Wolfgang Puck, the multiconcept entrepreneur who taught fellow fine-dining chefs to loosen up and embrace a celebrity status akin to the showbiz stardom of his customers, was named the 2017 foodservice operator of the year last night by the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association.
At the same event where Puck was honored, fellow fine-dining pioneer Ted Balestreri was named the inaugural winner of the Legends Award, a new distinction presented by the National Restaurant Association in collaboration with IFMA. Balestreri, best known for his Monterey, Calif., fine-dining landmark The Sardine Factory, helped to elevate American fine-dining in the 1980s. By celebrating inventive dishes made with local ingredients, he and a handful of other restaurateurs debunked the notion that fans of real fine dining had to head across the Atlantic for a fix.
Balestreri was also a Wendy’s franchisee, and owned much of the downtown real estate in Monterey, now a major tourist destination, but a reeking strip of fish canneries when he began his business career.
Puck was chosen from a field of restaurateurs and foodservice directors in eight segments of the restaurant business. He, along with the other contenders, had been selected as the best within their respective fields—the winners of a Silver Plate.
Those honorees then became finalist for the prize synonymous with foodservice operator of the year, the Gold Plate. Puck had won the Silver Plate in the Independent Restaurants/Multi-Concept category.
Puck may be best known for his first restaurant, Spago, in Hollywood, Calif. The establishment offered a decidedly casual twist on fine dining, and introduced the world to gourmet pizzas. Its specialties included a barbecued chicken pizza, along with a salmon and sour cream version.
Spago was also the pioneer of such now-standard restaurant features as an open kitchen, servers wearing casual uniforms instead of black-and-whites, and kitchen staffers donning baseball caps instead of toques.
Today, Puck oversees a sizable stable of restaurants. The original Spago has been replaced by a more upscale version, still in Los Angeles. He also operates the revered Chinois in Santa Monica, a fine-dining restaurant that features a fusion of Asian and French cuisine, and four Cut steakhouses.
His name also appears on 21 grab-and-go airport locations, and his endeavors now include a cooking school.
Puck joked at the awards ceremony, a gala event during the NRA’s annual convention in Chicago, that he was going to give his Silver Plate to his business partner and keep the gold one.