There are many different mediums Artists use to express themselves and their stories. One medium that is finally coming to shine on the art stage is the Culinary Arts. To me Chefs are Artists all themselves though I have found that some blush at the thought of calling themselves one. The studio and brushes may appear different than say a painting studio but the passion and craft can be found in both. In this Artist Talk, I had the opportunity to sit and chat about finding inspiration, family and of course art with world renown Chef and Restaurateur Wolfgang Puck at the opening of his new restaurant WP Kitchen + Bar on El Paseo.
“I don’t want to be known for one thing. I don’t want to have a tombstone that says known for smoked salmon pizza.”
Nalani: What was the first dish that inspired you to become a Chef? What were you eating that made you think this is what I want to do?
Wolfgang: I come from a family of chefs. My mother was a chef, my grandmother was a cook so everybody cooked at home so it was always delicious. We were very poor though. So for me to have a wienerschnitzel on Sunday was the best experience. I started my apprenticeship and I didn’t really thinking about cooking until I was 19. I stopped school when I was 14 so at 19 I worked in a restaurant in South of France and the owner at that time was 72 years old and he became like my mentor. He had such passion for food, for hospitality – he was amazing. I remember still to this day, one day at his hotel, they had like 30 rooms – a customer came said “Mr. Tulia what time should we come for lunch?” And he told them, “Whenever you are hungry we will make lunch for you.” I said “Wow” it was a 3 star restaurant – he wasn’t snobby, he wasn’t saying “Oh you know- it’s at 1 o’clock or whatever. He said “you are in your home here whenever you are hungry.”
Nalani: What fuels your inspiration? What inspires you everyday to come do this?
Wolfgang: I love food, everything associated with food. I also love art. Yeah, for me art was always a big part of my food world. We have now in one of our restaurants John Baldessari – he did nine paintings for the restaurant. In the old time I was friendly with Andy Warhol and Andy Warhol wanted to paint me and I said no, no, no just make me the wine label and make me the menu cover, he did everything then. Who knew he was gonna die at 64? Later on I became very good friends also with Bob Rosenberg. So when I opened a restaurant in San Francisco in ’89 I called up Bob said “Bob, do you have any paintings left over?” And he says “I don’t have anything left” but he was drunk that night. I called him back in the morning and then he said “Oh, but I’ll make you something.” And so without knowing what it was going to cost, I sent him a wall – a wall even bigger, higher than this one. He made me a 22 foot long painting on aluminum. And then I asked myself how am I going to pay for it? You know when we open a restaurant we never have any money left. And then the president of Bank of America called me and says “Don’t worry if you can’t pay for it I’ll finance you and if you cannot pay me then I’ll take the painting.”
Nalani: Have you always been involved in the art world as well?
Wolfgang: I love art and the thing was Mr. Tulia, my mentor when I was 19 was also an artist. A painter. So if I would have time, if I would have more time I would love to do that too.
Nalani: What would, what would be your dream painting if you could paint anything?
Wolfgang: There are so many people who I admire so much but the real challenge is to find a new voice, a new way of doing things, like who would have known that Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can, it’s like an icon. Or Roy Lichtenstein, like the girl with the tears coming down. Or yesterday at Sotheby’s they sold a Modigliani for $170 million dollars. Who would have thought about that? No one.
Nalani: What is your masterpiece in the kitchen?
Wolfgang: It’s an evolution. I don’t know when I make one (a dish) I think this is really important now but then I move onto the next and to the next, so it’s an evolution you know? What defined us as a culinary influence, for example we made the smoked salmon pizza which became like a really, a standout maybe, you know. And everybody in the world imitated it. But then we also have Chinois where we do Chinese style food so it’s really not one thing you know. I don’t want to be known for one thing. I don’t want to have a tombstone that says known for smoked salmon pizza. I want to have a tombstone that says he was a good father and husband. (laughing) I mean, my ex-wife wouldn’t agree with that but . . .
Nalani: Do you consider yourself and fellow chefs as artists?
Wolfgang: You know, I don’t know where the line really lies – it’s a blurry line in between being a very good professional, a very good worker in a way, a very good, I don’t know what you would call it but, a guy who makes furniture.
Nalani: A craftsman.
Wolfgang: A craftsman, yes. So, the line between artistry and craftsman – we do a lot of the same things so once in awhile we create something new, which really lasts. It’s talent and hard work mixed together. Then something comes out sometimes.
Nalani: What do you have as advice to young chefs or artists who are trying to pursue their creative passion?
