WATCH: How Wolfgang Puck Is Celebrating The Comeback Of Dining In At His L.A. Restaurants

Wolfgang PuckPhoto Credit: Vanessa Stump/Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group

Wolfgang Puck is ready to get out, and ready for guests to come in. The Austrian-born chef and owner of the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group empire recently welcomed sit-down diners back to his famous L.A. eateries, Spago, Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air and Chinois,  though CUT at the Beverly Wilshire, a Four Seasons Hotel, continues to remain closed. Here, we spoke to Puck about how he pivoted during the COVID-19 crisis, how he’s keeping guests safe and how he’s celebrating the return of the dining community.    

SpagoPhoto Credit: Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group

LA is finally emerging from its quarantine. How did you spend your quarantine? Did you invent any new menu items? Come up with new business strategies?

We always change the menu, we always do new things, we always do what is seasonal. So we always have things which are tradition, like our corn agnolotti in the summertime and always the smoked salmon pizza and tuna cones are on the menu. Why? Because people are going to come and say, ‘I want it anyway.’ When we open up, it needs to be fresh…The hardest thing will be to open because travel is so restricted. Hotels are still closed. The Beverly Wilshire hotel next to us is still closed. They have 400 rooms. In the summer, they have 80 or 90 percent occupancy. Europeans come, Middle Easterners come, but this year, no one will show up. The hotel is closed until September, maybe they open in September. Obviously I think we’re going to have less customers because all we do have is the local clientele. The thing now with COVID, we have to separate tables so now we only have half the occupancy. I hope we fill it up and I hope that we all still have a good time. Now, people are starting to come back and we’re still going to give them an experience. I just talked with our manager at Spago and said, ‘Put one person in charge of health. Don’t have ten health secretaries.’ Less is more sometimes. The most important thing is the experience of the customer. If the customer doesn’t want to wear a mask when he’s sitting down, we’re not going to make him wear a mask. Then he’s going to feel like he’s being lectured to, he’s going to want to enjoy his dinner, drink wine and [have a good time]. All of our employees will wear a mask for sure so that way the guests will feel safe.

What are some of the protocols you are following in your restaurants?

We are partnering with Louis Vuitton + HennessyLVMH—to give people a welcome champagne, a welcome cocktail. We’re going to serve them an appetizer so that way they feel, ‘Oh we are so happy to be back. There’s nothing nicer after this long quarantine to get back to our normal life. It’s nice to get back to Spago for our Thursday night dinner or Friday lunch and feel good about it.’ I am already starting. Tonight I am having dinner with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and a few other friends at [Wolfgang Puck at] Hotel Bel-Air. I want people to go out and I think, you know, Goldie is in her early 70s and she’s not scared to go out. A lot of people, when they get a little older, are more nervous, more scared to go out. I always tell people, ‘If you’re nervous, if you’re not healthy, if you have a health problem already, if you have a low immune system, don’t go out. Be careful. The last thing I want to do is get any of our employees sick or any guests sick. We do temperature testing when people come in and so forth. Safety for the employees and the guests is the most important thing right now as we open up. Once the customers are in the house, we have to take care of them.

How are you setting the example for the restaurants in LA that are making safety a priority?

We put all new floors in the restaurant, we painted the whole restaurant, we brought in trees to separate the tables, but also so it doesn’t look like a half-empty dining room. I wanted it to feel friendly. So, we haven’t set it up yet 100% (we open Saturday) but we did the same thing at the Hotel Bel-Air; we put a few trees in so it doesn’t feel like empty tables or you just see the floor. It’s important to think about how people are going to feel when they come to our restaurants. They want to feel safe, and they want to feel good when they leave and say, ‘God, it was worth waiting. Now I’m happy. I really missed it for so long, I can’t wait to go back.’

How nice is it for you to regain social life?

Totally. I miss it. I missed being in the kitchen and cooking regular food. We had take-out food for the last three months. It’s not the same. It’s not the same presentation, the same quality. Yes, it’s very good food and very good quality but it’s not the same and we don’t really interact with the people. I go out into the street when people come to pick up their food and talk to them and they’re saying, ‘We can’t wait for you to open up.’… I think people are so bored staying at home that they’d much rather get out with the mission of doing something [whatever that is]. It makes you feel good when you do something.

Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air
Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air

Photo Credit: Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group

What are some of the permanent effects of COVID-19 that you will be implementing into your restaurants?

I think the restaurant industry is suffering really. How are we going to hire back all of our employees when we only have fifty percent of the business, and in some cases, even less? I think it’s going to take a long time for people to feel comfortable traveling, for people to come to LA on vacation. The Beverly Hills Hotel had 100 percent occupancy normally in the summer, same thing with the Hotel Bel-Air. This year, none of the Europeans are coming. This year it’s going to be difficult. I think for the whole economy; if you have a store on Rodeo Drive, you’re going to get many less shoppers. People are going to be more frugal. The people who stayed home are going to say, ‘I don’t need another purse, I have nowhere to go.’ There are no big functions going on, nothing. Everybody has to tighten their belts. I think most of the people are tired of spending all this time at home and want to go out. I actually wanted to do a party, a celebration, but it’s very hard because everyone has to stand six feet apart and have a mask on. But I said, ‘We should have a big street party on Canon Drive that we are open. Maybe we’ll still do it in a few weeks when people feel a little more comfortable.

You’re the king of events in L.A.; you cater almost every major function. How does it feel to not be doing that now, and having so much more downtime?

Our catering business is totally down. On Saturday we have a party for eight people at somebody’s house. That’s about as much catering as we do. Next week we have a party up in Idaho where we have to send a chef and the food. It is very limited. We do a little work at Sony, a little work at Netflix where we serve the employees, but most of the employees have stayed home. So our catering business has basically gone to zero. But hopefully by the fall, late fall, holidays, people are going to do small parties and things like that. Again, the problem is that so many people depend on the income, on what they have, and nobody expected this to be so long or so far-reaching as this virus. Hopefully by this year or next year we find a vaccination so people feel more safe. It’s really sad.

Has this timeframe made you do any self-reflection? What have you found?

I really think the most important thing is family. My children are the most important thing in my life. Then, there is the extended family. The people who work with me in all of these different restaurants. So many of them are with me for a lifetime basically, since we opened up. People have been with me for 35 years. They are just like family. [Ari Rosenson, the chef at Spago Beverly Hills] he came to me when he was 12 years old and did a school project on me. When he went to high school he started to work for me. Little by little he moved up the ladder, and now he’s the head chef at Spago and oversees the Hotel Bel-Air too. He’s 42 now; his whole life has been with me, basically. He’s part of the family. We have so many people like that. Bella, who is my partner at Chinois in Santa Monica, same thing. She started in 1983 and she’s still there, running the restaurant. When people say, ‘You’re running an empire’ I say, ‘No, no, it’s really a family business.’ And I really mean it. we have people working with us for so many years and it is like that. When I go to my restaurants I always say I don’t know which is my first home, where I sleep or where I am. What is happiness? If you’re happy you go to work, you do a better job. If you do a better job you’re probably happier. But what comes really first? For me at work, I’m really happy but do I come to work really happy because I know I’m going to do a good job? And it gives me happiness. Great work makes you happy. You want to go home and feel good.