Chef Wolfgang Puck opened Spago in LA back in 1982, and, to this day, it remains the prototypical Hollywood hotspot. The chef, originally from Austria, later went on to open the steakhouse Cut (replete with celebrity headshot menus for the celebrity diners), Chinois, an Asian fusion restaurant in Santa Monica, and myriad other fine dining and casual restaurants nationwide. Yet he's still largely an unknown entity to New Yorkers, unless they make a jaunt down to his American Grille in the stellar Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City.

It's worth the trip. Last weekend, at Puck's invitation, we had dinner at the "chef's table" inside the kitchen; after cooking the outstanding six course meal, Puck pulled up a chair to chat. Despite a life marked by adoration from A-list celebrities, the fame doesn't seem to have gone to his head, and he comes off as a warm, dynamic, and dedicated artisan. During the long conversation, he told us about his tough climb to the top of the dining world, treating animals humanely, and eating rabbit ears.

You have large celebrity faces on the menus at Cut in California. I heard that after Kanye West crashed Taylor Swift's VMA speech, people didn't want to have the Kanye menu. I don't know about that. But you know, the only thing we do there, when Jennifer Aniston comes, we take away Brad Pitt's and his wife's menu.

They both have menus? Aniston has a menu too! But I'm nervous they're going to give her Angelina's menu.

How come you don't have a presence in New York? We're talking about something, and I can't say we're in the advance stages, but these people really want us to do a very important project in New York.

What can you tell us about it? I can't say anything. Sometimes I joke to the press in certain cities; in Miami they asked me if I was there to open a restaurant, and I said, 'Not one, three!'"

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The private dining room at the Wolfgang Puck American Grille in the Borgata Hotel and Casino, Atlantic City

How did you first get into cooking? First of all, my mother was a chef, a professional chef in a hotel during the summer season in Austria, so that's how I got my first job cooking when I was 14. I left school, I did my apprenticeship, and it was really hard because my friends all played soccer in the summer, would go to the lake, and I had to go to work. And work was cleaning potatoes and washing spinach and onions and cleaning the kitchen. It was boring, really, for a kid. You want to do something!

And when I was 17 I went to France, and the first year was really hard because I didn't speak the language. And I was in Burgundy, in Dijon, and then after that I went to a restaurant called L'Oustau de Baumaniere, which was a 3-star restaurant. It's in the south of France in Provence. The owner and chef was 73 years old at the time. And he had this amazing passion for food. And what was interesting about him, was that he didn't do it the old fashioned way, with the apprenticeship and everything. His mother owned the restaurant, and she told him he should go to school, go to college and everything and not work in a kitchen, so he did that. He was president of an insurance company. He had a beautiful villa in Lyon, had an apartment on the Riviera, he had a driver, and that was in the '40s. He always loved to cook, so all his friends said he should open a restaurant.

So then he found this old building, like 400 year old building in Provence, and he started a restaurant. Six or eight years later he became a 3-star restaurant, and at that time there were only 12 in France. So at that time he was already in his late 50s, he started the restaurant when he was 50 years old.

So was he your biggest influence? He was really my mentor, because he had his stash of his ingredients. We had six gardeners just to pick the beans and the peas and the melons and everything. So everything was fresh. We made everything. We made olive oil, wine. We made everything. And really he was like so passionate, even at that age, when you think normally at 73, 74 people retire. But he was going and going and going.

Is that what you want to do? No retirement? Yeah, no, that's the worst thing. I always thought, I don't know what to do if I retire. I'm going to have to find something to do, and something I might not like. So I might as well keep going. It makes my life much easier and more enjoyable. The only thing I think is as I get older, I get more time off. And not to say I'm leaving for three months, but taking a week here, a long weekend, things like that.

With so many projects and restaurants, how do you keep the standards high? Well, you know, the truth is if I were to have only one restaurant, and if I was there all the time, I might get tired, I might get bored. So at the end of the day we have to hire the right people and train them the right way so that the front of the house is friendly, that everybody is professional, not overbearing, because we are here to serve the guests. That's our profession. I feel the same way today. I don't want to go and say, "Oh, I make enough money, I don't want to bring the food to somebody or I don't want to cook something."

