Although his name evokes fine dining and over-the-top celebrity events, a world-renowned restaurateur has opened a new restaurant in Charlotte: Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar. The chef stopped by to visit recently and cordially answered a few questions about food, flavor – and football.
Why North Carolina?
Joe Essa, my partner, grew up here. Just like I want to open one day a restaurant in Austria, he wanted to open one is his region… I knew there would be talent here because of Johnson and Wales. I like the Carolina Panthers – I hope they’re going to be better this year!
Are there any challenges to being in North Carolina?
I think people like good food almost everywhere. This is not like 1960 when nobody went even to the next town. And if you did there was nothing there. Today, because of cooking schools, television shows and travel, people are very educated. Not to say that the South doesn’t have its own distinctive flavor of cooking…but I think variety is the spice of life. You’re not going to eat a pulled pork sandwich every day for lunch. And you’re not going to eat pizza every day for lunch.
It’s always interesting to learn what chefs like and don’t like to eat. Tell us about that.
I like to eat almost anything. Except peanut butter. Mostly what I like is, it has to be the best quality. I don’t care if it’s a tomato salad, a pork chop or a fish, it has to be really fresh and have really good flavor. That’s a must for me. I take my children, every Saturday when I’m in town, to the farmer’s market and we buy fresh vegetables, whatever is in season. I don’t look at the price. I have a farmer who has the best haricots verts, extra small, and he charges me $13 a pound. I don’t care…I’d rather have one great, green bean salad. And my [younger] kids are 5 and 6-1/2, they eat the same way. We always make steamed vegetables with sea salt and a little olive oil, or we make it on the grill. Then maybe grilled chicken, or sautéed steak or fish. Or we vary it, with pasta or pizza.
Kind of what you have here?
Kind of what we have here, come to think of it [laughs]. And you know, the kids eat exactly the same way we do.
Is there anything we’re doing now you are ready to see go away?
What I’d really like to go away is big portions. You have restaurants where quantity is more important than quality…where people have to take a doggie bag home and think it’s great value. But it’s the opposite; we get big, we have to go more to the gym… see the doctor more and won’t live as long. It’s as bad as a bad fast food – not to say all fast food is bad. There are definitely good ones, too. But we have to get away from that and eat a steak that’s 8 ounces, not 16 ounces. Eat more vegetables, and less of these oversized things.
You mentioned fast food. Is there some you enjoy?
You know, I go to the [Price’s] Chicken Coop and have the fried chicken. Wherever I go in the South, I look for the best fried chicken. I had lunch in a restaurant down the street and I didn’t like their chicken so I sent my driver to Price’s to pick up their chicken and bring it back. And the waitress said, “That doesn’t look like our chicken!”
Do you eat in other people’s restaurants?
You know it’s so funny that you ask. I’m such a creature of habit. When I live in L.A., I generally go to a restaurant called Angelini for Italian food or to Matsuhisa for Japanese food. And those are very good friends of mine. So everybody asks me, “Did you go to the newest place?” and I say, “You know, I’m really happy there, my kids are happy there at Angelini because I call Gino the chef and owner and say, ‘We’re coming in ten minutes, can you put a pot to boil and a pizza on the fire?’ So we go sit down. Before I order a glass of wine, the kids already have their pizza and pasta.”
Home cooks can get intimidated when they see chefs working their magic. Are there things you’d like the home cook to know?
I don’t think it’s magic. Some things make just perfect sense. First, I think it depends what you like to do. If you like to be a baker, you should have a good oven to bake in, some good pastry sheets, cake molds, whatever. The appliances, pots and pans are very important. And then buy good ingredients. I think it’s important to read the recipe a few times before you start cooking. A lot of people stop reading after half the recipe. I used to have a cooking school and those people who told me they were good, they were the worst ones. They would say, “Oh, I know it already, I don’t have to listen, I don’t have to pay attention.” That’s a really important part. Even if I would do a Chinese dish, or if I would do something I never heard of, I would read the recipe first. Now, I could make it my version the second time. But the first time I think it’s important to know what people really expect that dish to be. Or when it’s from a different nationality, especially.
Are there any cuisines you’d like to see becoming more popular?
I really believe that Indian food should be more popular. Because I love spices. And also they are the ones who really are the masters in vegetarian cooking. And I think if we want to cut down on medical bills, we have to eat more vegetables. And make them interesting. A lot of people think OK, you have the corn on the cob and baked potato – that’s vegetables. But I think there are so many interesting preparations.
What should everyone be eating this summer? What should we not miss?
I think it really depends where you live. To me, every summer, get what is just in season. In cherry season you have a cherry pie or a cobbler. You have to taste it at least once. Or a peach cobbler. Or get the first real, ripe tomatoes. And just have some good vinegar and good olive oil, a little sea salt and a little pepper. And then you will say, “Wow, I never knew this tomato actually tasted good.”
You mentioned that you’ll be celebrating an upcoming wedding anniversary in Capri. What will you eat there?
There’s a restaurant called da Paolino. It’s like a lemon grove. The whole roof is lemons. So you sit among lemon trees. They have good fish and great antipasti. It’s always fun to go there. Good music. A fun place with good food.
Kind of like this [the Pizza Bar in Charlotte]?
Well, we hope so!
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“Less is More” Haricots Verts Salad
Steam extra small haricots verts for just a minute or so; so they are still a little crispy but not raw. They have to be cooked a bit to make them sweeter, not completely “like rabbit food.” Let them cool off a little; rinse in a bit of cold water but don’t let them soak. Pat them dry. Dress with balsamic vinegar, shallots, good olive oil, sea salt and fresh ground pepper. Serve immediately.
For more information visit wolfgangpuck.com