The world-famous chef to the stars celebrates the
joys of fitness and healthyeating in his latest book.
By Allan Richter
Think healthy ethnic cuisine, and you’re likely to imagine Mediterranean staples like a nice grilled Branzini and purple olives or Asian fare like steamed rice and kimchi. Chances are that Austrian food, featuring popular dishes like tafelspitz (a boiled beef plate) and kärntner kasnudeln (cheese noodles drizzled with butter), won’t come to mind. But some nutrient-packed foods are universal, and that’s how Wolfgang Puck, who is 64 this month, remembers the ingredients of many healthful meals at his childhood home in the Austrian town of Sankt Veit.
On many summer mornings and into the fall, Puck’s mother would step out of her kitchen into the garden. A few hours later, she would serve her family fresh vegetable soup for lunch. The hearty soup was filled with celery, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, green beans, basil leaves, garlic and more. It was a flexible recipe that changed depending on what Puck’s mother harvested from the garden that morning. Sometimes she added wild mushrooms plucked from the nearby forest and chopped. Therecipe remains one of Puck’s favorites.
Puck, beginning with the opening of his Los Angeles eatery Spago in 1982, has gone on to helm an empire stretching from Beverly Hills to Dubai that includes upscale restaurants, catering services, fast-casual eateries, cookbooks and branded cookware and culinary tools that the chef frequently is seen hawking on cable shopping channels. Celebrities indulge in the little chocolate Oscar statuettes he makes for his post-Academy Award bashes at Spago, a must stop on the Oscars party circuit.
But for all of Puck’s fame and success, good health was sometimes elusive and he was out of shape for many years.
Before he began to make lifestyle changes five years ago, he had a hip replacement and endured constant pain from an inflamed nerve in his lower back, he says in his new book, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy: Light, Delicious Recipes and Easy Exercises for a Better Life (Grand Central). He feared those afflictions would force him to give up skiing, a sport as beloved by an Austrian as stickball once was on the streets of Brooklyn.
When he did ski, Puck noticed that he had to stop midway down the slopes to catch his breath. On the tennis court, where the competitive Puck tended to battle it out against players who were better at the game, he had to interrupt his favorite warm-weather sport every 15 minutes to rest.
“It’s not that I’d never tried to get in shape before,” Puck writes in Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy. “I’d tried just about everything, and most of what I did made me feel worse instead of better. The first time I exercised with a professional trainer, when I was in my thirties, I passed out. They had to carry me out of the gym.”
Puck later tried working out at home, frequenting a gym and running. He exercised with a trainer and on his own. Yet, no matter what he did, the results were negligible. At times he would lose some weight, gain strength or build his endurance, but the success never lasted.
These days Puck is optimistic not only about his own health but that of the healthy foods movement. At the heart of his confidence is his insistence that “healthy” and “good tasting” are not mutually exclusive concepts. “We know more and more about food,” he tells Energy Times in an interview in his signature thick Austrian accent. “Healthy alone is not good enough. It has to be delicious.”
That’s hardly a new concept, but it’s one Puck can speak to with authority by virtue of being at the forefront of several culinary trends. When he opened Spago in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace in 1992, for instance, he was the first celebrity chef to set up shop in Las Vegas. That paved the way for the arrival of chefs Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsay and Nobu Matsuhisa, among many others, and the transformation of Sin City into a vibrant culinary destination.
More important to the healthy food trend is Puck’s imprint on the beginnings of California cuisine, known for the melding of fresh but disparate ingredients to create a fusion dish presented like a work of art.
“That, in some ways, was a precursor to some of the healthy eating trends we’re seeing now, even though it’s been a few decades later,” says Aaron Allen, chief executive of Aaron Allen & Associates, a food industry consultancy in Orlando. “Americans are ready for healthful food, the distinction being that instead of butter maybe there’s olive oil. We haven’t gotten to the point as a country where Middle America is seeking healthy foods, but certainly more healthful.
“The most bankable word in food service today is fresh,” Allen adds. “Wolfgang Puck has a lot of credibility in saying he’s been in that spot for decades—fresh, less processed foods, and whole and natural ingredients.”