Wolfgang: I think you have to have patience because we now can have everything so fast that people who don’t have patience, they want everything right away. And with television today a lot of young chefs, they don’t even know how to cook. All of a sudden because they look good, they have tattoos all over and then they put them on these shows and they go far and then they go back to their hometown. And the thing is, the biggest thing is they never learned how to cook. So I think it’s really important to work in good restaurants. I think for artists too, it’s really good to learn perspective. It’s good to learn how to mix colors and everything. And then hopefully you can find your own voice. And that’s really in cooking the same, that’s how it is in anything . . . if you’re a composer you compose songs. How many love songs do we have out there? Thousands. Do we need more? Maybe not really, but if you come up with a good one everybody loves it. We always can use one more good dish, one more great painting, one more good song.
Nalani: Tell us a little bit about the artists featured here?
Wolfgang: Well, we have a lot of Jasper Johns and Robert Motherwell right now. So we might change it in March or April, so for the first 6 months we have that. It feels like a gallery, you now and I think the way they hang them it’s really interesting you know – to have them all together. It is nice to be in a place where you have nice art, you know?
Nalani: How do you keep your energy up to always be present when you have so many different projects?
Wolfgang: Well, I, I maybe they call me a workaholic. But, I love what I do, I love people. I might go to see the guests in the dining room more than most chefs do because I truly think we are in the hospitality business and most of the time if I go to see a guest today they would probably prefer seeing me at their table saying hello than me cooking for them. I’m more visible maybe that some chefs. I am good friends with Alain Ducasse and every year we do a dinner in his restaurant in London or in our restaurant in London but even when we did it in his restaurant in London he didn’t want to go out and say hello to the customers. So I had to drag him into his restaurant and say “Come with me”.
Nalani: What is the concept that WP Kitchen + Bar brings to the Coachella Valley?
Wolfgang: I call it WP Kitchen and Bar – why, because the kitchen is right here open so I want people to eat like family style, like we eat at home. Instead of saying okay, I order a salad, you order a soup and you order that. Instead of having 4 appetizers with 4 people, you share them. You might have a little porchetta with smoked salmon, you might order a pizza, you might get a slice of pizza, you might order a salad, a beet salad or something like that and then you share that. And then with the main course the same, so you take a little bit of this, a little bit of that. So that’s really my idea about the way I eat at home, that’s why I call it my kitchen.
Nalani: What are 3 restaurants that you recommend young epicureans to go out and try as they’re evolving?
Wolfgang: Well, I think it’s better if you’re young to try out some better restaurants and maybe not buy expensive wines. Maybe instead of going out twice, you go out once. I think it is quality over quantity. You know, I don’t like restaurants like California Pizza Kitchen or, or the Olive Garden which are chain restaurants where everywhere is the same old boring thing. So I think it’s great for a young epicurean to find out where is there a young chef, where are the young interesting things, interesting dishes on the menu. We have one pizza, it’s very spicy. I had one guy here today and he said “I love the spicy pizza” and I said “Isn’t it a little spicy?”, “Yeah, it’s really spicy, but really good. I’ll remember, I would have it again.” Now I’m sure if some 80 year old or 90 year old comes and eats the pizza he’s going say “Oh shit, you know I cannot eat that.” We want to appeal to the younger people because for the younger people you have to give them more excitement. They are more ready to experiment. So we created a special menu for that. It’s not like you have it in any other restaurant and some influence from different places, but all in all I think it’s a good feeling, I’m happy. In the last one we tried too much to be a little bit of everything to everybody. We had pepperoni pizza on the menu and people don’t come to us for that.
Nalani: Yes, people want something different, something pushing the envelope.
Wolfgang: Exactly, so now I think we have different things and I think it will take a little more time now but people are going say “Wow, I really like that”. So I’m much more excited now, so the place looks better so I’m happier.
Even after so many years of being a chef, Wolfgang always has evolution on his mind. He keeps pushing himself to create something new every day and ensures that in every dish, every restaurant one can feel and hear his own voice. To my fellow Artists, doesn’t that sound familiar? WP Kitchen + Bar is situated in his former Wolfgang Puck’s Pizza Station restaurant location. This reimagining of a preexisting space and bringing to life a new concept are akin to the rotating exhibits of a gallery. For a young epicurean and Artist, meeting such a Master was truly an honor. I highly recommend that you take a stroll down El Paseo and step into WP Kitchen + Bar and give it a try – and if you have a sweet tooth order the Apple Tart. But most of all take a moment to peek into the kitchen and watch all the Artists at work in their studio.
WP Kitchen + Bar is located at 73130 El Paseo in Palm Desert. The restaurant is open from 11AM – 9PM on Sunday, 11AM – 10PM Monday – Thursday and 11AM – 11PM Friday – Saturday. Happy hour is from 3-5PM daily in the bar, lounge and outdoor patio. For additional details please contact the restaurant at 760.568.2700, or visit www.wolfgangpuck.com.