After spending three decades changing the face of dining in LA, Wolfgang Puck encounters his biggest challenge to date—opening his namesake restaurant at the iconic Hotel Bel-Air.
This week the David Rockwell-designed restaurant started accepting reservations for the California- Mediterranean menu. The rotating seasonal dishes consist of braised Wagyu beef cheeks, Alba truffle risotto and autumnal salads. The Feast chatted with Wolfgang Puck before service to find out what Nancy Reagan won’t let him take off the new menu, his revamp plans for Spago and how he keeps up with the fickle food business in LA.
With all the global projects you have in the works, why did you want to open a restaurant at the Hotel Bel-Air?
I believe it's really an iconic property and it’s so beautiful. Nobody can build another one here in LA. We have these amazing grounds and gardens. When the opportunity came, I jumped at the chance. It’s also very close to my house, so I don’t have to fly to London or Singapore. Now at my age, I want to open restaurants where I want to go. The restaurant is really a neighborhood hangout where [locals] can have a glass of wine and a burger at the bar—and then it's also here for the guests of the hotel.
What have been some of your fondest personal memories at the hotel?
This is a homecoming for me. I did consulting here in the 80’s–when Caroline Hunt used to own it.
Did you have any reservations about re-opening an eatery in such an iconic hotel?
There are never enough good restaurants. In Spain, a small town like San Sebastian has four 3 star restaurants and they only have 3,000 people.
What was your biggest challenge with this new menu?
Nancy Reagan told me not to take off the tortilla soup. Other people were asking me about the hamburger [at the bar] but now the locals think it’s much better than it was before.
Is there one signature dish that sums up what you want people to know about the new restaurant?
I really don’t know which dish will become the signature since we go to the farmers' market every day. We are keeping some of the old standards like the salad and tortilla soup which is famous. Right now we are using a lot of root vegetables and have a roasted salmon salad with an almond ginger crust that we serve with beets, turnips, radishes, celery and greens that is very healthy, colorful and tasty.
Do you have any immediate plans to open in any other hotels?
Not right now because I just opened Cut in London too, and it’s a lot of work. Opening in a big hotel like this is always a great challenge, a restaurant alone is hard work to get it right, but here we have a bar, banquettes and a day-and-night operation with 60 cooks in the kitchen.
Do you ever tire of coming up with new dishes or restaurant concepts?
When I was 35 I thought that I would be retired by 50, or 55 at the most, but what would I do all day? Taking the kids to school and playing tennis would not be enough, so we just keep on creating and building new places.
What is the biggest misconception that people have of your food?
People really think that because I have upscale restaurants they can’t come here. We are friendly and not snobby. You can sit on the couch in the bar [at the Bel-Air] you don’t have to eat in a big dining room every night.
What’s next for you in LA?
Our main event next year will be to refurbish and remodel Spago in Beverly Hills. We will close it for about three months. Everything on the menu will go— no more wienerschnitzel or salmon-caviar pizza. We will have to do certain things for some people, but we have to go on to the next level.
Photo Credit: Carole Dixon