Celeb chef beyond the Oscars bringing signature steakhouse to the island
America’s culinary A-Lister Wolfgang Puck tells Penelope Walsh his plans to open in Bahrain before the year is out.
Wolfgang Puck’s first forays into the kitchen were at home in Austria, alongside his pastry chef mother, but it was a move to the US at age 24 that catapulted his career onto the road of culinary celebrity.
Today Puck is known as a Michelin-awarded chef and TV personality, who cooks for the stars both at his restaurants, and on the Oscars red carpet. He can tell you what the likes of Victoria Beckham and Leonardo Di Caprio really eat. While the chef now operates restaurants across the USA (Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York, to name a few locations), as well as London and Singapore, it’s Puck’s recent announcement that he’s expanding into the Middle East for the first time that we’re meeting the man to talk about. First in Dubai, and then later this year with a venue at Bahrain’s forthcoming Four Seasons.
We chat in the former, his new Dubai restaurant Cut by Wolfgang Puck, which bears the name of the signature steakhouse chain he began in Beverly Hills eight years ago. It’s halfway through the conversation that he lets slip this will be the first of many regional ventures to come.
‘We are opening in Bahrain at the Four Seasons at the end of the year,’ he tells us, ‘maybe November. But if we have a restaurant in Dubai, in Bahrain, maybe in Abu Dhabi, maybe in Doha...’ A GCC-wide expansion is on the cards? ‘Yes. We want to conquer the Middle East’, he declares. ‘It’s like in Las Vegas. In ’92, we started with just one restaurant in Vegas, in ’93 we opened another one. Now we have six, in one city.’
A man of epic expectations, it’s notoriously difficult logisitcally for celebrity chefs to get started in region. But Puck pledges his plans for regional domination have faced few issues in coming to fruition.
‘I thought there would be more challenges actually,’ he admits. ‘It is actually not very difficult to bring ingredients in because everything is basically imported. So it’s not complicated to do what we do here.’
Known for quality, among the selection of imported beef now gracing the steakhouse’s debut Dubai menu is Kobe beef (‘it comes from the Kobe prefecture of Japan. Wagyu is the cattle. You have different grades of Kobe beef, just like wagyu, but it is supposed to be finer quality, because the cows eat certain food’) and both wet- and dry-aged beef (‘wet-aged is just the regular process, it is more typical and less expensive.
Dry-aging is humidity regulated, and removes around 30 percent of the moisture in the beef, so you get a more concentrated flavour’).
As a point of difference from other American steakhouses, which typically use broilers, Cut’s chefs cook their meat over charcoal and oak, ‘so it gets that slight smoky flavour’. Also on the menu is Puck’s own favourite, Wiener schnitzel, as well as a Peking-inspired duck, poussin (baby chicken), and local fish and shrimp – all dishes we’re crossing fingers for when the Bahrain restaurant opens.
Beyond his identity as a chef and restaurateur, it is hard however to ignore Puck’s celebrity status in the US, where his regular media involvement extends to cooking for the Governor’s Ball, the official after-party at the Oscars. Working with a team of 300 kitchen staff and 600 service staff, Puck serves around 16,000 at the gala dinner, in addition to 3,000 meals to the staff that work on the awards ceremony, from stage-hands to security. No longer restricted by a three-course seated meal, in the last two year’s Puck’s approach to the Oscars menu has become more modern and informal, with a selection of 30 different small-plate dishes, from salads to macaroni and cheese, served at standing tables and casual couches.
Considering Hollywood’s reputation, however, the menu is not overly strict in terms of diet. ‘There are a few like Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Hathaway that are vegan,’ he confides, ‘but 98 percent of [actors] eat whatever they like.
‘I know Barbra Streisand likes chicken pot pie [on Puck’s 2014 Oscar menu], she likes comfort food. Charlize Theron loves food. Most people are hungry by the time they get to the ballroom, they haven’t eaten all day, especially the ladies.’
We wonder if Puck is ever star struck, or tempted to pinch himself in his role as chef to the stars?
‘I used to be impressed. Years ago I cooked for Orson Welles, Gene Kelly. But really it’s not that complicated, they are just people.
As long as they are good customers, and as long as they like the food.’