Famed Spago chef Wolfgang Puck is the latest judge on the "Top Chef: Seattle." Puck says he's excited to be a part of the 10th season of the Emmy and James Beard Award-winning series. "The show is a lot of fun for me and I enjoy watching what the chefs come up with each week," says the 63-year-old author and TV personality. "When I was starting out, I knew I found cooking to be interesting. But I never imagined that people would enjoy watching chefs on television competing in the kitchen. It's wonderful."
Q. What was the first trip you took as a child?
A. I grew up so poor in Austria that we never took a vacation with my family. There is an organization called Save the Children — which is very famous for helping underprivileged kids. When I was 11, they sent a group of us kids to England for three months. I think there were about 20 children total. We took the trip to Belgium and went on the ferry to Dover, England, and then to London and Essex. I still remember being on the veranda outside on the ship in the evening. It was amazing. It was the first time that I had really experienced different things and types of food — even the simplest things. I had corn flakes for the first time there. It was so delicious with a little brown sugar and milk. In Austria, we made polenta with milk for breakfast, which wasn't as good to me.
Q. Where did you have your best meal?
A. It was such a great experience and so long ago — about 35 years ago. It was in France. I had a girlfriend then but she wasn't into food, so I went by myself!
Q. How do other chefs treat you when you dine at their restaurants?
A. They treat me fine. When I was young, I was a critic basically. But now I don't think other chefs get nervous around me. I go to be with friends and family. For me, I don't expect to have a really amazing meal each time I dine out. Having a good meal with your loved ones — that's what makes the experience. The only thing I don't like is to sit at the table for 3-1/2 hours for a meal. I get too impatient. And then I drink too much! When you hear people talk about how they ate so much they couldn't move afterward, that's a bad thing. I always tell people they should just eat enough so when they go home they can make love, and not fall sleep.
Q. On vacations, are you a lay in the sun and relax type of guy?
A. No! My wife always asks, "Why don't you just rest and do nothing?" I'm so used to doing something all the time that I just can't do that. That's not enjoyable for me. I'm always doing something and that suits me better.
Q. What is your favorite destination?
A. I must say Italy is still a favorite. We got married in Capri five years ago. I like to go around and take the boat and go to lunch.
Q. Do you tend to stay away from hotel restaurants?
A. In general, yes. There are very few times I actually like to eat at a hotel. One that was great was Alain Ducasse's restaurant at the Hotel de Paris Monte-Carlo. And when I was in Hong Kong, some of the restaurants I wanted to try were closed, so I couldn't get out to eat dinner. I was staying at the Regent, which is now the Intercontinental, and the manager said, "Why not eat at our hotel?" I did. It was so good I ended up eating three more times there.
Q. What are your favorite cities?
A. I really love Paris. It's my favorite city. I used to live there. I actually like Vienna now. I didn't like it before and thought it was so boring. But now I find it fascinating and enjoy the great art and opera and so on. We always love to go to Tokyo, which I think is a very interesting city.
Q. What have you learned about dining habits in other countries?
A. In the United States, we always try to Americanize everything. That's not always a bad thing, but it's nice to see how food is served in the country of origin. In the U.S., we eat sushi as a meal. In Japan, it's served at the end of the meal. I can't say enough about the fish in Japan. It's really amazing and the Japanese are very respectful of the product. One of my favorite things to do in Tokyo is to go to the fish market, which is in this little alleyway. It doesn't smell fishy at all. Japanese people tend to be very polite, but not at the fish market. If you just stand there, you'll get pushed over. I love to go at 5 a.m., walk through and buy some stuff. They filleted a live mackerel I picked out. Its mouth was still moving. Then for breakfast I had some sushi and noodle soup.
Q. Which country has an undeserved reputation for having bad cuisine?
A. London has really great food now, but people still joke about bad English food. It's true that a long time ago, you had to eat in an old-style French restaurant to get a decent meal. But over the last 10 years, they've had a renaissance. It's really fun to go and eat there.
Q. Are you an adventurous eater overseas?
A. Yes! Wherever I go, I eat anything. In Marrakesh, the hotel people told us not to eat anything at the food stalls in the main square. I ate at I think 10 of the stalls and didn't get sick. In Mexico City, they said don't eat anything raw and don't drink the water. I tasted the raw tomatoes and ate the salads. I didn't get sick. It's not for everyone, but I have no problem with it. There's a lot of processed food in America and I know that can make some tourists who're used to fresh food feel sick.
Q. Where would you like to go that you have never been to before?
Q. Are you a prima donna about anything when you're traveling?
A. (Laughs.) Well ... I was in Maui for the first time in the 1970s. I woke up in the morning and asked for a cappuccino or an espresso. They said, "Sorry, we don't have any." I walked down the beach where all the hotels are lined up and walked into the Hyatt Regency. They had cappuccinos and espressos. I switched hotels right there. I can't stay in a hotel where I can't get a good coffee.