Custom-Made for Health
With that track record, Puck’s restaurant menus carry weight and could conceivably affirm, if not alter, the course of what’s fashionable in food. Indeed, if those menus are a litmus test, the gluten-free movement, for example, is likely to stick around for a while.
Puck says he is developing a new gluten-free bread and pizza dough based on a recipe of chopped olives and teff—flour created from the milled seed of a grass indigenous to Ethiopia—that he created on the spur of the moment for someone with celiac disease at a recent Spago party in Los Angeles. “A lot of the ethnic influences are helping shape what we do,” Puck says.
That Puck’s struggles with his own wellness probably sound familiar is just one of the strengths of Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy. Another is that the chef refuses to prescribe to his readers the precise strategy he embraced, knowing that it takes an individual’s own approach to make a weight-loss and exercise regimen work.
“Unlike the diet books you’ll find everywhere, I won’t make you promises of specific weight losses in a specific number of days or weeks,” Puck writes. “Those kinds of goals are best set by you and your doctor or another professional health practitioner.”
It was the understanding that a custom-tailored approach is needed that got the chef back to good health beginning in 2009. Puck found a personal trainer, Chad Waterbury, who adapted a workout regimen to the chef’s abilities, starting with only 15 minutes of activity, including jumping rope, basic calisthenics, push-ups and some boxing. Puck could jump rope for only 45 seconds when they started but was able to extend that to 10 minutes several months later as the training increased; he stopped at 10 minutes only to move on to another exercise.
Puck says he embraces the exercises he was shown by Waterbury—a Santa Monica, California, high-performance strength coach who authors the exercise section of the chef’s book—because each strategically builds on the one that comes before it and prepares the body for the next.
As for dietary changes, reflected in Puck’s new book, the biggest adjustment the chef has made is reducing fat, “usually as low as or lower than the 30% of total calories most experts on sound nutrition set as a benchmark,” he writes. Puck, who also takes a fish oil supplement, pairs salmon and other cold-water fish that are naturally high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids with other ingredients to bring down a meal’s total fat percentage.
His substitutions promote health but don’t sacrifice taste. For example, instead of making gnocchi with the standard white potatoes, white flour and what is typically an excessive amount of cheese, Puck’s recipe calls for sweet potatoes, whole wheat flour and a light Parmesan seasoning. And he forgoes a sauce rich in butter, cream or cheese, choosing a hearty mushroom sauce instead.
He also suggests turning what would ordinarily be a first course, such as his Curried Lentil Soup with Mint-Lemon Yogurt, into the centerpiece of a meal.
A Strong Fan Base
Though Puck says readers will find recipes in Wolfgang Puck Makes It Healthy different than those in his previous six books or in his restaurants, the chef’s followers have noticed the shift toward more healthful fare on his menus.
And it wasn’t difficult to find Puck’s followers one weekend last month in Atlantic City, where it made little difference what entertainment superstar was headlining any of the New Jersey oceanfront casinos’ shows. For foodies, all the action was at the Wolfgang Puck American Grille in the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. The chef whose name adorns the restaurant was in town, and there was no place else Puck’s fans—groupies even—were going to be.
Kathleen Lee and Julia Avritt, sisters from Philadelphia, were among more than 100 Puck devotees who lined up and shelled out $79 each for a sampling of Puck’s food and a chance to mingle and mug for photos with the celebrity chef at the Atlantic City eatery. The sisters have been to 15 Puck events since the restaurant opened a decade ago and were familiar faces. Puck’s cooks and business partners exchanged jovial greetings with them, bringing them lamb patties with mint sauce and pouring them Puck-branded white wine new to the market.
Puck is eager to speak with guests and identify consumer needs while putting his personal stamp on customer service, the sisters said, recalling restaurant visits when Puck and his chefs would whip up a dish especially for them. Where the food of other celebrity chefs is delivered in silver-dollar size portions and accents the chef’s celebrity rather than the food, they said, Puck’s food is plentiful and delicious but tends to favor better health, often with local ingredients.
“Everything is light but still flavorful. You don’t need to add salt or pepper,” Lee said as other patrons filled plates with baby salad topped with leafy green mache, bruschetta with fava bean hummus, and barbecued shrimp served by Puck himself.
“It’s not too fu-fu,” Avritt chimed in. “It’s gourmet without being ostentatious.” Avritt recalled a Jersey corn soup with no cream that Puck once served, while her sister remembered the chef’s blueberry cobbler made with New Jersey berries.
“In the last 10 years, his menus have really gotten lighter,” she added. “The wienerschnitzel used to be a huge portion of pork served on a giant plate with German potato salad and arugula. Now, you still get the giant plate, but it’s a thinner pounded cut that’s still deep fried but very thin, and there are more vegetables on the plate.”
For the celebrity chef, the payoff in business has been a loyal customer base and an expanding portfolio of restaurants and branded merchandise. Evidence of his business success was on display in and out of his restaurant at the Borgata. Resort cardholders with enough points were strolling the casino floor with their 14-piece Wolfgang Puck stainless steel mixing bowl sets.
At home and with his family, Puck’s reward has been a thinner waistline and more stamina. He no longer gets winded when skiing. “Now,” Puck says with a big smile, “I even beat my older sons, who are 19 and 25, when we slalom down the slopes.”
Broiled Miso Salmon
with Spago Cucumber Salad
4 (4-ounce) salmon fillets
½ cup mirin (Japanese rice cooking wine)
¼ cup white miso paste
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
Spago Cucumber Salad
2 cups thinly sliced Japanese cucumbers
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions
Marinate the Miso Salmon: Put the salmon fillets in a shallow nonreactive dish large enough to hold them in a single layer. In a small bowl, stir together the mirin, miso, sugar, soy sauce, garlic, and ginger. Add this marinade to the salmon fillets, turning them to coat on both sides. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours or up to overnight.
Prepare the Spago Cucumber Salad: In a bowl, combine the sliced cucumbers and salt and toss well. Add the rice vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce, and toss well. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and toss again. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, broil the Miso Salmon: Preheat the broiler. Transfer the salmon fillets to a broiler pan or baking dish large enough to hold them in a single layer. Place under the broiler and cook until nicely browned and barely cooked through in the center, 3 to 4 minutes per side depending on thickness, turning them carefully with a spatula.
Assemble the dish: Place a salmon fillet on each of four serving plates. Spoon the cucumber salad around the salmon. Garnish with scallions and serve immediately.
Wolfgang ’s Healthy Tips
Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 167; Calories from Fat: 29;
Total Fat: 3.23g; Saturated Fat: 0.71g; Monounsaturated Fat: 1.11g; Polyunsaturated Fat: 1.41g; Cholesterol: 16mg; Sodium: 886mg; Total Carbohydrate: 17.72g; Dietary Fiber: 1.55g; Sugars: 11.95g;
My Mother’s Garden Vegetable Soup
1 small leek, white parts only, split lengthwise, thoroughly washed with cold running water,
and patted dry
½ medium onion
1 stalk celery
1 medium carrot
1 medium potato
1 medium zucchini
12 green beans, trimmed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 cups homemade Chicken Stock or Beef Stock
Vegetable Stock (page 274), or good quality canned low-sodium broth
2 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped
10 pieces sun-dried tomato, thoroughly drained
10 fresh basil leaves
2 medium garlic cloves
Freshly ground black pepper
In a large saucepan, combine 1 ½ tablespoons of the olive oil with 1 ½ tablespoons water. Add the leek and onion and saute over medium-low heat until all the water has evaporated and the vegetables are tender but not yet beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.
Add the celery, carrot, potato, stock, and salt to taste. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle boil and cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine the chopped tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, garlic, and remaining 1 ½ Tablespoons olive oil. Pulse the machine until the mixture is pureed.
Transfer to a sauceboat or bowl and set aside.
About 5 minutes before the soup is done, stir the diced zucchini and green beans into the pan and continue cooking until all the vegetables are tender.
Season the soup with salt and pepper to taste. Stir the pureed tomato mixture into the soup or pass it separately for each person to add to taste. Ladle the soup into a tureen or individual bowls and serve.
Excerpted from the book WOLFGANG PUCK MAKES IT HEALTHY
by Wolfgang Puck. © 2014 by Wolfgang Puck.
Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Life and Style.
All rights reserved.