Wolfgang Puck: Eat locally, dine at 20.21?


It’s really good to see that Wolfgang Puck has jumped on the sustainable, humanely-raised, locally-grown bandwagon, but when he came to town last week to promote his new food policies, I couldn’t resist asking him one tough question.

The Austrian-born chef’s sprawling network of fine-dining restaurants, fast-casual outlets and catering operations around the country served some 10 million diners last year, so when a guy like Puck makes a well-publicized move towards humane and sustainable eating, it’s likely to have a real impact.

The new program, created in partnership with the Humane Society of the United States, is called WELL (TM), which stands for Wolfgang’s Eating, Loving and Living. (Catchy, huh?) The standards include using and serving only eggs from cage-free hens, serving only all-natural or organic crate-free pork and veal, and chicken and turkey from farms that comply with progressive animal welfare standards, serving only certified sustainable seafood, eliminating foie gras, and expanding the use of organic foods, and increasing vegetarian offerings.

The program hasn’t required him to raise prices at his upscale restaurant, Puck said, because they already use a lot of sustainable, locally produced ingredients. At 20.21, the restaurant at the Walker Art Center that Puck operates, the kitchen has already been serving local meats and produce, including pork from Fischer Purebred Hogs near Waseca, and poultry from Wild Acres near Pequot Lakes. But at his fast-food restaurants, he has had to raise some prices by 10 percent or so.

Still, Puck volunteered that Americans need to eat less — and that they could eat less, and spend less at his restaurants by ordering dishes to share. “I would much rather that they come twice a week and spend $40 than come once and spend $80.”

So far, so good, but I had to ask: If people really want to eat locally and sustainably, shouldn’t they avoid restaurants owned by big national companies like Puck’s, and patronize locally owned businesses?

The question seemed to catch Puck a bit off-guard. “I think that’s stupid,” Puck replied. “Why exclude somebody if they do the right thing? We do something for the city, so the city supports us. I think it makes everybody better. If there is more competition it makes everybody work harder and think twice about what to serve. If you only had a local scene, it would make everybody stagnate. We are a country of different origins different cultures and that’s what makes it exciting.”

I mentioned the Cheesecake Factory, and the other national chain operators at Southdale as example of big chain restaurants that take millions of dollars away from locally-owned independent restaurants, but Puck didn’t buy it:

It is true, but we are a free country. “There is a reason why people go to the Cheesecake Factory. If I lose a customer, there’s a reason. They might get a better deal there. The food might be better. The service might be better. The environment might be better.” If the small operations want to stay in business, says Puck, they have to innovate. “You cannot today just have a little restaurant and keep it going and going like it used to be. People today are fickle; they want new things.”