Trust, Collaboration, and Hospitality to Underpin Spago Budapest
Photo by Marco Bollinger
For celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, the much-anticipated opening of his Spago restaurant in Budapest represents something of a regional homecoming. It will be the first European eatery for the 40-year old brand and its Austrian creator.
When the Budapest Business Journal spoke with Puck on Friday evening our time, he was just starting his day in California. For now, he is letting his team of chefs and managers establish the restaurant. If that suggests a surprising degree of trust, Puck says that is part of the secret of his success.
“It would be sad if I had not trained some people who are really good, who I really trust after all these years. One of the reasons we have a great relationship and I have people with me for many years is because they feel I trust them, they feel it is a collaboration, and they have a lot of input too.”
Under the agreement Puck has signed with the owners of the Matild Palace, his team will be responsible for the Spago Restaurant, the Matild Cafe and Cabaret (a re-imagining of the historic Belvárosi Kávéház that originally opened in 1901) and The Duchess rooftop bar.
Of Spago, he says: “We want to be a neighborhood restaurant. Yes, maybe a little luxurious, but also I want local people to be able to come to Spago and feel totally comfortable.” The aim will be to mix the restaurant’s Californian background with local ingredients and create a fresh take on traditional dishes.
Having worked in France and then moved to America in the early 1970s, Puck made his name with his first Spago restaurant, which he opened in 1982. Budapest will be the sixth outlet to bear that name, joining others in Turkey, Singapore, Hawaii, Beverly Hills, and Las Vegas.
His culinary empire includes other restaurants (perhaps most notably Chinois in Santa Monica and the Cut chain in the United States, London, and the Middle East), products, and a catering business that, among other things, creates the dinner for the Oscars.
Aside from trust in his chefs, Puck says the key to his success is understanding the art of hospitality.
“Even when I grew up and worked in Austria and France, there were very few chefs who were also in the hospitality business, which means they go out, talk to the guests, do things to make them feel good,” the master chef explains.
Worth Every Penny
“For me, it is not just what we cook for them, how we serve them. In the end, it is how we make the guests feel when they leave our restaurant. They say, ‘Well, we spent a good amount of money, but it was well worth every penny. They treated me like I was the most important person in the restaurant,’” Puck continues.
“That is what makes Spago so successful for so many years. How can you have a restaurant after 40 years be sold out every night? I think longevity is really the hardest part. So many restaurants come and go. I remember the restaurants in Los Angeles that were famous [when I first opened]; they are all closed down. Yet, somehow, we are thriving and doing as well as ever.”
So much so, in fact, that Puck says 2019 was their best year to date. He puts that down to much hard work. He likes to change his menus to freshen things up, although the firm favorites stay in place.
“We have to work on it to stay interesting. That’s why we have a good mixture of tradition and innovation. We have to keep certain things on the menu because people remember those, and for them, that’s the restaurant. But, if we don’t have something new, the younger people won’t come.”
This is the mix he is promising to bring to Budapest, a process that he estimates began about 18 months ago.
“When the idea came up with the owners of the Matild Palace, they came to us because they loved our restaurant in Istanbul. They said, ‘We have bought this beautiful old palace in Budapest; it is much nicer looking than what you have in Istanbul.’”
The detailed work has been ongoing for about six months and has included remodeling the kitchen layout and ordering tableware that meats the restaurateur’s exacting standards, but Puck is full of praise for the owners.
“I must say, they were totally willing to spend the money to do it the way we wanted. You know, if someone buys me a pink suit, I’m probably not going to wear it,” he laughs.
The Attraction Of Budapest
Puck says he doesn’t have great childhood memories of Austria, an although he says he has many friends there, he is not a frequent visitor to the country of his birth. Consequently, he says he knows very little about Hungary, but that is part of the attraction.
“This is really interesting because it is not a place I know well yet, and I love to go to new places, so that I can learn about the culture, I can learn about the people, I can learn about the food. To me, life is a place where, OK, I can teach some people some things, but I am still willing to learn and absorb and be interested in what is new, what is different for me.”
Is Budapest a stepping stone to more Spago restaurants in Europe? “It could be that this will be the only one. I do not know the future. Who would have thought I would go to Budapest before I go to Vienna. If the right situation airs, we might do it. If it doesn’t, we won’t. If we are really successful in Hungary, I can see some Austrians will be jealous and come to me and say, ‘Wolfgang, it is time to open something in Austria.’ I never had a grand plan. It was always very organic.”
The name Spago was actually the idea of Giorgio Moroder, the Italian composer, songwriter, and record producer who has been dubbed the “Father of Disco” and is credited with pioneering euro disco and electronic dance music.
Puck was looking for an investor to come in with him to open the first restaurant and had been explaining the concept to Moroder.
Moroder explained that the name meant a string with no beginning and no end, a concept Puck loved. In the end, the musician invested in another restaurant, which did not succeed, but the two remained friends, and Puck used the name anyway.
“If he had told me it was the slang for spaghetti, which it is, I would have said ‘No!’”
Matild Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Budapest is due to open in June.
Spago Budapest is also due to open in June.
The Matild Café and Cabaret is due to open in September.
This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of June 4, 2021.
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