Wolfgang Puck Reflects On 20 Years In Vegas
This December, Spago will celebrate 20 years at the Forum Shops. Nobody in the food world can deny that Wolfgang Puck’s decision to open a restaurant here was the first major step in Las Vegas becoming the world-class dining destination it is today. Last Thursday, Chef Puck celebrated the landmark with a special lunch at the restaurant that kicked off this year’s Vegas Uncork’d festival. He was joined in the kitchen by the restaurant’s first Executive Chef, David Robbins, and current Executive Chef Eric Klein, and the meal was hosted by Bon Appétit magazine’s Editor-In Chief Adam Rapoport. You’ll find some pictures of the meal below. First, however, here are some excerpts from an interview I conducted with the chef immediately afterwards.
What made you decide to open a restaurant in Las Vegas 20 years ago?
I was always a big fan of boxing, and I used to come to Las Vegas all the time. And when [developer] Sheldon Gordon was building the Forum [Shops], he was a good customer of ours in Los Angeles and Malibu, he said ‘You have to come to Vegas, you have to come to Vegas.’ I said, ‘well I don’t know.’ Yet on one side I said ‘It would be great to have a good restaurant where I could go after the fights with my friends Nicholson and Schwarzenegger and Sly Stalone,’ – we all used to go to the fights together. And then when they showed me the thing I said ‘OK, let’s try it.’ But I told Sheldon, ‘You have to find me the money to build it.’ And he said ‘No problem at all, we’ll find it for you overnight.’ And he did. (LAUGHS) And we came here.
I remember when we opened in December, it was the slowest three weeks of my life. Because in December, at that time, all the shows were closed – no conventions, nothing, except the rodeo finals were here. And so when we opened, one day I saw all these cowboys walking around — cowboy boots, cowboy hats. And I said ‘Sheldon we’re in Vegas, but it feels like we’re in Oklahoma or Texas!’ I had no idea what was going on. And they used to come up to the open kitchen and say ‘Do you have any ribs, any burgers?’ I said ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what I got into with this Vegas thing here, it’s crazy.’
Then came New Year’s and it started to get busy. Then at C.E.S. (Consumer Electronics Show) it got even busier. And then we just took off and never looked back.
When you used to come out to see fights, what was the dining scene like?
There was no dining scene. You never knew where to go. I remember when I used to come I asked my driver ‘Where do you go to eat?’ And he took me to a joint off The Strip, we went with a whole group of people, and I remember getting the worst veal piccata I ever had in my life!
You know, we all knew at the hotels they had overpriced restaurants. We used to go to The Empress Court here at Caesars. But there were not that many hotels at the time – The Mirage was brand new. It’s an amazing thing to see how it’s changed, because at that time you didn’t know where to go. The hotel restaurants were so fancy. Over here [at Barbary Coast] they had Michael’s. That was like the fanciest restaurant, where you’d get this fancy Dover sole and they’d cut it in front of you and everything. But a bottle of wine I’d charge $30 or $40 for in L.A., they charged $90 here, it was crazy.
You’re personally responsible for a lot of chefs coming to town aren’t you?
Well, at The Forum Shops, we were the first ones. The next hotel to open was The MGM. And I convinced Mark Miller and Emeril [Lagasse] to come to The MGM. And they came and were very successful for many years. Emeril is still there, and Mark is gone because he’s doing other things. But we were the first three who came from nowhere and showed that you can have a great restaurant [in Las Vegas].
I told Larry Woolf, who was the president, ‘You should have some interesting chefs.’ And at the beginning, he said ‘Well, I don’t know.’ And I said ‘They run the restaurants better than you guys do.’ And he said ‘You know what, you might be right. Because we don’t have good restaurants.’
He knew Spago was good. He could see that Steve Wynn and all his people used to come to Spago and eat there. All the hotel presidents and managers always had lunch and dinner at Spago, not at their own hotels. So they thought there might be something different.
When you look around today and see all these incredible chefs here, how do you feel?
I think it’s really an amazing thing to see. What’s good for me is good for everybody, I’ve always said. In the end it’s great to see that Vegas has become a dining destination. You see chefs at the same [level] headliners as entertainers. Twenty years ago you didn’t see chefs in magazines, on billboards or on the news. Now you have it all.
It’s amazing to see that Las Vegas as a city has doubled, but we have ten times more restaurants. Today when people talk about Las Vegas, sure they think about gambling, but then the next thing they think about is restaurants.
In Las Vegas, lasting 20 years is quite an accomplishment. How proud are you of that?
Longevity is really the most important thing – if it’s a relationship, if it’s a business, to still be there after 20 years and still be an important place after 20 years is really great. But I must say I have to really thank all the guys who work here every day. And I’ve always told them “We want to be part of the community. We want people who live here in Vegas to come. We don’t want to be a tourist restaurant. We’re not gonna overcharge. We’re gonna be fair.” You know, we want to make money, but we don’t want to be gouging people.
So we started at a very fair price range. And I remember in the beginning we had so many locals. Every Friday night we had 200 locals at the bar – the same people used to hang out and have pizza or eat in the dining room.