I love what I do; so it's easy. Most of the time, I'd much rather cook than sit with the people. It's easier. I don't have to talk to them or I don't have to hang out. So I just cook a little bit and then sit down and leave. Because I like it better. So, for me, you know, I do it because I love it. Nobody can force me to come to Atlantic City and do more restaurants or do this or do that. So it's exciting to do a new project. Like, we're doing a restaurant in Singapore, and I think it would be interesting to see the culture there and see what's going on, and look what's going on in China down there. There's great food there. Hopefully I will learn something. Because I think it's always good to find something new.

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One of the many pools at the Water Club in Atlantic City; the elegant hotel is connected to the Borgata.

At some point you decided to just use animal products that were from animals treated humanely. How did that come about? Basically, in most upscale restaurants, we always used organic ingredients and knew where the meat came from. But we never said anything about it. So when Spago turned 25, two years ago, we said, what are we going to do? And we thought maybe we'll have a big party, but if we have a party for 500, a thousand people will be upset because they didn't get invited. If a thousand are invited, there will still be people who would be upset. It's really not important what we did, it's more important what we do today and what it's going to be in the future. So that's what we decided; it was going to be important for us to use only humane treated animals, and really make a big deal about it and announce it to the press and everything. And also, whenever possible, organic products.

And really, I felt that most of the time the product is better anyway, and in most places when you look at the way they treat the animals, you're going to become a vegetarian anyway. If you would go to some of these huge farms where they raise veal, and they're in these little cages where they can't turn around and they can't stand up, it's so depressing. I went once when my son was 15 and he started to cry. He said, "I looked in this cow's eyes and it looked like she was crying." Why do they have the big chain around the neck? It's not necessary.

And you know, I think, we always said we want to know how people treat everything we eat. And of course they get killed at the end, but during their life span they should be treated humanely. And I think also it will help small farmers stay in business. And if enough that the government subsidizes these corn farmers that are going to make ethanol and that's not the answer anyway, instead of subsidizing these organic farmers so that our kids in school can get their vegetables. I mean, when you really think about, they get really cheap food. It's getting a little better, but overall, from that to the Army, they're getting the worst stuff. Why don't we put the money for people to grow on small farms so they can grow good things that's better for us? And in the long run, it cuts down on health care, we will need less doctors because we eat healthier. And I think food and nutrition and eating healthy go hand in hand. We forget that sometimes all these problems are out there because of nutrition, and we are in the most expensive country in the whole world, and we either have no food or people who don't know how to eat—Oh!

[At this point the conversation was interrupted as a group of men from a bachelor party dining in the restaurant approached to have their photographs taken with Puck. The interaction climaxed in high-fives all around.]

Has it always been like this? You've been famous for a while, but now there's this whole "celebrity chef" phenomenon. The plus of this whole thing about television is that, unlike 30 years ago where anybody who was smart went to study law, to study being a doctor, an engineer, who knows what, today we get very smart young people going into our business. Now also, a lot of these young people always think, "Well, I want to have a show in the Food Network and I want to have my own restaurant." But it doesn't happen that fast, so I think because we can get everything instantly, people think it's going to be instant, you're going to be instantly good. I thought that about playing golf. I thought it would be easy, there's the ball and you hit it! Forget about it! And I think cooking too, a lot of the young people make five dishes really well, but it's not just cooking a few dishes really well, you have to be able to manage. You have to be a good manager and a good cook, because just to do one thing well, you open a restaurant you go out of business right when it opens. A lot of people forget about that. You have to be able to manage. Cooking alone is easy. But in a restaurant, at the end you have to make money because if not you don't stay in business. So I think a lot of young people who open restaurants don't have that, and then they wonder why they go out of business.

So you think the increasing celebrity of chefs has been good for dining? Yes, but if you look at baseball, nobody starts at the big league. They all stop in college, the minor leagues and triple-A, and then finally they make it in the big leagues, but they've been playing for a long time.

