We Hungarians learned the name of the famous celebrity chef and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck when his eponymous Spago restaurant opened in the renovated Matild Palace. Puck visited Budapest again and we couldn’t miss the opportunity to talk to him about Hungarian gastronomy, his long and uninterrupted career and much more. The interview was conducted by our sister-site Helló Magyar.
The interview took place in the Matild Café & Cabaret, one of the most exclusive areas of the five-star luxury hotel. The chef, now 74, was born in Austria but moved to the United States to pursue his dreams. During a career spanning several decades, he has made a significant impact on the American culinary scene. For 28 years, Puck and his team have ensured that a first-rate menu has been on the table at the Oscars. In fact, István Szántó, chef at Spago Budapest, was the first Hungarian chef to be selected to the Oscar chef team, a great credit to the industry.
The Austrian chef opened his iconic restaurant Spago in 1982 in West Hollywood, California, which has become a symbol of fine dining and a celebrity hotspot. Spago’s success led to the expansion of the Wolfgang Puck brand, with restaurants opening in the United States and around the world. His restaurant empire also includes popular eateries such as CUT, Chinois on Main and Postrio. His restaurants offer a diverse range of culinary experiences, from upscale fine dining to casual dining to airport concessions.
Born in Carinthia, Puck told us that he is very proud that the two countries were a strong empire during the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and when he got the chance to get a little closer to Hungarian culture, he jumped at the chance. He couldn’t wait to learn more about the Hungarians and the opportunities here.
The invitation came from the owner of the Turkish hotel chain, the star chef has a friendly relationship with the influential family. The Özyer Group renovated the magnificent Matild Palace in Ferenciek Square a few years ago. The owner thought that Spago would represent a quality that would appeal to gastronomy lovers in Budapest. By the way, they are already working together in Istanbul, where Spago also operates, so they have come to the Hungarian capital with a tried and tested collaboration.
I’m proud to have my son Byron by my side in the business so I have someone to pass on what I’ve built. For me, making money has never been the primary goal. I never opened a restaurant to make more money. I do it because it’s exciting and I love what I do. I came to Hungary with Spago to learn more about Hungarian gastronomy,
He mentioned that, unfortunately, many of his friends and colleagues have left the hospitality industry, as they always have to work on weekends and holidays and often have to stay overnight. Not many people can do this with full energy for long periods of time, but Puck persevered and said he sees it as fun. As long as he can keep up his interest in cooking, he will never get bored.
Food is great because different cultures have different foods and learning something new never ends,”
He said that for him, opening a new restaurant is like a marriage, which he is serious about and is keen to learn and experience. He stressed that Hungarian wineries are of a very high quality and he is confident that Hungarian gastronomy will follow suit. More and more Hungarian chefs are reaching the highest level and he believes that competition is raising the quality of service.
We must remember that part of hospitality is the food served, but overall the most important thing is how you feel, what the atmosphere is like. When someone says it was a perfect night at the restaurant, that means the big picture and we did an excellent job, the star chef pointed out.
A lot has changed in the last 40 years, so a high-quality restaurant should have “master waiters” as well as a master chef, as communication with the guest is also of paramount importance, Puck noted. The perception of chefs has changed over the decades. As he says, people used to know the owner and manager of a restaurant, but now the focus is on the chefs. Part of fine dining is the open kitchen, where guests can watch with their own eyes the most famous chefs create, but it’s also more fun for the chef because there is interaction, he can see the “audience”.
The kitchen’s management policy has also changed, with loud and rowdy behaviour no longer allowed in open spaces in an upscale restaurant, Puck said. Today, you have to have highly trained chefs who can work under your command, so there’s no need for loud words – everyone knows their job.
Anyone who follows the preparation of a dish will see that there are no secrets here, only the best ingredients are used to cook the chosen dish,
Wolfgang Puck said with a smile.
He noted that he likes to go to restaurants where he knows people, where he can taste special flavours and solutions that can later be served in a different form, rethought in a restaurant. He mentioned that in the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, which won the title of the best restaurant in the world, all the chefs came out of the kitchen to take a photo with the Hollywood chef when he visited it recently. In Formula One, the premier class of motor racing, he works with Aston Martin, which is why his name is on the nose of the car. His recent visit was also in conjunction with the Hungarian Grand Prix to meet the team.
Speaking about Hungarian gastronomy, he said that they try to combine local flavours and world-famous dishes in all their restaurants, and they do the same in Budapest. During the conversation, we asked him about his favourite Hungarian dishes. Not surprisingly Puck mentioned traditional dishes, so goulash soup (gulyásleves) as a starter is his favourite, and if it’s a main course, then chicken paprikash (csirkepaprikás). He loves classic Hungarian cakes, having tasted them as a child in Austria, and he mentioned Eszterházy cake and Dobos Cake (dobostorta) for dessert.
And what is the future of hospitality? Well, Puck didn’t have a clear answer to that, but he did say that supporting local farmers is of paramount importance. Because, on the one hand, we don’t have to burden our environment with transporting goods, and on the other hand, the farmers who remain can usually bring really good quality ingredients to the market. Today, even the best restaurants choose seasonal fruit and vegetables for their menus, which also helps to protect the environment. The chef pointed out that when he landed in Budapest in the morning, his first stop was the local market, so he saw for himself what the Hungarian markets had to offer, and he also visited his favourite Hungarian butcher.
As to how well he knows Budapest or Hungary, Puck answered that he doesn’t know enough, as he only spends short periods of time in Hungary. He would like to stay here for a longer period of time, to visit Tokaj or Lake Balaton, as he is very interested in rural Hungary. He mentioned that he had a great time once when he was taken to the Danube and served fish soup from a cauldron (bogrács), an experience he will never forget.
Read the original interview with Wolfgang Puck in Hungarian on Helló Magyar.
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