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Celebrity Chef Wolfgang Puck Stands the Test of Time

By Jill Wendholt Silva, The Kansas City StarMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Aug. 24, 2012--If you're channel surfing for the next top chef, it's easy to get sidetracked by all those quirky wannabes with tattoos.

"I think it has come to a point now that a chef doesn't have to be the best -- I think you need tattoos on your arms," the tat-less, classically trained celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck said during a recent interview. "Everyone wants to be on TV, and everyone wants their own restaurant, before they even know how to cook."

Since opening Spago in trendy West Hollywood in the early 1980s, Puck has built a formidable global food empire, including more than 20 fine dining restaurants, express airport cafes and catering operations, gourmet frozen pizzas, estate-grown coffees and gluten-free soups, as well as a line of cookware and cutlery. Plus his own iPhone app.

On Saturday night the chef will be in Kansas City to host "Spice! With Wolfgang Puck," a culinary benefit to raise money for Johnson County Community College's chef apprenticeship scholarships, the JCCC Hospitality & Culinary Academy opening on campus in fall 2013 and the Marc Valiani Foundation.

Valiani, who worked in Kansas City as corporate chef for PB&J Restaurants, died last year of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Before coming to the area, he had worked as Puck's sous chef at Eureka Brewery and Restaurant in Los Angeles and a year later became chef at Spago.

The sold-out benefit is the brainchild of Valiani's wife, Kaymie, who lives in Kansas City, and Bill Crooks, formerly an owner of PB&J, and his wife, Sarah.

"They brought this event to the college," said Kate Allen, executive director for institutional advancement for JCCC. "We would not have had the connections to reach out to Wolfgang. We've never had anyone like this come in before, and the great thing is our students get to interact with people at the highest level in the industry."

JCCC's hospitality management program, which began in 1975 with one faculty member and five students, has become one of the leading culinary programs in the nation. The $13 million academy, now under construction, will house seven kitchens and serve 700-plus students.

Kaymie Valiani said her husband would want to be remembered for his love of teaching, not the disease that took his life, so the lineup for future Spice! events includes an impressive list of chefs who were Valiani's mentors, friends and proteges.

To rub elbows with Puck, 200 Kansas Citians paid $250 for an individual ticket or $5,000 for a table of eight to attend the event. The menu is the same one Puck served at the Oscars' post-awards dinner earlier this year and includes some of his signature dishes: assorted gourmet pizzas, hand-formed tortellini with fresh corn and shaved black truffles, Shanghai lobster with spicy ginger curry and lamb chops.

Puck's longevity in the fickle, what-new-ingredient-have-you-fed-me-lately restaurant business is legendary. But at age 63, he qualified for celebrity chef status long before many of the JCCC culinary students were even born.

"His name is still out there. They go to the airport, and they see his name," said Felix Sturmer, an associate professor for JCCC's hospitality management program and coach of the culinary team.

Growing up, Ian Denney, a 24-year-old senior culinary apprentice, recalls watching Puck on TV. He volunteered to prep food in the days leading up to the event, and he's eager for the opportunity to see Puck in action. "Nerves are a little high because he's a big celebrity and an inspiration," Denney said.

Puck is Austrian-born and French-trained, yet he is most at home with the casual inventiveness of California cuisine and the hubbub of the Hollywood scene. Spago was one of the first restaurants to create an open kitchen in the middle of the dining room. Puck's outgoing personality quickly won him his own celebrity following.

Puck recalls the excitement of sitting next to Paul Newman in a coffee shop and talking race cars shortly after Puck arrived in the City of Angels in the mid '70s to work at the legendary French restaurant Ma Maison. Three decades later he is no longer the least bit star-struck, perhaps because he is friends with almost everyone who is anyone. In the wake of Phyllis Diller's death earlier this week, Puck fondly recalled the time he was invited to share a glass of wine with the comedian in her home.

These days celebrity chefs are not just an American cultural phenomenon. Puck is popular in the Philippines even though he jokes he has never been to Manila, and his forays into social media have added another stage from which to tout his brand on a global scale.

This summer Puck decided it was time to remodel and reinvent his flagship Spago. The $4 million overhaul by Cuban-born designer Waldo Fernandez is sure to ruffle the feathers of regulars, but everything from the small plates menu to the decor will be carefully watched by those in the food and beverage industry when the restaurant reopens this fall.

"We have to reinvent fine dining," Puck said. "A waiter in a tuxedo looking down at you is not what people want anymore. I want you to have a great time. I want you to feel comfortable in a place where the only thing that's serious is on your plate."

Puck's advice to aspiring young chefs: "They should first concentrate on being great chefs, and then they can go do some television. If not, the restaurant suffers. You have to create your own voice, and that takes time."

Unlike some of his compatriots, such as the clogs-wearing Mario Batali or the epithet-flinging Gordon Ramsay, Puck has decided to limit the amount of time he devotes to TV. He's willing to be away for six days to be a judge on "Top Chef" but not six weeks or six months to do his own series.

"I love restaurants, and that's my primary business," he said.

To reach Jill Wendholt Silva, call 816-234-4395 or send email to


(c)2012 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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