Lessons From a Celebrity Chef

‘In catering,’ Wolfgang Puck tells Convene, ‘it doesn’t matter what the trends are. It’s how you cook.’

For Puck,  beautiful plating is as important in catering as in a restaurant.
For Puck, beautiful plating is as important in catering as in a restaurant.

Wolfgang Puck may be America’s first bona-fide celebrity chef, but he’s also a prolific and celebrated caterer. As Puck pioneered French-Californian fusion cuisine at his Los Angeles restaurant, Spago, in the 1980s, he also made a name for himself by catering A-list parties and events — from famous weddings and birthdays to the Academy Awards — where he served caviar, truffles, and other decadent foods of the era.

As a caterer and restaurateur, Puck was known for using fresh, local produce long before farm-to-table was a catchphrase. Now Wolfgang Puck Catering provides food service at dozens of the country’s most prominent venues — from the Georgia Aquarium to New York City’s Irving Plaza — and he oversees 80 restaurants around the world, as well as a line of packaged foods.

We caught up with the Austrian-born chef recently over the phone from one of his favorite haunts, Los Angeles’ Hotel Bel-Air, as he woke up with a croissant and a macchiato. Although Puck often mentions his celebrity pals and customers, his approach to catering is decidedly no-nonsense.

You formalized the catering arm of your company in 1998, but you had been catering events long before then. How did you branch into the field?

We catered out of Spago for many, many years before we formed our own division. The whole thing started with [catering] parties, whether it was for Johnny Carson or Madonna, when she married Sean Penn in 1985. In 1998, we separated [the catering arm] and I took on Carl Schuster as my partner. He’s in charge.

How would you compare the experience of catering a large event to a busy night in one of your restaurants?

There’s always a timing factor in the restaurants, and catering is the same. We try to run the catering just like our restaurants, in that we like people to have the same experience. We cook some things at the last moment [before serving]. That’s why we don’t use heating carts — we plate just like we do in the restaurants. We don’t try to do things cheaply; we do things first-class. For me, the food also has to look good, and we have different techniques to do that, whether it’s flowers or stones or whatever, to put the food on. I like to make [dishes] look natural and not institutional on silver platters.

What are some of the largest events you’ve catered?

We do the Grammys, for 5,000 people, where we have 80 buffets just for the food. I also organized [food at] the Republican National Convention in San Diego [in 1996] for 10,000 people. It was on Balboa Island, and it was huge. I invited some other chefs to the event — Jonathan Waxman, the chefs from Nobu to do sushi — and we had different food stations, so it was possible for us to really recreate a restaurant experience.

How do you approach dietary restrictions in terms of menu planning?

In catering, it’s very easy, because we cook to order for everyone. If they want vegetarian or vegan options, we do that. We make gluten-free bread in our restaurants all of the time. When we do the Oscars, we make probably 10 dishes so [guests] don’t have to feel like they can’t eat. We’re very health-conscious, and have been forever.

F&B is supported by the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, gotolouisville.com.

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is associate editor of Convene.