Wolfgang Puck on Staying Relevant, Hallmarks of First-Class Service
Last month, Wolfgang Puck’s eight-year-old Chinese fusion restaurant The Source reopened its doors in Washington, DC, after a major redesign and menu overhaul. Now, the downstairs bar is a casual, small-plates hangout, while upstairs, in the more formal area, there’s a custom, four-person hot pot table serving a tasting menu of wagyu beef, pork belly, shrimp, mushrooms, dumplings, and more—all cooked in executive chef Scott Drewno’s 20-hour broth.
Puck himself was in DC for a party to celebrate the new and improved The Source, and spoke with T+L about how he tries to keep the restaurant in his expanding empire relevant, where he’s headed next, and why he likes to stay on the move.
Why was now the right time to renovate The Source?
The Source has been open eight years, and I thought it would be good to give it a little freshening up. So we decided to redo it and bring it up to 2015. Scott [Drewno] wanted a new kitchen downstairs, because we really wanted to separate the upstairs and the downstairs. Downstairs, people can have little appetizers and small plates, from dumplings to sushi rolls and so forth. And upstairs is a little bit more serious as a restaurant.
We wanted to make it really comfortable and cozy downstairs. I feel it’s like our living room now, where you can have something very interesting to eat, too. I think a lot of people these days, the way they like to eat is in smaller portions, maybe with a cocktail, and have a few bites of this, a few bites of that.
If this renovation is about keeping a restaurant relevant, how does the addition of hot pots contribute?
I think it’s an extra thing. We always try to create interesting things in a restaurant. It might be a cocktail program, or it might be dishes or a redesign or presentation. I think the hot pot is really an interesting thing, and not many people do it in restaurants because it takes a lot of thought.
You have to develop a special table—it’s not like putting a new dish on the menu. But I think it’s really fun to eat like that, because you can have four people sit around and eat the beef, the pork, the shrimp, the fish, dumplings, whatever they like, and with the spicy broth, so it’s really a lot of fun.
You arrived in DC eight years ago, just before the dining scene began to explode.
Now, every chef wants to open a restaurant in Washington, and they do. One more reason [for the redesign is] because the competition is getting bigger and bigger, stronger and stronger. So I think it’s really important for us to keep up.
What attracted you to DC in the first place? Was it the Newseum location?
One [reason] was the Newseum location. I remember when I first went up to the eighth floor and looked out, and you can see the Capitol and everything, I said, wow, this is an amazing location.
For me, Washington was always exciting because it looks like a city in Europe. Nothing is out of place. It feels like everything fits together. I think it’s a very well-planned city and a very cosmopolitan city.
How have you seen the city change over the years?
Well, food-wise, certainly, it has grown up. It was in its infancy eight years ago. Now it has grown up. You have a lot of local people who actually grow things, do things. When you look at the wine industry in Virginia, [you can see] how much that has grown. There are a few hundred or more wineries now in Virginia. People think there are three wineries but no, there are a lot of them.
I think it’s an exciting place, because you have so many great ingredients around here. We have a guy who raises our ducks, [Joe Jurgielewicz]. Now we buy his ducks everywhere, in California, in Las Vegas, Detroit, in Atlantic City. Everywhere we serve duck, we buy them from here.
You have restaurants in hotels, airports, and museums. Is the traveler a key customer for you?
Totally. When you have more than one restaurant, I think it is really important that every place—if it is in an airport or in a hotel or freestanding—has to be really a great experience, because we won’t be able to have repeat customers. So if you don’t get good food at one of our cafes at the airport, I’m sure you’re not going to go to The Source or to Cut or to Spago.
Is there anything you have to keep in mind when developing a menu for travelers?
For the airport, you certainly don’t want to make heavy food. You want to make healthy food and good-tasting food, so you remember the taste. It could be a simple Caesar salad with grilled chicken, but it has to have good romaine with good dressing.
Or our Chinois chicken salad, it has to be crispy and fresh-tasting—not like it’s been sitting on the counter for two hours. So we toss all the salads to order, everything is made to order, and we use the same ingredients as we have in the restaurant. If we make a pizza, it’s the same dough and the same cheese as we use at Spago.
I’ve read that you prefer to keep your restaurants true to themselves when you expand internationally, rather than modifying the menus to suit the palates of the locals.
We have a brand, so we have to be true to ourselves. In Dubai, obviously, we have to import everything. In Washington, we use a lot of local ingredients, but we prepare it to our style.
If you’re going to go to Cut in London and you liked it, and then you go to Cut in Dubai and it’s completely different, people will say, “Why do they call it Cut?” If you go to one Hermes store, you don’t want to go to another Hermes store and get Tod’s or some other company’s clothes. You get Hermes. It’s the same way for us.
How often do you travel?
I travel a lot, maybe 150 days a year because, in 2009 or 2010, we started to expand internationally, and now I have to go to the restaurants. I have to go to London, to Singapore, all these places. It’s a lot of travel.
It’s good, though, I sleep on the plane. I actually don’t mind flying to Dubai with Emirate Airlines. It’s a nice way to travel. I wish our airlines, American or United, would be at the same standard. I think Emirates is really an amazing airline, not only for their beautiful new planes, but it’s all about the service.
What’s different about their service?
If you fly with Emirates, they have Dom Perignon champagne. If you want to fly first class and you get second class wine, you’re like, “Why do I pay all this money?”
I know everybody wants to cut prices. I did consulting with American Airlines, and they said let’s cut down on the food. I remember American Airlines between LA and New York, they used to have small jars of caviar. They said, “Okay, we want to replace the caviar.” I said, “It’s not really about the caviar. It’s about the image.” When you’re getting caviar, you’re in first place. If you get prosciutto and melon, you say, okay it’s good, but it’s not the best product and it’s not served in the best environment.