And most of them will never make it to the big leagues. Well, most of them no, but that's the same thing in our profession, so we have now so many cooking schools everywhere, where we didn't have any when I came here 25, 30 years ago. You had the CIA, Johnson & Wales, and that was pretty much it. Now every city has a Cordon Bleu or something like it, and there are hundreds of students. Because very few actually stay in because they say it's too hard. You have to work on holidays, you have to work on Sundays and Saturdays, and I think it's even harder for women, because women, if you become successful, sooner or later you say, "Well, I want to be married and have kids." So then when you have children, the man never stays home with the kids, it's always the women, so then to advance in the profession where you have to work at night, it's very difficult. That's just the way we are now. It's very few households where the man stays home and the woman goes to work. I have one manager at Chinois; she works from morning to night, and her husband takes care of her mother, of the kids, everything. And you know, he is perfectly happy. He used to be a computer programmer, so he's not a dumb guy by any means, but she calls him up if something is wrong with the computer, something to fix, and he comes rushing and supports her 100%, which is very rare to see. He has no ego, you know? I make no money or little money and my wife carries the load? He loves it.

Do you think culinary schools are generating better chefs than in the past? Most of the people go through an apprenticeship, and then you start working. I think my apprenticeship was at age 17, and then I went to France for 7 years, and then I came to America, to New York first. And I didn't like New York because I lived in Paris for two years before that and then I thought New York is not nice. And I loved auto racing, and somebody offered me a job in Indianapolis.

What year was this? 1973.

And you went to Indianapolis? Yeah, because of the Indy 500. So I still remember I took the Greyhound bus from New York to Indianapolis, and it was one and a half days or something. And then I ended up there and thought, "That's Indianapolis?!" Because I also lived in Monte Carlo, where they have a big auto race too, generally the same weekend, and I thought Indianapolis was going to be something really interesting. Maybe they'll have a big lake or a river. I arrived in November, and I thought... Wow. And I had no money, so I had to stay there. I checked into a hotel, I didn't have a credit card, didn't have money, so I had to get a job. So I started to work. I lived the first three months in a hotel until I could get enough money saved so I could rent an apartment.

Where in Indianapolis were you working? At a restaurant called La Tour. It doesn't exist anymore, but it was on top floor of an Indiana bank. The president of the bank was very much a francophile guy. He loved french wines, went to France every year on vacation and knew the good restaurants. But he was probably the only one. So he built this fancy restaurant on top of the bank, with top silver and beautiful glasses. It had these big silver cups for cheese and pastries; it was a fine restaurant. But over there, they didn't know how to eat right. Most of the steaks were well done, and most people, when they ate, the use the fork like that and cut everything in pieces and they eat like that. I mean it was really bad. And some of them had a lot of money. It was so different. My mother would have hit me over the head if I ate like that.

How did you end up in California? Well then, the company I worked for had a restaurant in LA and asked if I wanted to go to LA, because they wanted me to leave, not to stay there. So I ended up in Los Angeles and for the same company, it was boring too. And then through a friend I met the owner of a little restaurant called Ma Maison. So I started to work there in '75, in the summer, but already then I said I was going to open my own restaurant as soon as I have $20,000. Without knowing how much it costs. I said, "I don't care if it has just food on the tables and that's it!" And I stayed there six years and during that time became friends with a lot of Hollywood people already like Donald Sutherland and Gene Kelly and Vincent Price; they all used to come them all the time. Orson Welles used to come every day and I used to sit with him; he wrote something for my first cookbook. And when I opened Spago in '82, these people started to come right away. And then a few papers said Spago is the new place, we saw Gregory Peck or Joan Collins and Sydney Pointier, and some of these people right away, it became the Hollywood place. Then we did the Oscar parties.

The recession has spawned its own trends in the dining world. Do you think any of these will last? You know, to me there are two kinds of food: good and bad. Why do people like the food in Italy? Because it's good and basic and good ingredients. So I really believe if you have great ingredients, you don't need much. If you have a beautiful diamond, you just need a nice setting, you don't have to put all over and paint it or anything, cause it's perfect already. If you have the most perfect beans or spinach or chicken, you don't have to do that much really. You enhance it and be creative, but sometimes people do so much people don't know what it is.

And then there's completely the opposite. Like, in July I was at El Bulli in Barcelona. It had 37 courses. It started at 8 o'clock at night and I finished at 1:30 in the morning. And the only meat was rabbit ears, crispy rabbit ears and baby lamb kidneys. So it's a great thing for the press obviously, but as a business it's difficult. If you were to open a restaurant like that in New York, it might do well for a while, but people say where's the meat?

Was it a good meal?
You know, it was such a different experience. I liked it a lot. My wife... I had to eat five or six of her courses, like the rabbit ears. She looked at the rabbit ears and couldn't eat them. I ate them.