In Step with Wolfgang Puck

Celebrity Chefs,Heroes
April 1, 2008

Celebrity chef pioneers sustainable restaurant kitchens.

Wolfgang Puck
Lisa Romerein
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Wolfgang Puck serves more than 10 million customers per year. The original celebrity chef, he appeared on “Good Morning America” in 1986, before the TV Food Network was a glimmer in anyone’s eye. He was the first to open a restaurant in Las Vegas, first to sell a line of frozen foods, and first to have his name on a chain of restaurants.

But his current project may be his most ambitious yet—to change the way Americans eat, shop and cook, through a new initiative called “WELL, Wolfgang’s Eating, Loving and Living.” Through WELL, Puck wants to eliminate processing and mass production and emphasize nutrition, health and local and natural products. We caught up with Puck at the grand opening of his newest Spago, at the posh Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch ski resort in Colorado, to ask him about his latest undertaking.

Q. What is WELL? A. In America when you go to factory farms, everything is about “can we make it a penny cheaper or not?” So to produce animals, to produce vegetables, we use pesticides, we genetically engineer them, and we do everything except think about what it’s going to do to us, and what it’s going to do to the taste. So we decided (as a company) to use organic products as much as we can, and only all natural products for sure, and only humanely treated animals, sustainable seafood and so on.

Q. Why did you decide to introduce this program, and why now?

A. When Spago turned 25 (2007), I asked myself, “What is going to be our legacy, the next 25 years?” Opening more restaurants is obviously a great thing, but I think there are more important things than that. I think finally in America people are realizing that maybe it is important what we do to our bodies. Maybe there is a correlation between having so many sicknesses and what we eat. I definitely believe it is what we eat. One of my main reasons for this is that, over the years, we read all about the kids, obesity and diabetes and everything. I think that if we watch what we eat, people need doctors less. We just started to work with the Clark County School Board in Las Vegas on getting better foods to the kids. That’s where it all starts. It is also important to me to support small farmers.

Q. Speaking of small farmers, was it difficult to switch over your purchasing and menus and get what you needed?

A. Family farming was completely disappearing, and now upscale restaurants are helping them get back on their feet. I’d much rather give my money to a farmer like that who does the right thing. They do the right thing by not using all the pesticides and hopefully leaving the world a little better and teaching other people how to do the right things. It just takes time to find all the right products. We just started last March, but we use cage-free chickens and eggs, and we get a lot of our natural meats from Niman Ranch and Coleman. We use lamb from Sonoma California, and they do the right thing. Our model is “we know how to treat what you eat.”

Q. Are there advantages to WELL besides health?

A. Most of the time, if not all the time, the taste is better. The food has more flavor. It is interesting to me when you go to so many restaurants and they serve tomato salad in the winter and things that are completely out of season, and then one wonders why it has no flavor? You have these big factory farms that grow tomatoes in hot houses, so they can pick them green, and they get uniformly red, and they can sit around for months. At the first three-star restaurant I worked at in France, it took a year just to go through the four seasons and learn how to use all the different fresh vegetables and meats. I use the best ingredients.

Q. What about the foie gras? In Chicago chefs were protesting the city’s ban, but you voluntarily took it off all your menus? Did you worry about losing business?

A.When we decided to do WELL, we decided not to use animals that are not treated humanely. We cannot do one thing and not another. Most of the people said, “You know what? We are so proud of you, and it’s great to know that you feel like we do.” I think 99.9 percent of the people were really happy. A few customers complained—there’s always one or two.

Q. You keep very busy. What’s next?

A. I’m going to try to do a television show with Disney to teach kids about food and nutrition, but also about geography and the history of food. Make it entertaining so they watch it.

Q. Do you think, because of your high profile, other restaurants will follow your example?

A. I think so, and a lot of people do already. Even Burger King announced a few months after us that they are going to serve only cage-free eggs. They serve millions of eggs a year.

By Larry Olmsted, a food writer in Hartland Four Corners, Vt.