The godfather of California cuisine, Wolfgang Puck was a celebrity chef before the term had any cachet. Puck’s tables have been attracting A-list palates since 1982 when the culinary wunderkind opened Spago in Los Angeles, where he pioneered a sexy brand of So-Cal cuisine. Among his trail-blazing efforts: he fashioned designer pizzas, dressing handcrafted pies with salmon and caviar at a time when red-pepper toppings were considered exotic. Puck now helms a formidable empire—he boasts 14 fine-dining restos and 80 express franchises. Today, the Austrian-born phenom is colonizing Toronto with two mid-level restaurants that are service-oriented but laid-back: Wolfgang Puck Toronto Bistro (33 Sheppard Ave. E.) is slated to open this spring, while a second in Forest Hill is scheduled to launch later this year.
What has been your most memorable restaurant experience in Toronto?
Eating at Susur Lee’s restaurants: his food is very tasty and inventive. His famous Singapore coleslaw at his more casual restaurant Lee was great. (Editor’s note: Find listings for Lee and Susur in our Dining Guide.)
So, is Susur Lee the chef you most admire in Toronto?
Yes. But there are many great up-and-coming Toronto chefs that I look forward to knowing more about.
What strikes you most about Toronto’s food scene?
Toronto is such an international city. I used to cook at the Sutton Place Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival and, when I was in town, I liked to go to the markets to find such a great selection of fresh ingredients. And I was also very surprised to find that Toronto has so many great Asian restaurants.
How will your Toronto restaurants differ from the others in your empire?
It’s not an empire: it’s a family. But the basics will be the same. The Toronto bistro will be very casual but will serve great food. We’ll use organic produce whenever possible and will source food from local family farmers and purveyors. And we’ll also feature wines from the Niagara region. I was also told that Toronto has a significant Indian population, so we’d like to feature Indian influences and spices to reflect that population.
What will be some spotlight-stealers on the menu at the Toronto bistro?
We’ll have our famous Chinois chicken salad, ginger salmon and rosemary rotisserie chicken. Our handcrafted pizzas are also very popular.
What do you think makes a great restaurant?
You have to have the right culture: it’s great food and great service in a nice environment. And I’m not pretentious and I feel that my restaurants are a reflection of me, so I don’t like pretentious restaurants. I like it casual but I want something serious on the plate.
After you open the second location in Toronto, what’s on the horizon?
We might do a Spago in Toronto that would open at some point in 2009. We have our flagship Spago in Beverly Hills, one in Vail at the Ritz-Carlton, one in Las Vegas and our most beautiful Spago at the Four Seasons in Maui. But we’d like to open one in Toronto—if we find the right location. We’re looking.
What continues to keep you inspired at the stoves?
You always need to try something new. That’s what keeps me excited: I don’t rest on my laurels. We want to have fun in our restaurants. When you go to a restaurant, you’re not going to a temple or a church. You want it to be lively. Because when you’re dead, it’s going to be quiet for a very long time.