.A. in the '80s--and very little in the '90s. That really has to change. It's time for a few more upscale restaurants.

Q: In fact, America is the least expensive country in the entire world for fine dining.

A: For a major city, we have very few expensive restaurants which do well. In Chicago, you have to reserve a month ahead to get a table at Charlie Trotter's. In L.A. if you call the day ahead, except in the newest places, you can get a table for whatever time.

Q: Do you think people are beginning to loosen up a little about eating? Because they say bad is back. Red meat is back.

A: A lot of it is made up by the press. I think steakhouses were always very popular. The big American thing is to eat a steak. And mainly, the bigger the better.

Q: What about portions?

A: I think they should get down to human size, where people can actually eat what's on their plates. Instead of getting something good in a smaller portion, people prefer to have something big of no quality.

Q: Nouvelle cuisine, with its minuscule portions on over-sized plates, gave restaurant-goers a scare they haven't quite gotten over.

A: I know. When I was just about to open Spago in Chicago, Richard Melman [the Chicago restaurateur who owns some 27 restaurants] stopped me and said, "Listen, you can't serve the kind of portions you serve at Spago [in West Hollywood] here." I said, "What do you mean? I've never served really small portions. How much more can you eat?" But he made me nervous enough that I did make the portions a little bit bigger, maybe 10% bigger.

Q: Do you think people are drinking differently these days?

A: When I was at Ma Maison in the late '70s, everybody used to drink at lunch. If David Janssen was drinking martinis, his lawyer couldn't drink just water; Janssen would have walked out on him. Now when you look around the restaurant, nobody drinks wine or beer or a cocktail. It has become a little bit gauche to drink. People think as soon as you order a glass of wine at lunch, you belong in the Betty Ford Center.

Q: How would you compare the Los Angeles restaurant scene with San Francisco's?

A: In San Francisco, unlike here, nothing much happened in the '80s. Everything happened in the early '90s. Now there are an amazing number of new restaurants up there.

Q: Many of them are the kind of small personal restaurants that are rare in L.A.

A: That's because we don't really have those kinds of neighborhoods. Maybe you could have a little place in Pacific Palisades or somewhere in Brentwood, but even there chain restaurants have taken over. L.A. has very few small restaurants that serve really good food.

Q: Is fusion going to be the wave of the future?

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