Flagship restaurant of luxury Budapest hotel, the Matild Palace, Spago by Wolfgang Puck has brought this amiable Austrian chef back to Central Europe, carrying with him the name of the legendary Hollywood dining destination he established 40 years ago. Today overseeing 30 other restaurants and 30 outlets from Santa Monica to Shanghai, Puck still gets a kick out of befriending his favourite butcher at Budapest’s Great Market Hall and planning the catering for yet another Oscars ceremony. We meet the man behind the signature glasses.
As energetic as the day he set off from his native Klagenfurt at the age of 14, never to look back, Wolfgang Puck dismisses the very idea of retirement. “What on earth would I do?” he protests with the same smile he keeps in reserve when sharing a table with A-listers at the Oscars. “Watch TV?”
Not when all around him, a familiar buzz is pointing to yet another successful restaurant, one in his own name, right in the heart of Budapest. Since opening in June 2021, Spago by Wolfgang Puck has garnered an excellent reputation, a Michelin recommendation and, the benchmark by which he himself measures success, a core of loyal, local regulars.
“Getting recommended by Michelin, sure, that’s nice whenever it happens,” says Puck, for whom Michelin long ago granted two stars to Spago in Beverly Hills. “But it’s also nice when customers come here to dinner and, on the way out afterwards, they make a reservation for the following week. That is really the main thing for me.”
“For me, the guests will tell us if we are good or not. A lot of places get good reviews. The press like to write about something which you cannot find very easily. When I went to El Bulli, I was sitting there for four hours. I said to myself, ‘OK, I get it, this was an amazing experience’. But I wouldn’t have gone back there again.”
At 17, Wolfgang Puck headed to France and later worked at some of the nation’s most renowned restaurants, including Maxim’s in Paris, the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo and L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence, with three Michelin stars. At 24, Wolfgang took a friend’s advice and moved to the States.
“I always tell people, ‘keep it simple’. If it’s overcomplicated, with too many ingredients on it, I don’t think it’s necessary. That’s why I think Beverly Hills was so successful. People need to be able to eat at the same place more than once.”
Puck applies the same logic to Tinseltown. For the last quarter of a century, he and his huge team have prepared the food for the Oscars ceremony.
Dining at the Oscars
“One year I made my signature chicken pot pie and I happened to be sitting at a table with Barbra Streisand, John Travolta and Adele. A while later, I bumped into Barbra and she told me how much she loved my chicken pot pie, and that she was looking forward to having it again next year. If you think about it, people haven’t eaten all day. They have to get ready, be made up, get their hair done, then the car comes for them at three, and by the time they’re sitting down to dinner, they’re starving. People love comfort food.”
Most years, Puck and crew also cater for the Superbowl, including the one just staged in Los Angeles. “That’s really just a question of logistics. I have my pastry chefs start two weeks before, preparing the 34,000 pastries we serve that day. Just now, we had three parties, it was crazy.”
“Another year, I ran into Prince Albert. We met up again in Monaco, where I used to work, and I served a banquet for 1,500 guests. He insisted on my chicken pot pie, because he remembered it, and to serve that many people, the food doesn’t only have to be right, it has to be hot. So I made it in these special ceramic bowls, completely enclosed. They keep everything hot for 30 minutes.”
“Simple food works. Even in LA. A few years ago we introduced some Austrian food to the menu. Wiener Schnitzel then became one of the most popular dishes on the menu – so popular that I cannot take it off now. It’s all about the quality of the beef. If you overcook it, it’s not right. Undercook it, it’s not crispy. Even if it’s simple, it has to be done just right.”
To this end, every morning when he is in Budapest, Puck heads to the Great Market Hall, and makes a beeline for a certain stall. “There’s a butcher there I’ve become friends with. A very funny guy. He always saves me good cuts of meat. This means beautiful steaks here at Spago.”
Although he grew up only 460km from Budapest, Puck wasn’t familiar with the city he has since warmed to. “I came here once for a day in the 1960s, when I was in Vienna,” he says, as the early spring sunshine streams through the windows of Spago’s smart yet informal surroundings and waitstaff greet him with a smile.
“I like to go to places I don’t know. I always thought Hungary had very good ingredients. When I was doing my apprenticeship in Austria, we used to import beef from Hungary. I’d also heard about its duck and goose liver, of course, and the spices. I like spicy food. There are various kinds of peppers. There’s also the culture, and as a city, Budapest isn’t so big, like London or Istanbul, where I also have restaurants. It’s easy to get around. And if I want to go somewhere in Europe, Budapest is really easy for me.”
That evening, Puck was being joined by his sister, who still lives where they both grew up near Klagenfurt. “It’s been a great first year here at Spago,” he reflects. “We’re very happy with it. In a way, the fact we opened in June when there weren’t any tourists here meant that locals got to know it first. When we open a restaurant, we want locals to enjoy it. Tourists can come, of course, business people, too, but always locals first.”
In May, Puck will come back to Budapest to open yet another upscale establishment, this one under the same roof as Spago. The coffeehouse sister to the destination restaurant a short walk across the lobby corridor, the Matild Café&Cabaret will embody old-school charisma to offset the contemporary dining glamour of Spago.
“A mixture of tradition and innovation,” is how Puck describes this contrast. “You have to respect history and it’s important not to forget it,” he underlines, gesturing towards the coffeehouse still centrepieced by a circular stage where radio broadcasts conveyed New Year’s Eve cabaret to listeners across pre-war Hungary. Run by three generations of the Rónai hospitality dynasty from 1910 onwards, the former Belvárosi Kávéház will be revived as a 300-seater café echoing the Golden Age of Budapest.
Just like the Matild Palace itself, with its artists’ lofts and lobby mural of Habsburg dignitaries, topped by The Duchess rooftop cocktail bar, the Matild Café&Cabaret exudes class. “It’s more difficult because people think they know what it should be like,” says Puck, who usually starts with carte blanche to create the kind of place he wants.
“I think the café will be really exciting. It gives the hotel more options. It will be more of a historical thing, serving Esterházy cake and Dobostorta. The kind of place where you can sit and read for an hour” – Puck spends his LA Saturdays buried in the quality broadsheets – “or just pop in during the afternoon”.
Matild by day, Spago after dark
“We’ll keep Spago for the evening, maybe lunch at weekends, and have Matild for breakfast and daytime. This will allow us to concentrate on dinner here, and be more innovative. Once spring’s here, there’ll be more seasonal produce at the market. I think the city will open up and more people will come. But we’ll still keep certain things on the menu, such as the lamb chops because people like to come here for certain dishes.”
ever, Puck has locals in mind. A success story on several levels, not unlike
the Matild Palace that brought him back to Central Europe, Wolfgang Puck has become synonymous with a bold, innovative culinary style that has redefined fine dining in America and around the world. His own special dishes and his lively personality revolutionised the gastronomic industry.
Not bad for the boy who set out from Carinthia with only a few Schillings in his pocket.
“Consistency is the key. When you look at Spago in Hollywood, we’ve been open for 40 years and if wasn't for consistency, we wouldn’t be here still.”