Two chefs meet at the intersection of tradition and innovation

Wolfgang Puck is a culinary figure that needs no introduction. The Austrian-born chef and restaurateur has built a far-reaching brand synonymous with innovation. He’s fused flawless classic European technique with Californian produce and flair, and the result is over 40 years of iconic cuisine across the globe. His passion for all aspects of the hospitality industry keeps him going, and one of the things he’s most proud of is his role as a mentor. With dozens of restaurants under its brand, countless chefs have passed through its kitchens and benefited from its tutelage. Many have stayed with him for decades; others draw on the valuable lessons they have learned and pursue their own successes.

One of those former charges is Denver-based chef and restaurateur Jennifer Jasinski. Jasinski worked closely with Puck for over a decade before going on her own. She now heads a group in Denver with five restaurants and a new one about to be launched. Jasinski credits his time with Puck as being the basis of his confidence to tackle the challenges of his own brand, and we were delighted to be able to listen to him as the two made up for it.

WP: So what are you doing exactly [these days]? I know I can see you have a brand new restaurant at the museum coming up.

JJ: Well, I’m sitting in our new restaurant. We will open on October 20 or 24e, somewhere over there, and [are] keep crazy busy. We have five restaurants in our group. We would have had six, but we lost one in the pandemic. I’m working on creating a really nice Denver-based brand, but I kind of feel like you taught me all those years ago: the finest ingredients … I’m still working hard, I train good people and I still love the job, Wolf. You know, I always love being the kitchen and creating food and that’s awesome. But what about you? You go all over the world now, international.

WP: You know, we have developed a lot internationally. We also lost a few restaurants in Detroit and Atlantic City [N.J.], which was good. You know, sometimes you get a deal, and it’s not the best deal, and it goes, and then you get a better deal. In Las Vegas, we moved Spago to Bellagio, which gave us a whole new life. We have doubled the turnover. And then, 10 years ago, we started to really have opportunities abroad, so we started to develop. First in Singapore, then we signed an agreement with the Dorchester in London. Then we continued to the Middle East to Dubai [UAE] and Qatar and Bahrain. Now Saudi Arabia offers two locations. We keep moving forward, and we just opened in June in Budapest [Hungary].

JJ: Is most of the team still intact?

WP: Some yes, but some have moved on. It is not always better to stay too long. Change is hard, but change is good. You know how to stay relevant and give people new opportunities. I lost a few people who were with me 16 or 17 years old, quite a few. But making others evolve has been a good thing. It is [a] good educational thing, and even with the pandemic, even how difficult it was, we learned a lot of lessons about our business and how to be more efficient and effective.

JJ: I learned a lot of hard and good lessons.

WP: I think everyone has learned to function better, more efficiently. And some people had to go ahead to achieve it.

JJ: Yes, and fight against complacency. It’s difficult, especially with people who feel so comfortable after a few years. What I love about you is how loyal you are, and I’m the same. But at some point, if the business suffers, you have to make some tough decisions. Because you love these people, but it’s hard.

WP: You can tell when complacency sets in, instead of having constant improvement. This is how it should be. I would say to myself every day, “How can I do this better? You are one of those who thinks like that. I tell everyone when they talk about you, Jennifer worked harder than anyone in the kitchen. So, I’m so proud of what you do, it’s wonderful. You deserve it after working your ass your whole life.

JJ: Well, you’d still be kidding. “Twelve hours is only half a day, you know. I still play this joke on my cooks, but I have to give the same example. When I was 22 or 30, you worked harder than me. So, I felt I had to show the same energy, I’m going to work harder than you.

NRN: How did you both deal with the challenges that the pandemic has brought?

JJ: We closed our five restaurants, put almost everyone on leave except a very few. Obviously the owners, we all stayed and just worked. We made a bunch of tough decisions. Do we really need this? Do we really need this? Do I really need this person? Do I really need such a business model? Should I rationalize my menu to become more efficient, so I should remember that the bar program should be less inventory? Should I make sure there is more cross-use of ingredients on the menus? We have gone into survival mode. I want to be in growth mode, where we can understand this work and have a more efficient and cost effective way to do it.

WP: We have really changed the way we operate. Even before the pandemic, I said I wanted to hold every boss and manager accountable at their site. That way, we don’t need to have corporate overhead, because we have 27 restaurants, we have 80 airport restaurants and everything, so we keep things really light at the corporate level. Without these corporate overheads, it saved us approximately $ 2,000,000 per year. I think to move forward you have to have a good mix of tradition and innovation.

JJ: I like your point on tradition and innovation. Because I think that’s really the key to growth. Keeping the things that people really love and know us about is great. But also innovate constantly, because if it is not if we stagnate, we will never succeed in this world. Relevance is therefore important. How do I stay relevant to my guest?

WP: I always remember a client. We were making this tempura sashimi from the start, and one day I changed the sauce. You know, I’m sick of making this rich sea urchin sauce, so I just changed it. And a customer comes, a regular, and orders the dish. He calls me and says: “What have you done with my dish? And I said, “Well, I changed it, I was sick of this sauce, I wanted to make it a little lighter.” And he looked at me and said, “You know, if I can’t get enough of eating it, you shouldn’t be tired of cooking it.” So I said, “You have a point!”

JJ: I think a good mix of tradition and innovation is the place to go. I don’t know if I’m ever happy with where we are at our restaurants. I still think we can do better.

WP: It’s a matter of passion. If you are passionate about what you do, you are never going to work because you love what you do.

JJ: So true. One of the big lessons. And I just want to make sure you know how much thank you so much for all the years you’ve taught me so much.

WP: I am so proud of you. What you have accomplished and what you have done in your new adopted city. I knew your hard work and passion would pay off, I never doubted it.

Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement