Wolfgang Puck on Getting Drunk From a Botched Birthday Cake

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Wolfgang Puck. Jeff Minton / Corbis Outline

I made my most memorable mistake when I was an apprentice at Hotel Post in Austria, while I was learning how to be a chef. I was about 14 years old and had left school to work. It was my grandmother’s 60th birthday, and I thought this was my big opportunity to impress her with what I was learning, so I went to the hotel’s pastry chef and told him I wanted to make a Sacher torte, the Viennese chocolate cake. I begged for the recipe, and he finally gave it to me. I didn’t make a lot of money back then, probably $20 or $40 a month, and I spent my whole month’s salary buying the ingredients—about 60 eggs, and pounds and pounds of butter and chocolate and flour. My grandmother saw me coming home with the shopping bags and said, “What are you going to do with this?” And I said, “I’m going to make a surprise for you.”

I went to the kitchen and started to whip the butter with the sugar. At home we didn’t have big bowls, so I was struggling to keep it all together. My grandmother kept coming in and looking confused, and I’d say, “I know what I’m doing—we do this at the hotel all the time.” But each time she walked away I threw half of the mixture in the garbage so I could fit the rest of it in the bowl and mix it.

Finally I finished putting it all together and filled up a mold to put it in the oven. I remember it was a Sunday, because we were going to have it with lunch. But when it came out of the oven it was hard as a rock. I said, “Shit! What am I going to do?” I didn’t know it was going to come out that way. My grandmother cut one piece and just laughed. She helped me fix it by soaking the whole cake in a mixture of rum and sugar, and also made some whipped cream to go with it. By the time we ate it, it had softened and was pretty good, but my sister and I both fell asleep in the middle of the afternoon because of all the alcohol.

Later on I showed my grandmother the recipe, and the ingredients listed were actually for six cakes. I had only made one. She said, “Next time, let me make the cake. You’re not a pastry chef yet.” The lesson turned out to be that when you’re starting out, you think you’re invincible, but everybody makes mistakes. When I do a cooking class now, I tell people that the most important part is to read the recipe many times so you know what you’re doing. What I don’t tell them, though, is that sometimes I do parties where I’m rushing so much I don’t have time to follow my own advice.

CAREER ARC

1963

Tries (and fails) to make a Sacher torte, and ends up drunk.

1982

Opens his first restaurant, Spago, in Beverly Hills.

1991

Releases his third cookbook, Adventures in the Kitchen.

2002

Wins a Daytime Emmy for his short-lived TV show, Wolfgang Puck.

2012

Will cater the Academy Awards Governors Ball for the 18th year.

Interview by Daniel Stone.

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