With Some Puck, Our Holidays Light Up
By December 8, 2021 0 265•
“If we want the neighborhood to be interested in us, we have to be interested in the neighborhood,” says Wolfgang Puck, the celebrity chef name behind Cut, the restaurant in the luxe Rosewood Hotel on 31st Street next to the C&O Canal. “I like that it’s small, intimate.”
That’s coming from the 72-year-old charismatic chef, whose family name evokes a merry sprite and whose restaurant and catering empire, cofounded with then-wife Barbara Lazaroff, has 5,000 employees. With an estimated net worth of $90-120 million, according to reports, Puck ranks number six on the richest celebrity chef list. But who’s counting?
Georgetown’s Cut is the fifth location of Puck’s more-than-a-steakhouse concept that also features fish and vegetable dishes. Here, his positivity and personality are on display, where we met him for another interview.
Puck is one of the first celebrity chefs — known around the world for his nouvelle California and fusion culinary innovations — whose life began in a small village in Austria. With his mother Maria as a baker, he began cooking at 14. Puck says he didn’t have a great childhood. Still, he stuck it out and followed his dream, which “may have been more like an escape,” he adds. “The tough part was that my stepfather was totally crazy and always told me I was good for nothing. He beat up me and my sister. The first 18 years were the hardest. After that, it started to get better.”
At 19, Puck found his mentor — Raymond Thuilier at L’Oustau de Baumanière in Les Baux-de-Provence. “It changed my life,” Puck says. “There I found my mentor … the way they cooked, took care of the customer, their hospitality.” He also got a sense of the celebrity restaurant — Marcello Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve — but for Puck, it was the way they cooked. “For me, it was elevation … I got passionate,” he recalls. Thuilier acknowledged he was doing a good job. “He was the first one to make me feel good about what I was doing.”
Those early years are covered in the Disney documentary, “Wolfgang,” released this summer. His is truly a rags-to-riches story for this persevering Austrian-American. “If Wolf can do it, you can, too.”
In Los Angeles, Puck says, “I started at Ma Maison — my first paycheck bounced.” He made a deal with the owner to get eight percent of the business with less money. Guests included Orson Welles, Billy Wilder and Joan Collins. “It was an amazing place. Jack Nicholson and Roman Polanski hung out all the time. Orson came for lunch every day.”
In 1982, Puck opened Spago — its apt meaning, a string with no beginning or end — and attracted a similar celebrity clientele. “I knew lot of those people,” he says. It was one of the first with an open kitchen — then a Spago in Tokyo and Chinois in Santa Monica. Now, the Wolf Puck company boasts more than 25 restaurants, several lounges and many Kitchens at airports, even at a few hospitals. Last month, Puck catered the wedding of Paris Hilton and Carter Reum.
During our interview, we met Puck’s wife, Gelila Assefa, a fashion designer who also works on the company’s creative branding — from the grocery store line to fine dining. (They married in 2007 in Capri and have two sons together.)
She had been out being a tourist in D.C. “I like the Capitol and more of the political history,” Assefa says. “Last night, we went to the French ambassador’s residence.” They also went to lunch at Fiola Mare. “I like to take walks down at the water,” Puck adds. It’s particularly nice when the leaves are changing.”
And favorite activities during the holidays? “I love to ski during Christmastime,” Puck says. His wife, who grew up in Ethiopia, tried it but adds she would “rather be in the spa area.” For her, the best Christmas is quiet time at home. “Christmas Eve dinner I like that a lot,” Assefa says. “I think Christmas is where the family is.”
“For me, Christmas was the most important holiday,” Puck says. “My mother used to bake cookies and hide them. The whole house smelled of cookies … And then, someone from the church walked through the village with incense.” Along with that, images of snow and candles linger.
“This year, the celebrations will be bigger. Restaurants are doing better than in 2019,” says Puck who worked on a president’s council last year advocating for policy changes in business interruption insurance. “The pandemic was a hard time because we didn’t know when it would end.”
At Georgetown’s Cut, the going was even tougher. The restaurant opened in 2019, and then a fire in the kitchen closed it for nine months — and then the pandemic. Today, the place is doing a brisk business. “I have a lot of people with me for many years,” says Puck, who praises Cut’s executive chef, Andrew Skala. “I love to challenge the chefs. I want them to be creative. They have to be excited. It’s important to be inspired.”
At Cut, the most popular cut is “the dry-aged, boney New York,” Puck says. “And a lot of tomahawk steak — we try to get people to share. It is a better dining experience if you share.”
As for Puck’s management style, he says: “I treat people the way I like to be treated. Dishwasher or chef — guest or whoever, no difference — everyone is important. I treat everybody the same. Deep down, we are all human beings — we all want to be treated well.”
His go-to Christmas dinner? Appetizers — oysters, smoked salmon and caviar (sometimes, foie gras), luxury oeuvres … good champagne (but not everything on the table at once). For the main course, Peking duck, served Austrian-style with lingonberry, grape cabbage, chestnuts and mashed potatoes — and make a good sauce. Good wine at the table, of course.
Puck wears a wristband that reads, “Allergic to Stupidity.” Is it about politics? “Now, it’s us against them,” he says. “They should do what’s good for the country. I think politicians are so paranoid. Where is the middle ground? The country got paralyzed — it’s supposed to be the United States of America, not the divided states of America.”
For the new year, Puck has a resolution he could not fulfill last year: “When I travel to different places, whether Bahrain or Budapest, I will work three days and then take two days to explore and learn the local scene.”
As for the future of the Wolfgang Puck company, its co-founder looks to his four sons — Byron Puck already manages restaurants — and told L.A. Magazine last year: “I was approached many times to sell the business. I really don’t want to do that. Ideally, it will stay a family business. My dream is to look down from heaven and say, ‘Oh my God, the kids are doing much better than I did.’ ”