Wolfgang Puck talks to Atlantic City Weekly prior to annual Savor Borgata event Nov. 13.
There’s no substitute for formal training, of course, but chef Wolfgang Puck doesn’t automatically discount the theory advanced by a famous dead chef in the 2007 animated Pixar comedy film Ratatouille.
“Anyone can cook!” opines Chef Auguste Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett), an assertion that helps a young rat named Remy (Patton Oswalt) live out his dream of becoming a great French chef.
“Obviously, you’re not going to become a professional overnight,” Puck says. “But if you start slowly and really want to learn, anybody can cook.”
There are some pre-qualifications, though. Puck, who learned cooking basics from his mother as a young teen in his native Austria and then honed his skills under some great chefs in Paris before moving to America, says it takes “taste” to become a good cook.
“You have to be able to taste [food] and be discerning and [be able] to say, ‘This is good, or this is not good.’ And if you have the opportunity to buy good ingredients, anybody can learn how to cook.”
A passion for cooking often trumps formal training, he adds. There was a time when cooking school was a virtual prerequisite for someone seeking a career in a restaurant or professional kitchen.
A person can go to culinary school, apprentice in a restaurant and work their way up the line in the time-honored tradition, Puck explains. Or they can acquire their training the way Puck did, by studying under master chefs and develop their own style and cooking technique.
“But today you can learn fast and not go to school,” he says. “You can go on the Internet and see the menus and recipes from the world’s great restaurants. There are a lot of ways and a lot of places to get information and inspiration.”
It wasn’t that way when Puck was starting out in Austria watching his mother, who was a master baker.
“For me to get [a cookbook or recipes] from a chef in France would have been almost impossible,” he remembers. Today, a click of a mouse can get anyone a cookbook literally overnight.
Since landing in America when he was 25, Puck has become one of the world’s most celebrated and successful chefs whose name has become a culinary brand. In addition to his now-legendary Hollywood restaurants like Mai Mason and Spago, Puck has developed an extensive product line of pre-packaged foods and cooking utensils and is a best-selling cookbook author.
Several years ago, he opened the American Grille, a combination casual-dining tavern and gourmet room at Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa.
Puck regularly visits his Atlantic City restaurant for some hands-on kitchen time. He’ll be at Borgata on Saturday, Nov. 13, to be part of an annual event known as Savor Borgata, a veritable food extravaganza where guests will be able to sample the food and interact the casino’s dream team of celebrity chefs, including Michael Schulson of Izakaya, Stephen Kalt of Fornelletto, Geoffrey Zakarian of The Water Club, Michael Mina of SeaBlue and others. The event is open to the public.
Dishes influenced by the cuisines of France, Italy and Spain will be the theme of this year’s Savor Borgata, and Puck says he and his executive chef, Aram Mardigian, will be presenting a selection of Italian items that include gnocci and a second pasta dish and “bistecca fiorentina,” which is an Tuscan-style T-bone steak.
Puck is a firm believer in using locally grown products whenever possible, and the menu at his American Grille changes seasonally to take advantage of New Jersey-grown produce and local fish.
He was in Bora Bora in the South Pacific last summer to do some consulting work for the Four Seasons Hotel, and he was stunned to find that there was no local fish on the restaurant menus.
“Here they are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where they have all kinds of [local fish] and they’re getting fish from New Zealand,” Puck recalls. He got the mayor of Bora Bora on the phone, told him of his disappointment and the island’s leader asked several fishermen to go out and bring back some fresh local fish.
“They brought back the most amazing fish I’ve ever tasted,” Puck says.
He also says it’s sometimes necessary to pay top dollar to get the best products, but the expense is well worth it.
"That serving, the most complex execution of any on this night, was a combination of grilled American Kobe beef, Armenian lamb kabobs and ricotta gnocchi with shrimp. "
Fifth annual Savor Borgata Event features an expanded menu including cooking demonstrations by superstar chefs Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay.
Since taking charge of the subterranean space known as Fornelletto in 2009, New York City native Stephen Kalt has put his own distinctive spin on its cuisine, and attitude.
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