Wolfgang Puck is the ultimate celebrity chef. His name appears on nearly 20 fine-dining and more than 80 fast-casual restaurants, as well as premium catering services and culinary merchandise.
Puck’s fresh approach to cooking helped revolutionize, first, Californian cuisine and eventually the nation’s. His original fame stems from his role as a chef and restaurateur, beginning back in the 1970s at L.A.-based Ma Maison and then at the celebrated Spago.
But go beyond first bite and you’ll learn that this celebrity chef is about more than delicious sauces and franchises. He is committed to sustainability and humane treatment of animals. So much so that he runs all of his business on a strict code.
Making of a Great (Green) Chef
To hear Puck talk about his youth, there’s no question that his love for food began at a young age. “I grew up in a cooking family; my mother was a chef. You could look at her when she cooked something and see how much love she put in it,” he recalls. “Food obviously tastes better when you feel the love and you feel the passion for something.”
The beauty and benefits of farm to table were instilled at an early age for Puck. “I remember my mother digging the first potatoes out of the soil in late summer and boiling them. We used to eat them with some cucumber salad—just potatoes with a bit of butter and sour cream and a little sauce on them. It seems like the most simple thing, but we always were so excited about it because it was fresh, right out of the ground, and it tasted great.”
Given his formative years, it’s no big surprise that before many other chefs were doing it Puck went to the local farmers’ market to source ingredients. The weekly farmers’ market in Santa Monica, California, would provide sustainably produced ingredients—including meats—for the dishes served at Spago.
“You can see the color; you can taste it; you know what is good,” explains Puck. “After a while people get the taste for such ingredients. Then they go to another restaurant and come back and say, ‘Well, it’s not the same. How come your chicken is so tasty here and when I have it somewhere else it’s not the same?’
“The difference is very obvious. If you go to a regular grocery store and you buy corn there, for example, generally you will get some starchy corn. My sons, who are small, 4 and 5, won’t eat it. But if we go to the farmers’ market and buy corn, they will eat it raw right there and then steamed every night. So, even the young kids know the difference.”
Live, Love, Eat
In 2007, Wolfgang widened his appreciation for sustainably grown produce and meats, expressing it in a philosophy he calls WELL (Wolfgang’s Eat, Love, Live—a play on his famous tag line). He believes firmly enough in this philosophy that it is now policy for his restaurants.
The basis of WELL is a full understanding of where food comes from—and that it is responsibly grown and (in the case of animals) humanely treated. “What we have to do is go look at what farmers really do,” Puck says. “As an example, I went up to Idaho to meet the guy who raises our quails. It’s easy when the farmers’ market comes to town with their vegetables; but if somebody raises animals in, say, Northern California on a small farm in a small town, it’s different. I actually went and saw them because I didn’t want to just buy some stuff and put my name on it when I didn’t know where it came from.”
Here are the nine points of the WELL program, along with some reflections from Puck.
1. Only use and serve eggs from cage-free hens not confined to inhumane battery cages.
“If you could see chickens in cages, which cannot even turn around, which cannot do anything, you would become a vegetarian. You wouldn’t eat any eggs; you wouldn’t eat any chicken.”
2. Only serve all-natural or organic crate-free pork. Crates prevent pigs from engaging in natural behaviors as basic as turning around.
“It’s a similar thing. You go to this mass factory farm where everything is about quantity and not quality. In the reverse, you have farmers today who raise pork here in this country Japanese style, the Berkshire pork and things like that, which taste so amazing. So, for me, first of all is they treat the animals right, and then the next thing is the flavor and taste, which are so different we won’t even consider any other way. One of our mottos is, ‘We want to know how you treat what we eat.’”
3. Only serve all-natural or organic crate-free veal. Crates prevent calves from turning around or even extending their limbs.
“Well, we started that already a long time ago because people were so used to having veal completely white, and we think that the non-white one has more flavor.”
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4. Only serve certified sustainable seafood from a renewable fishing supply.
“There is enough seafood out there that, if you are careful, you don’t have to buy something which is on the endangered species list, and items like bluefin tuna are endangered. But they even have farm-raised bluefin now in Spain and in Greece, so you can get it from there if that is what you really want.”
5. Eliminate foie gras from our menus. Force-feeding swells ducks’ livers up to ten times their normal size.
“That took a lot for me because I really like it. Unfortunately we haven’t found anyone yet to do it in a more humane way; but I’m sure sooner or later somebody will come along and produce it without having to force-feed the ducks to that point.”
6. Only serve all-natural or organic chicken and turkey from farms that are compliant with progressive animal welfare standards.
“We use chickens or we use ducks that come from a farm. So the same thing—we really know from where the animals come.”
7. Continue to feature and expand certified organic menu selections.
“We use organic stuff whenever we can. If we need bananas, it’s difficult to find organic bananas; but from coffee to a lot of other products—all the fruits, the vegetables—we get them from the farmers’ market. And we are really lucky here in California because we have all these farmers who grow crops year-round, so it makes it easy to get things.”
8. Continue to offer and expand vegetarian selections on all menus.
“We always are very flexible. First of all, we cook everything to order, so that makes it simple. And then if somebody is a vegetarian, I feel it’s our challenge to make just as exciting a menu for them as we offer for people ordering from the regular menu. As a matter of fact, in our steakhouse, CUT, we have a vegan menu.”
9. Send a letter to suppliers regarding methods of poultry slaughter that involve less suffering.
“Obviously every animal has to be killed before we eat it, but mainly it is the way the animals were raised and sometimes how they are slaughtered. But we buy things from farmers who are in compliance, or from slaughterhouses where they are compliant, with our philosophy.”
In implementing these WELL principles, Puck believes in reaching out to growers and producers who, whether certified organic or not, are producing in sustainable ways. “I believe that if we want the local community interested in us, we have to be interested in them first,” he says.
“That’s true of our customers, and of the farmers and growers who do things in an honest and right way. There are people who have sustainable agriculture and use as much organic as possible. Some of them make great things and don’t use any pesticides or chemicals, but they just can’t afford to wait five years or whatever to get the certification. At the end of the day I am very happy to support people who can actually grow things right and people who raise animals humanely, so we are really on that bus.”
Through this philosophy, Puck is also sending a message to the public that will help educate them in the importance of eating healthy, nutritious food. “I think education of the public is important because I believe that a lot of the health problems we have out there are due to poor nutrition,” he says. “People need to get better food that is really a source of life, which will make their lives better and will taste better and is more enjoyable. How can somebody be against that? I truly believe that eating right will help us to live longer and better lives.”