Superstar chef Wolfgang Puck and apprentice-turned-colleague Ari Rosenson chat about old times, hard work and their mutual admiration.
They say never meet your heroes. Ari Rosenson not only met his idol while working on a fifth-grade assignment, but also wrangled a spot in his kitchen at one of the most famous restaurants in the world. Rosenson started working for Wolfgang Puck at Spago when he was only 16 years old, and rose up through the ranks to eventually become the head chef at CUT.
Puck had originally agreed to be interviewed by Rosenson, a then-10-year-old who wanted to find out how the famous chef was dealing with the FDA’s confusing frozen-food labeling regulations, particularly the rule stating that to be called “pizza,” a product must contain tomato sauce (thus, Puck’s sausage, herb and pesto creation could not be labeled as such). Puck gamely answered the youngster’s questions; then he suited up a wide-eyed Rosenson to demonstrate how to make fresh pizzas in the bustling Spago kitchen, marking the start of a relationship that has lasted much longer than either one ever imagined.
At the Beverly Wilshire, A Four Seasons Hotel, CUT is known as a sophisticated steakhouse where diners can order luxurious steaks, from 35-day dry-aged cornfed prime Nebraska beef to pure Japanese Wagyu from the Miyazaki prefecture. As CUT celebrates its 10th anniversary, chefs Rosenson and Puck sat down for a little tete-a-tete about the first day they met, what inspired them to attempt careers in cooking and how they carefully orchestrate the daily operations at this contemporary steakhouse.
WP: How did you get the idea at that young age to think: You know what, I want to write about a chef? It was an interesting project. We'd expect a kid today to do it because of all the chefs on television...
AR: I wanted to make the interview meaningful. Interviewing a family member would be boring. And I remember really loving cooking. Around the same time, there was an article in the L.A. Times about you fighting the FDA because it said you couldn’t call your pizza ‘pizza.’
WP: That’s right.
AR: So, I said, ‘Mom I want to interview that guy.’ And she said, ‘Ok, call Spago.’ So I called Spago, and I was, like, ‘I... I... I...’ I started stuttering, and she took the phone out of my hands and asked.
WP: What do you remember about the interview?
AR: I remember my mom came in, she was my photographer, I had a little recorder that I had bought to put on the table. I asked about how you got into cooking. You were very welcoming and gracious. So then, you suited me up, gave me a tour of Spago and taught me how to make pizzas. I just fell in love with it. I cooked pizza at home for my friends and family. When my mom wasn’t home, I started to get into Jack Daniel's, not to drink it, but to see how high I could make the flames, so I could do flambé.
WP: When you’re young, everything looks so big. Coming into the Spago kitchen and seeing the big pizza oven and everything, it must have been almost frightening at the beginning.
AR: Frightening and exciting too. At home, you cook on this little four-burner stove, and you only have so much firepower to work with. At Spago, I felt as though I was among people who knew what I wanted to know.
WP: Did you think at the time: That’s what I want to do?
AR: Yes, I had no doubt in my mind. From that interview and that moment forward. The real deciding factor was when I turned 14; I went to Granita for my birthday dinner. You were working the line, and I went over and said to you, ‘I want to work in the culinary field.’ You said, ‘OK, great. You come work for me. Just let me know when you’re ready.’ So when I turned 16, I asked for a job. Luckily enough, you graciously said yes. It was a gamble. Why did you take that chance on me?
WP: You never wavered or changed your mind.
AR: It’s about having the right people around you, as mentors. When I started at Spago, I was a prep cook. I was cutting myself every day. My mom thought I was going to get fired because I had a bandage on every finger, even the nonknifing ones. I chopped garlic and shallots and parsley, and worked my way up, and stayed on during the school year. I worked on the weekends and learned how to butcher and just followed the progression slowly.
WP: The cream always rises to the top. You see some people who are focused, and they want to learn and they want to get better.
AR: It’s a grind. You have to sacrifice a lot. It has to become your life. Why do you believe so strongly in internal growth and promoting people in the company?
WP: If we want to grow as a company, I have to have people who really understand what I look for. What is important. If you train people right, if they get good experience and you pay them well, they will stay because they know that they have a career. When you believe somebody works hard and has talent, that becomes a priority.
AR: What was your initial impression of me?
WP: Well, at that time, life was very busy. Spago was this huge thing. I was really interested in you because it never happened before to have a kid come interview me. Now you have come to a point after all these years where I trust you. Trust is, for me, one of the most important things. It is nice for me to see how you have grown, from being this young kid to getting married, having a child. And how you adjusted to this life now as a father and a chef, an accountant, manager and teacher. How would you describe me?
AR: When we first met, you were this larger-than-life figure. You were this person in a newspaper that was sitting in front of me. I also felt you were a warm and caring person. You can be hard and strict and focused and direct. I enjoy how dynamic you are as a person. And now after being open for 10 years, we are sitting here together in the dining room at CUT.
WP: Restaurants are, in a way, just like relationships. You know, at the beginning it’s infatuation and excitement. CUT was something totally new. We hired Richard Meier, the world famous architect, to build it. As a restaurant, we continue to evolve. We push all the time to do something new.
AR: And we’re doing the International Series, exploring different culinary fields and different regions, to see how various cultures treat beef and bring more of a familial sense to cuisine.
WP: People know they’re going to get the best meat here. But they also know to get something new if they want to. They can get an interesting salad, dessert or side dish with the beef, which is the main thing. In the end, it’s only longevity that really proves that you are successful. For me cooking is therapy.
AR: You get a lot of creative juices and energy. It’s so dynamic. What did you learn from cooking at home with your mom when you were young that you use now?
WP: With my mother, I didn’t really learn technique. She didn’t show me how to hold a knife or how to chop. I just saw her doing it and I did it. Mostly I was interested in baking when I was there. My mother was a professional chef in a hotel. Every summer I used to go there to spend time with her. I helped the pastry chef. That was really my first experience. When you are young, you need somebody to take you around.
AR: A mentor.
WP: Yeah, somebody who you look up to and who actually cares about you. So, then I tried to find a job as a pastry apprentice. The owner of the hotel where my mother used to work got me a job when I was 14. So then I left, I couldn’t wait to get out of my house.
AR: You never turned back.