Photos Courtesy Wolfgang Puck
Master chef Wolfgang Puck (of Spago and CUT), who's already been chosen to cook for 16 Governors Balls (the official Academy Awards after-party), is revving up to prepare the 17th feast this Sunday night after the 83rd Annual Academy Awards ceremony. With more than 1,500 Oscar winners, nominees, presenters, and other guests eating your food, a chef just might get a little edgy. Slashfood chatted with Chef Puck to find out what he, partner chef Matt Bencivenga, pastry chef Sherry Yard, and their staff of 300 have up their sleeves for the glitterati, what makes the perfect Oscars party, and what makes for a kitchen disaster or two. Puck even reveals a surprise move that may shock Spago fans.
Slashfood: What's one of your favorite dishes from last year? And what are you excited about this year? We hear the menu packs a lot of Latin flavors.
Wolfgang Puck: We make something different every year. (Except Sherry Yard's gold-dusted desserts -- everyone goes home with an Oscar.) Last year we prepared Black Truffle Chicken Pot Pie -- we assembled the dish at night, and in the morning and we baked it perfectly hot for all of the guests. This year my tribute to The King's Speech is the entrée of Pan-Roasted Dover Sole with Fennel, Olives, Haricots Vert, Tomatoes, Lemon, Sherry, and Olive Oil. We're flying in 1,600 Dover Sole for the dinner.
What about the "Black Swan Paella?"
We have a Vegetable Risotto "Paellla" with Saffron, White Wine, Chile, and Parsley -- it has great flavors, and it's easy for Natalie Portman to eat since she is vegetarian.
How is California being represented?
This year's California inspiration is a trio of my signature salads: Artichoke Salad with Confit Tomato, Shaved Parmesan, Arugula and Lemon; Heirloom Beets with Oranges, Almonds, Goat Cheese and Citrus-Shallot Vinaigrette; and Asparagus with Ibérico Ham, Black Truffle Aioli and Mizuna Leaves. And, of course, Sherry Yard's gold-dusted Oscar desserts.
What would most surprise us to know about what it takes to put this dinner together?
Everyone is shocked that I decide what to do at the last minute. We don't cook in advance -- everything starts rocking on Friday, when the food delivery arrives. Saturday we clean the artichokes, Sunday afternoon we cook the fish. Just as we would for a party at Spago.
Have you ever had a near-disaster?
The Oscars used to be held at the Shrine Auditorium, and we had to build an outdoor kitchen in the parking lot. We were excited when the Academy Awards moved to the Kodak Theater in 2002, and we would have a large kitchen. So the first year we moved here, we had many lines serving food, the food goes out very fast, and then the electricity and the gas shut down during the dinner! I knew we had an engineer, but the security was so tight for the event they would not let the engineer into the kitchen, so we arranged small propane gas cookers, 15 of them lit with pans, butter. After 15 minutes they finally let the engineer up, but it was the longest 15 minutes ever. The guests never knew a thing, since there were emergency lights in the dining room.
One time at the Shrine Auditorium they were making black truffle risotto, and you can't let the risotto sit or it turns out like glue. But we were cooking outside in the parking lot, and the wind was blowing the fire sideways, so the risotto was not cooking, and we had to wrap tin foil around the stoves that we rented to keep the fire going directly under the risotto.
What are you wearing for the Oscars dinner?
Gelila, my wife, is a fashion designer, and she designed a special chef's jacket for me to wear to the Governors Ball dinner. Jeffrey, a costume designer, designed a special jacket for me one year, but it was silk! And silk is not good in a hot kitchen.
Have you seen all the movies nominated?
I saw The Social Network on the plane, on the way to the Singapore, where we just had a big opening for CUT. That's it. I work at night and get home at midnight. And Sunday nights I spend with my kids. This month we also served at the Grammys, and the NBA All-Star Basketball Game. I don't have much time for movies.
What's coming up with Spago and CUT?
In June I'm opening a CUT in London, at 45 Park Lane Hotel.
And I have big news. We just decided that at the end of 2011 we are going to close Spago to remodel. Spago has been open 30 years -- the current location is 176 North Canon Drive, the original location was on the Sunset Strip. So at the end of the year we're closing to remodel and change the menu, and reopen two or three months later, around spring of 2012.
Do you follow what the critics and bloggers say about you online? Who do you read online?
I do what I do and enough people like it, so that is why I am still in business. If you listen to the critics it will make you crazy. I don't even have a computer, but I read The New York Times, The LA Times, New York Post (for gossip and sports) and Wall Street Journal. But I have never sent an email in my life. I just call people if I need them. If I email I would never have time to cook, I never carry my phone half the time...
How do you keep up the pace?
I drink a lot of coffee! My wife (who is from Ethiopia) and I have nothing less than three double espresso macchiatos in the morning.The most important item in my kitchen is my industrial espresso machine; I leave it on 24 hours a day. Espresso and red wine will keep me going for years! And my young kids and young wife of course... I will sleep when I am dead.
See Wolfgang Puck's Tips for an Award-Winning Oscar Party.