Last week I had lunch with Chef Wolfgang Puck! It’s all a blur now and I still can’t believe it happened. I received a short email on Thursday morning asking if I would like to have lunch with him and later I found out that I’d be one of 6 people. Whoa.
The first thing I did was freak out a little. The second thing I did was text Megan to ask if she was going and SHE WAS. We made carpool plans and I tried to figure out what to wear to such an event. I ended up in a buffalo check flannel, but I forgot that kitchens are hot. I survived without becoming a sweaty mess, though.
We arrived at the side entrance of the MGM Grand Hotel in Detroit where we met the friendliest security guard and Megan and I danced to the Destiny’s Child music playing from the hotel’s sound system as we waited for our contact to arrive. We walked down a long hallway and entered at the back of the restaurant and soon we were standing in the dining room where Wolfgang was casually seated. He came right up to us and asked if we wanted to get in the kitchen and we were surprised and nervous, but mostly really excited.
We were given aprons and Chef Wolfgang insisted that the first thing we do is pour some wine and everyone was on board with that plan. He has his own line of wines now and I have to say, they were really good. I’m skeptical about celebrity endorsed brands, but I loved the crisp sauvignon blanc we started with and the chardonnay we switched to when his senior operations manager, Alex, saw our glasses were empty. Each member of his staff was really friendly and welcoming, despite us getting in the way in every corner of the kitchen.
Four stations were set up for different parts of the lunch we were going to make. Wolfgang had two people with him at the steak station. The restaurant is called Wolfgang Puck Steak, so we knew we had some delicious cuts of beef coming our way.
Megan and Chef Joel were at the salad station. He created the most beautiful stacked radicchio and butter lettuce salad with a punchy vinaigrette, beets and Michigan goat cheese. He let us taste the different cheeses, too.
Alex, the operations manager is originally from Buenos Aires and made an incredible chimichurri to drizzle over the steaks.
This was the pasta station with balls of homemade pasta, mushrooms, garlic, chili flakes and the ingredients for a fresh pesto.
This beautiful bread was just sitting casually above the dessert station, my station. And there was a tiny space next to the bread that was the perfect nook for my glass of wine. I worked with French pastry Chef Kamel Guechida, Puck’s pastry chef that goes to all of his restaurants whether they’re in California or Dubai. He was soft-spoken and really nice. We made Wolfgang’s mother’s dessert, his favorite, kaiserschmarrn. A traditional Austrian dessert that is souffle-like. Every time someone said kaiserschmarrn, my brain could not compute how to spell that and when said quickly, I didn’t even know where to start. Luckily someone asked how to spell it at lunch.
Previously, a base of cream, egg yolks and rum was blended and golden raisins were soaked in rum. I watched as Chef Kamel whipped egg whites and later added cream of tartar for structure and sugar toward the end of the whipping time. He said he adds the cream of tartar because it allows him to make the batter ahead of time and bake it off later when ready for dessert. He says it’s wonderful for entertaining because it can be prepared in advance and that guests love a fresh out of the oven dessert.
He added a bit of the egg yolk mixture into the whipped egg whites and then added the rest of the egg yolk mixture and raisins, careful not to deflate the light and fluffy batter. The batter was carefully added to buttered and sugared souffle pans that Megan and I wanted to take home.
Chef Kamel then added a strawberry coulis and strawberries to a saucepan and cooked them until the strawberries were just soft, but not mushy. He apologized for the strawberries not being in season but said it was Chef Wolfgang’s favorite sauce for his favorite dessert.
The dessert was put into the oven for only a few minutes, until the top was lightly golden, but the center was still soft and fluffy.
Chef Kamel said the dessert can be served directly in the pan on a plate with a napkin or it can be scooped out and placed on a bed of strawberry sauce. He let Megan and I get a sneak bite and it was incredible. It was perfectly sweet with a nice hint of rum.
We moved back to the pasta station where Chef Wolfgang made a quick pesto in the blender and told us his secret for removing the skin from tiny tomatoes. The fryer?! The tomatoes are set in a basket and fried for maybe 30 seconds and when they come out, the skins have peeled away completely or have started to and it’s easy to remove the rest.
He quickly boiled the lobster and pretty soon, a plate of pesto pasta with fresh tomatoes and sweet lobster was ready. And then the best thing ever happened. Chef Wolfgang got his iPhone out and started taking food pictures. Then he would motion for us to come over and take photos, too, and he’d say, “Closer! The really close ones are the best!”
It was time to sit down and eat, while the reality of actually having lunch with Wolfgang Puck started to set in. Good thing I was sitting next to Megan and could give her big eyes that said, “Can you believe this?”
We passed around the food family-style and and filled our plates with strips of steak drizzled with chimichurri, chicken, pesto and lobster pasta and butter lettuce salad. Bread was passed around to catch every last drop of chimichurri. Chef Wolfgang had only salad on his plate to start and good-naturedly poked fun at Americans for filling up their plates.
We chatted like friends and he answered everyone’s questions. When we toasted with wine, he made us all look each other in the eyes, hoping to ward off bad sex. We discussed Detroit’s vibrant food scene and how we all felt it played a big part in its success after bankruptcy. He talked about his wife who has ties to Michigan and plans all of their stylish dinners at home with the likes of Tom Ford. He told us about how much he loves the midwest and has since his early days as a chef, when he lived in Indianapolis for a while. He now has restaurants in Maui, Singapore, Dubai, Las Vegas, London, Washington DC, Atlantic City and more. He was in town to open a new restaurant in Grand Rapids at The Amway Grand over the weekend and had plans to travel to 3 more cities that week.
And do I even have to mention how wonderful it all was? The chicken was the best I’ve ever had with herbs and chunks of garlic under the skin. The steak was tender, flavorful and perfectly seasoned. The chimichurri made me question everything I thought I knew about chimichurri. The lobster pasta and the salad had so much fresh flavor. I tried to style my plate a little, but I was anxious to eat and sitting across from Wolfgang Puck, you guys.
Finally, the hard to pronounce, but easy to love kaiserschmarrn. The light-as-air center was surrounded by a delicate crust with a touch of caramelized sugar from the pan. It was just lovely! I wish I could take credit for it, but I pretty much sipped wine while I watched Chef Kamel do all of the work.
Chef Wolfgang was so warm and welcoming and I appreciated the no-bs, casual atmosphere of the afternoon and felt so appreciative that he took the time out of his busy schedule to have lunch with us. It felt like we were having a meal at his house, surrounded by his talented friends. Everyone was hospitable and could not have made us feel more welcome. I still can’t believe this happened. And super bonus, I got to share the whole thing with Megan, one of my favorite people in the whole world. We laughed a ton and joked with Wolfgang and had the best time. Maybe it’s time to start a new series called, “lunch with Megan and Nicole” because I’m totally into it.
Thank you to Jenni + the wonderful staff at Wolfgang Puck Steak + of course, Chef Wolfgang!
If you want to read up on Wolfgang, I’ve included some interesting articles. The one about Ma Maison is fascinating and I was able to ask him about it over lunch. He said he became great friends with Orson Welles and used him as his guinea pig for new dishes (!!!) He said he should have known the restaurant was in trouble because everything was COD, but he was just a kid!
The history of Ma Maison, the restaurant that made Wolfgang famous
Wolfgang Puck Steak
MGM Grand Hotel Detroit
1777 3rd Street
Detroit, Michigan 48226