Wolfgang Puck never thought New York needed him. The celebrity chef behind supermarket soups, Oscar galas, and “California cuisine” spent decades circumventing the city. Instead, Puck developed an intercontinental restaurant group spread across hotels, casinos, and airports throughout the western United States, Europe, and Asia (most recently at the Four Seasons in Bahrain). Now the Austro-celebrity chef has finally realized it’s he who needs New York.
“London is important,” Puck says. “But we don’t read the London Times in Los Angeles, we read the New York Times. So if we are not in New York, we cannot pretend to be a global brand.” He’s speaking in the kitchen of Cut, the tenth and most experimental location of his popular steakhouse chain, which just opened on the ground floor of the new Four Seasons Hotel on Church Street. Puck and his wife currently reside in an apartment upstairs, far and away from the last Manhattan hotel he called home.
“I was supposed to be the chef at La Goulue in the Seventies. I was working at Maxim’s in Paris, and I was young…and I was very difficult,” recalls Puck. “When I arrived, I said, ‘I’m not working in a bistro like La Goulue — I want a great restaurant!’ ”
So, in 1974, Charles Masson Sr., the late restaurateur behind La Grenouille, found the chafed toque another job — albeit in Indiana. Puck walked away from what he remembers as a “shitty hotel with cockroaches” and rode a Greyhound bus, hoping to arrive in the Riviera of the Midwest. “I used to live in Monte Carlo, and they have a famous auto race and so does Indianapolis,” he says. “How different could they be?” Puck quickly found out. He was broke, so he had no choice but to work to earn his green card there, cooking while living in another cheap motel, before finally settling in California.
Forty years later, in 2015, he opened a new test kitchen in Los Angeles’ Pacific Design Center equipped with all the toys of modernist cuisine — a centrifuge, vacuum distiller, anti-griddles — just as useful for innovating the flavors of frozen pizzas as brunch cocktails. “I’m all for using modern techniques for evolving my cooking, but I don’t want to serve science experiments,” says Puck. That might mean raspberries from a Santa Monica farmers’ market will be reduced to their essence to brighten a Champagne framboise poured tableside, or end-of-meal bonbons, but in both cases he’d prefer that customers appreciate the flavor and the service — not the technique.
At every Cut steakhouse, it’s commonplace to witness waiters wielding hefty silver platters stacked with slabs of raw beef from table to table, gesticulating as they dramatize the virtues of age and fat. But in New York, tableside accommodation will achieve new levels of excess. Dinner may begin with aperitifs stirred atop a fleet of rolling negroni carts. Local beef from Pat LaFrieda and Debragga — charred atop a wood-burning Argentine grill — will be dressed in a chimichurri sauce made to order.
“I want the servers to have a rapport with the customer, to ask how hot they like their sauce, for [customers] to see the fresh herbs, and to leave feeling the server engaged him, that he did something, and it cost nothing,” says Puck. “You can get a really good steak in a lot of places, but good hospitality, where people are warm and friendly…it seems logical but it’s not.”
Puck has had some time to get the details right. Silverstein Properties, which considered thirty chefs for the space, ultimately wooed Puck in a congenial, if lengthy, process. “It took two years to make the deal, and eight months to build the restaurant,” he jokes.
Still, in finally luring Puck to New York, the Four Seasons finally accomplished what no one else could. In the early 1980s, Puck declined an offer to occupy the newly constructed Equitable Tower on West 51st Street. “They said, ‘If you don’t come to us, Maguy Le Coze is going to come in and open Le Bernardin. And I said, ‘If Le Coze comes in and opens Le Bernardin, I will be very happy and come in for dinner.’ ”
Puck also resisted occupying the Four Seasons Hotel in midtown, determined to see his restaurant maintain its own unique identity — including an entrance separate from its landlord’s. (Diners enter Cut on Church Street; guests enter the hotel on Barclay Street.) “We talked with the Four Seasons on 57th Street years ago and I said, ‘This is a great hotel,’ and I’ve stayed there many times, but the floor and the layout didn’t work, so that’s why I didn’t want to be over there.”
Another deciding factor to finally open in New York was his wife, Gelila Assefa. “A happy wife is a happy life,” says Puck. “She said I can choose London or New York. I said, ‘OK, New York is closer, and we can still go to the West Coast…we can still go to London. New York is the center of the world — that could be good for a change.”