Even 35 years after opening his restaurant Chinois in 1983, chef Wolfgang Puck still remembers making a major gaffe due to stress. “The first day, we did a party and I was so nervous, I forgot to cook rice. People said, “It’s a Chinese restaurant and you don’t have rice — what’s the matter with you?” And I told them, we are going to eat vegetables, because it’s California,” he laughs.
Puck is no stranger to the business realm: with a vast network of over 100 restaurants and retail operations, catering, cookbook and cookware lines, he estimates his gross at over $500 million per year between fine dining ($180 million), catering ($180 million) and licensing divisions. Yet, like many business owners and operators, he has to overcome nerves over each opening. “I eat constantly when I’m stressed opening a restaurant, especially junk food.” he says. “Even M&Ms, if I see them, just because I’m nervous that nobody is going to show up.”
Although those nerves are lessened now due to the support structure he’s built up, Puck has learned some hard lessons over the course of 35 years in business. Here are his top six pieces of advice for entrepreneurs, both large and small.
1. Sometimes, worrying does nothing:
Although it’s natural to agonize over business decisions, especially when it feels like everything is on the line, sometimes things end up working out. Puck recalls the tenseness of opening night at Spago and the subsequent reaction from the public.
“I had run out of money, and we were overdrawn at the bank. I could not sleep. I was waking up throughout the night all sweaty because I had bad dreams about the business failing,” he remembers. “But when we opened the first day, all of a sudden, we were all shocked how busy it got the first night. And then a guy named George Christie who used to work for the Hollywood Reporter came the first week and he wrote, “This is the newest restaurant with a totally fresh idea, so here is the number, and if you don’t call now, you will never get a reservation’, and sure enough, the phone started ringing off the hook with all these Hollywood types.”
2. Don’t look back:
For an operator who has spent his career aggressively expanding — to airports, international locations, cookbooks, retail lines and others — there’s bound to be some missteps. For Puck, his nemesis turned out to be the world of beer. “I remember in 1990, I opened a brewery called Eureka and the restaurant did really well and everything was fine, but the brewery lost so much money that after two years, we were a million and a half in debt,” Puck recalls. “Even the restaurant did really well, making $500,000 per year, the brewery was big and we were supposed to make a million cases that year and we really only made 30,000 or something and half of that came back. And I said, ‘ok, we’re just going to close it down because every day we were open, it just got worse’.”
To this day, Puck is adamant that he will never return to the world of brewing. “Once I made up my mind I’m going to leave, I’m not going to go back. For me, I cannot keep my instincts ready to do something like that. For me, it’s always about what’s next,” he says. “Often we learn more from failure than we learn from doing something perfectly, and you tend to only think something is perfect when it’s very successful.”
3. Ignore the nagging voice in your head:
Puck came up through kitchens that were very different than the ones today in terms of the physical contact condoned within them. “When I started to cook, I was 14, I had left school and people could kick you in the butt and hit you over the head and everything was ok. Nobody went and complained and if you said something, they said, ‘oh well, too bad.’ So, I think for me, the beginning was very rough,” he says. “My stepfather always told me I was good for nothing and then the first restaurant I worked in, the chef fired me a month later and also said ‘you’re good for nothing’. But I did not go home. After he fired me, I was hiding in the vegetable cellar for a few weeks until he discovered me again. It was certainly not like what it was today.”
Puck took this rough start as a challenge to drive his cooking skills forward and improve himself — a tenet that still drives him today. “I just wanted to prove my stepfather wrong and say, ‘you know what, I will show you that I’m good enough’,” he says. “It took a little while, and it didn’t start out well. But after a while, when I went to France, I really discovered that cooking is what I what I want to do. You’re never 100 per cent, so you always can improve. Good enough is not enough…you want to be close to perfection.”
4. Know your strengths, and work on your weaknesses:
As both a businessman and a chef, Puck uses both facets of his working life to drive his decision making when expanding his restaurant empire. He recently finished a three week OPM (Owner/President Management program) at Harvard Business School, so that was a three week program, and plans to return in February for further studies. “I’ve learned a lot on how to be a better manager and communicator, so I think we always can improve and learn,” he says. “But the cooking part drives me forward, not the accounting part. It’s important that we know about it because how many people get ruined by not understanding finances. But I think at the end, you have to do what you’re passionate about. Passion is really what’s important in life.”
5. Mitigate risk:
Although the restaurants are the main part of his business and what Puck prefers to focus his attention on, it is important to him to diversify into other areas to avoid market volatility. “We chose different countries to be resilient no matter who the president is. We spread the risk. Before, Los Angeles and Las Vegas were our main cities, with five or six of our restaurants in each city. In 2008 or 2009, when the economy went down, our business took a very big hit,” he says. “I met with Paul Marciano, the CEO of Guess, and we were talking about how in Las Vegas, business was terrible, and he said, ‘Thank God, we have Asia’, where he was doing very well. And that’s when I decided to expand internationally.” Currently, Puck says his highest grossing restaurant is the Spago in Singapore, which has a much larger bar and a smaller restaurant. “It’s a good model,” he says. “I’m going to try it in a non-traditional venue — perhaps a freestanding site rather than in a hotel.”
Nonetheless, hotel partnerships are important to Puck’s empire. “The hotel restaurants represent the majority of our restaurant business for us, and it makes it easier to expand because then I don’t need so much capital,” he says. “If somebody gives me the money to open a restaurant, I’m even more careful with it than if it were my own money, I don’t want to lose money from somebody else, I want to be a responsible operator.”
6. Stick to your core, but be willing to tweak with the times:
When Puck originally combined ingredients from Japan, China and other parts of Asia with Californian ingredients with the first Spago in the 80s, fusion was a more unique dining experience than it is now. With a better traveled, educated and international diner, these ingredients are no longer considered exotic, and Puck has had to adapt. “Years ago, you went to France and you had really only pure French cooking. Now, you can go to a three star restaurant and have Asian influences all over the world. People use soy sauce, ginger and all that stuff which we didn’t use when I was in France. So, that has changed a lot,” he says. “I never learned real Chinese cooking so I said, ‘Ok, I’m going to make a fusion of French and Chinese’. Some people who are purists, but for me just being a purist and cooking exactly what my grandfather did would be really boring. I love to innovate and do different things or put different flavors together and it doesn’t have to be pure Italian or pure French or whatever — it can be something new. There’s nothing wrong with having something new: on the contrary, I think it keeps people excited.”
Another challenge for Puck is the ongoing debate around fusion and a (sometimes misguided) search for an ideal of authenticity in cuisines amongst certain food spheres. When asked if fusion is a word that can proudly take its own place as a type of cuisine, Puck strongly agrees. “I love impressionist paintings but along came the more modernists. Each cycle has its own style and its own thing,” he says. “ I think, to me, a lot of people did fusion without really knowing how to cook. Nouvelle cuisine was, in a way, the same thing — people thought oh, if I just throw crazy ingredients together it will be nouvelle cuisine, but it has to make sense. In fusion cooking, it has to make sense, too. There’s a place for both.”
Puck is still excited about exploring new cuisines, and would love to visit regions of India or China to immerse himself in those cultures and ingredients. “There’s still a lot to learn — that’s one of the great things about cooking. It’s not like I’m working on an assembly line in Detroit or something like that. Cooking has so many different varieties and so many different things to do. To me, life without challenges is not life.”