Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck might have pizzeria restaurants around the globe, from Singapore to Cincinnati, but he has become synonymous with the Academy Awards celebration, in no small part due to catering the Governors Ball after-party for almost a quarter of a century. The gregarious chef and television personality seems unflappable, but it can’t be easy making dishes for 1,500 people on Hollywood’s most star-studded event of the year. Puck has become just as famous as his A-list clientele who dine on his food, among them Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.
Puck started his road to iconic celebrity status when he opened the original Spago in West Hollywood in the 1980s. Tucked up on a hillside adjacent to Tower Records on Sunset, the late, great power agent Swifty Lazar started hosting Oscar parties at this venue—and the rest is culinary history.
We always enjoy the challenge of adding new things to keep it exciting.
Cut to 2017, and Puck is most excited about the appointment of longtime Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group Executive Chef Eric Klein to the helm of his bustling catering business. “We always enjoy the challenge of adding new things to keep it exciting,” explains Puck. “For our executive chef, Eric Klein, he’s very creative, so we will have some interesting new ideas to share,” he says. Klein will no doubt be dreaming up new dishes to wow the guests. “I love to work with the season and create seasonal dishes,” says Klein. “I try to go to the farmers’ market every Wednesday to see what’s new, and I’m constantly trying new things to see what works.”
Klein has learned a few invaluable things from the master chef that should come in handy with the new catering post. “There are so many valuable things I have learned, such as be humble, be nice, make a difference, give people the opportunity to express themselves. Honestly, the big thing is to never sacrifice quality. If we prepare food for two people, it will be the same if we do it for five hundred people.”
One thing that has been working for guests is a variety of international tomato tasting menus that have been added to the catering offerings just in time for summer. This includes everything from tomato fondue to Sicilian-style tomato pie, pan con tomate, Spanish gazpacho shots, Greek salad skewers, scallops with tomato water, shrimp and creole tomato ceviche, and oven-dried tomatoes with prosciutto. For the “essence of summer” or “summertime on a plate” menus, expect to find panzanella salad, roasted tomatoes with French feta, braised short ribs with spicy tomato sauce, and roasted arctic char with tomato controne pepper (from Salerno, Italy) broth. These are truly some of the most inventive tomato dishes we have seen—even the classics have a unique twist, such as the Caprese salad in black pepper tartlet. So much for the pizza empire.
The World Tomato Society asked the chef about his road to the beloved tomato menu.
World Tomato Society: What Is your favorite way to eat a tomato?
Wolfgang Puck: My favorite way to eat a tomato is on dark country bread, covered with butter, slices of ripe tomato, and a touch of salt.
WTS: What are some of your favorite tomato pairings?
WP: Because we make pizzas a lot in our restaurants, I think roasted tomatoes go great with a crispy crust, great mozzarella, and pesto.
WTS: Which are your favorite varietals?
WP: At our restaurants, we use Roma tomatoes for our pizzas and heirlooms for our salads. But the most important thing is that all tomatoes are picked ripe—all you need to do is smell them in order to tell whether or not they’re ripe.
WTS: Can you tell us some of your top sources?
WP: All of our vegetables come from local farmers in the cities where we have restaurants. The best times to get tomatoes at our restaurants are during the summer and fall months, when they are in season.
WTS: What is your first memory of eating a tomato?
WP: My favorite memory is as a small child, going out to the garden with my mother, and picking the ripest tomatoes, only to come back and have her make me my tomato and butter sandwich.