Wolfgang Puck may be the world's best-known celebrity chef — he certainly was one of the first in the U.S. — and at 63, he is busier than ever. Puck oversees a global empire of restaurants (including his flagship, Spago, in Beverly Hills), popular lines of canned and frozen food, and his designer cookware, all balanced with television and radio appearances and seemingly nonstop travel. As he recently told the New York Times, "Why stop? What would you do at home?"
There is even more on his plate: For the past 17 years, Puck has also been the executive chef of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' annual after-Oscar Governor's Ball, probably the ultimate Hollywood party. The next dinner, on February 24, will once again be at the Hollywood & Highland Center, in the ballroom of the former Kodak Theater, now the Dolby Theater.
So what's the secret to cooking for George Clooney, Angie and Brad, and hundreds of other Academy members? We caught up with the superstar chef in Los Angeles, on his cell phone in his car on his way to yet another meeting.
Q: How many guests are we talking about for this party?
There are about 3,500 people who attend the Awards, and we have a little less than half — 1,600 — at the actual dinner. It's by invitation only.
Q: Organizing it strikes us as something like a military operation. Do you start planning the next one as soon as you finish the one on Oscar night?
Not at all. I do everything at the last moment. That's my favorite thing.
Q: So that keeps the menu up to date. But don't you have to finalize it ahead at some point?
We have to have the dishes decided by the middle of January. We do a presentation at a press conference for the media. So even Sherry has to have her dessert ready then, too.
Q: Can you handle special requests?
Oh, yes. We have everything: Vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, kosher …
Q: But how do you juggle all those different things?
We changed the format a few years ago to small plates. That way, there is something for everyone. So all night long there are small-portion dishes that get passed around to the tables.
Q: Like what?
You might get one grilled lamb chop, a small something with lobster like we do at Chinois, mini chicken pot pie with black truffles, slices of pizza, mac and cheese, a small potato with caviar. You eat six or seven little things. It's easier on the kitchen, and everyone can pick and choose.
Q: Any particular favorites with the crowd?
After the first time we made the chicken pot pie with black truffles, someone on the Academy Board of Governors told me, "We don't care what else you do, but you have to have the pot pie."
Q: Can you dish on some specific celebs?
Barbra Streisand loves the wild mushroom risotto with black truffles, and the slow-braised short ribs. And a few years ago, Danny DeVito asked for a double order of lobster.
Q: How large is the team that you work with on that evening?
We have probably 300 in the kitchen and then 600 waitstaff in the dining room.
Q: Walk us through the time line leading up to that Sunday night.
Matt, our catering manager, organizes and buys everything. By Friday, we have all the food in for sure. But we might start ahead of that with things like smoked salmon — that's 10 days before — or a week ahead for other things. We get the produce and perishables in as last-minute as we can. We had 800 Dover sole one year for the 1,600 portions.
Q: And the cooking?
We start the day before with what we can do, and then at 5 p.m. Sunday, as the show comes on in LA.
Q: It sounds as if you're just using your regular staff to get this all done. That's impressive.
Pretty much, yes. And we have a lot of other parties going on at the restaurants that week, too.
Q: What's the seating arrangement? Do you help with that, too? That could be a nightmare in Hollywood.
I am part of that. And I treat it like my restaurants. We seat friends together, and the films and studios together. Dawn Hudson is great. She told me, "I want to have a party." And the more we make it into an upscale party with great food, the more people like it.
Q: We know that it wasn't always so.
No. When we were still at the original Spago, nobody went to the Governor's Ball. The stars walked through it and then went straight to Swifty's party at Spago. The press couldn't interview anyone. The whole thing has changed.
Q: So it was a smart move to hire the creator of Spago for the Governor's Ball.
It was rocky at the beginning. The first time I did it, the show was still at the Shrine. We had to build a kitchen outside, and it was windy and the burners kept going out. I was worried we would be serving raw chicken with black truffles. We had to put aluminum foil around the burners to keep them from blowing out. I had other LA chefs — I remember that Angelo from Valentino was there — to help me.
Q: But the Dolby Ballroom kitchen is better, I'm sure.
We have two kitchens there, and we designed them. So we don't have to go camping anymore.
Q: When do you eat on Oscar night?
I eat all night as the plates go out, and of course we have staff meals — salads, soups — and we feed the crew and other staff. We feed more than 3,000 people that day.
Q: Who would you have cook an awards dinner for you?
I'd have a lot of the LA people, like Nobu and Nancy Silverton, and some of the new chefs like the guys from Animal. And I'd have some really good wines. For any awards dinner, you need to have good wines.
Q: Who does the wines for the Governor's Ball?
Moet & Chandon. We're hoping they'll be back.
Q: Any downtime after the big night?
Oh, no. Straight back to work. We have the new Spago to run. I'm very happy with it, and people seem to love it.
Q: It sounds as if you have the Governor's Ball down to a science.
It's easier when it's organized. To make a success, you have to do what you know how to do well. This isn't the night to try anything new.
Barbara Fairchild, the former editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit, is a best-selling author, speaker, consultant and an inductee into the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who in American Food and Beverage."