This summer, Wolfgang Puck came into town to check in on his new Charlotte venture, Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar. SouthPark Magazine was happy to sit down and talk with him about his goals for the restaurant and the empire that he’s built.
Puck had a very specific vision for the restaurant, and the team – Puck at the helm with general manager Daniele Mastrangelo and executive chef Scott Wallen – has absolutely nailed it. The vibe is upscale yet casual, the price point very reasonable, and the food fresh and delicious. With a nine-day fermentation process that goes into the pizza dough, you can taste the difference.
Wolfgang’s WELL philosophy adheres to a standard in food production that celebrates local farmers, promotes sustainable seafood and humanely treated animals. That standard, along with a dedication to superior hospitality – “If they don’t treat you right, you won’t come back,” he says – is the foundation for the new restaurant, already being embraced as a Charlotte favorite.
Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
I think to me, eating a smoked salmon pizza and a glass of champagne is still one of my favorite things. I like pastas, my kids like pastas, so this is good restaurant where you can come with your husband or boyfriend and say, “Let’s have a smoked salmon pizza and some champagne,” and it seems very upscale. But you also can come and eat a chicken or margherita pizza or something simple like that.
What’s your advice for Charlotte restaurateurs and chefs who are eager to put Charlotte on the culinary national map?
You have [Johnson & Wales University] here, which is great, and that’s a big part of it. I really think, we are who we are, but people should go back to their heritage and see what they have. For example, Charleston – you always here about their Southern style restaurants. So they have an identity now about their food. And I think in the South, the young chefs now can create the same thing. And say, “OK, we are Southerners, we should make food which we own, dishes we own, but bring them up to today’s world.” So if you make grits, you don’t have to make them the same all the time. If you make fried chicken, you might not have to make it the same. So try to improve what you’re making and elevate it to today’s lifestyle.
Did you dream of or even imagine the kind of empire you’ve built?
I don’t dream it now! Really, I love to do different things and for me, it’s not how many restaurants you have, it’s all about the people. And seeing so many young people growing up, leaving to open their own restaurants or staying with me and running our restaurants. I have people who have worked with me for 30 years. I don’t tell them you have to do this – they know hospitality, and they know buying the best ingredients is important. They already share my philosophy.
How is your WELL philosophy carried out at Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar?
Just this morning, we went to the farmers market, so we support the local people who work here. I don’t have to buy things from so far away, and we don’t support the big farms out in the central valley in California, we support someone who is an hour away from here. So if it’s peaches or if it’s basil or if it’s melon, anything. Here the climate is really good; you can get almost anything you want. In different parts of the season you get different things, and it’s the same thing with fish. Now we had salmon on the menu, and I said why put salmon on the menu if we can get a great grouper here?
We got these great tomatoes, so we have gorgeous tomatoes and we have a lady here who makes mozzarella cheese, so all we have to do is put a little salt a little pepper and some good olive oil on it and you have a good salad. If we keep them pure, if you know you’re eating a tomato salad or you eat the fish, you don’t need two sauces or need to make it complicated. You’re actually happier when it’s simple.
What’s your philosophy on what makes a great restaurant? Our philosophy is always, “We make the best food for the price, and we have to give great hospitality.” Because no mater how good the food is, if they don’t treat you right you won’t come back. There’s too many other options. See unfortunately or fortunately, I have the passion for food and people and the restaurant, and the money always was for me an afterthought. Really it’s a stupid way to think, maybe, but that’s not me. I never go to the bank. I never get excited looking at a bank statement. Now, I know and my mother told me that when I was 15 when I left my house, just remember you have to make more money than you spend. So I think that’s really a very simple business philosophy. You have to watch. We bought some fresh fish -– the fishermen came form the coast and brought us some wonderful fish, so we know how much it cost us and we know how we can sell it. So we know if it’s too expensive to sell one big piece of fish, maybe we serve it on top of a risotto or maybe we serve it on top of a pasta dish or something where we give less of the protein. But we have something which is still delicious.
How do you build a team that you trust? I’ve worked with (members of my team) for 15 years, 20 years, so they think like me. Now, if I have a businessman from this area and he says, ‘wow, what a great idea, we’re going to make a lot of money. I see his restaurant is full in LA, and I want to open one in Charlotte,” it does really well in the beginning. But then they see it doing well and say, ‘we can open a second, third, fourth one,’ and then at the end of the day, they mess it up because they don’t have the passion for the food, they have the passion for the money.
Want to go?
Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar
SouthPark at Phillips Place
Monday-Thursday: 5-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 5-12 p.m.
Sunday: 5-9 p.m.
The restaurant will be open for lunch starting in August.