Ladies and gentleman, I have heard Wolfgang Puck, arguably the most famous chef in the world, tell a "That's what she said" joke.
Puck, the creator of Spago, Chinois, CUT and several other brands, took a whirlwind tour of Houston recently. Arriving early (and just a little grumpy and sleep deprived) at RDG + Bar Annie, his session in front of a local news camera was going by the book until the cameraman asked for another take because Puck had "come in a little early."
"That's what my wife said last night," the Austrian quipped, without missing a beat. And with that, everyone knew it was going to be a fun morning.
"It's terrible coffee!," Wolfgang Puck said. "Like when I fly on United Airlines they say, 'We proudly serve Starbucks coffee.' I said they should say, 'We are embarrassed to serve Starbucks coffee.' "
"The great thing about Wolfgang is he's still the same guy I met 30 years ago," said Robert Del Grande, who lent Puck the use of his restaurant for the morning mini-junket. "He's totally down-to-earth."
The two chefs, who both opened their respective first restaurants in the early 1980s, took a few minutes to catch up and talk about the business as well as show off new photos of their kids.
"I used to come to Houston all the time and I remember meeting [Robert] at Café Annie," Puck said. "I always liked it because he used these bold flavors. You know, we have a lot of Chinese influences and everything. And I remember one of the first things I ate here was the black bean terrine with goat cheese in the middle. I was like, 'Wow, this is really a clever idea,' and it looked good and it was very tasty . . . It's great to have friends in the restaurant business everywhere because you always have somewhere good to go."
Puck was in Houston to tout his new line of bottled iced coffees, which are light (120 calories) with a subtle sweetness as well as organic and kosher.
"To me coffee is a way of life," Puck told CultureMap. "I wake up in the morning and I need coffee. My wife doesn't even get out of bed if she doesn't get her double espresso cappuccino. We have coffee all the time. To me coffee is one of the most important things in life. People ask me, 'What is the most important gadget or appliance in your kitchen at home?'
It's by far my espresso machine. It's always on, I never turn it off."
Puck and Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard partnered with Houston's Woodway Beverage Partners to produce the coffees, which include flavors like mocha, créme caramel and café au lait.
"It took us about a year and a half to get the flavors right," Puck said. "They started to make the flavors, and everything tasted like chemicals or it tasted sweet and I said 'No, it can't be that way, it's not what I like.' So little by little we told them what we want.
"I remember when they first brought us the vanilla-flavored coffees. Both Sherry and I said these are the worst vanilla beans, and it turned out they were using cheap ones from Madagascar. I said if you use Tahitian vanilla beans it would be much better. The caramel was the same, you couldn't even taste it, it was sweet only. So we told them how to really burn the sugar at the right level so it gets the right flavor, a little sweetness but also the dark caramel flavor.
"It took us quite a while to get it right. I'm very peculiar about it, I like it a certain way, and everyone isn't going to like it the way I like it."
Puck, who once ran the kitchen at Houston's Remington Hotel (now the St. Regis), opened Five-Sixty in Dallas in 2009, but he deftly sidesteps questions about any potential plans for returning to Houston for another concept. (Seriously, CUT Houston, Wolfgang. Make it happen.) And yet with restaurants all over the country and beyond, Puck says he's figured out what works for him.
"Each place is different, but what I really learned over the years is that I should not adapt too much to what people think, we should stay true to ourselves," Puck said. "I remember when I went to Japan in 1983 and I went to the market and I was like, 'Wow! They have all this tuna. I have to put tuna on the menu, we have all this raw fish.
"And that was a mistake because there are so many sushi bars and restaurants that serve that already. I thought I was so clever and so proud of myself for finding this fish — they have 10,000 restaurants that serve fish just like that. So now if we go to London, we have pretty much the same menu that we have in Beverly Hills in London."
One more thing: Wolfgang Puck might be in the coffee business, but don't even think about comparing him to Starbucks.
"Starbucks, what they make, if you open a bottle and smell it, what did they do to the coffee?" Puck said. "They created a taste in the memory for people, which is interesting, so that people really think it's good coffee.
"But it's terrible coffee! Like when I fly on United Airlines they say, 'We proudly serve Starbucks coffee.' I said they should say, 'We are embarrassed to serve Starbucks coffee.' "
Wolfgang Puck Culinary Iced Coffee is sold nationally at Kroger's (in the organic section), and in Houston at Rice Epicurean Market and Belden's.