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How to build a multimillion-dollar culinary empire

Celeb chef Wolfgang Puck visits the Mount to share entrepreneur advice

May 4, 2022

Chef Wolfgang Puck with Mount students and Sr. Joan O'Dwyer, CSJ (left) at the event
Chef Wolfgang Puck with Mount students and Sr. Joan O'Dwyer, CSJ (left) at the event

Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck recently visited the Chalon Campus to share his experience leading restaurants and other global businesses with Mount students.

Puck’s event concluded the 2021-2022 INSPIRE Speaker Series, organized by the Department of Business Administration. The program showcases business leaders from a variety of industries who exemplify the importance of a business education combined with a holistic approach and a global view of the world.

"We are grateful to conclude our inaugural year of the INSPIRE speaker series with a special visit from Wolfgang Puck, the world-famous chef and entrepreneur,” said Christian Teeter, associate professor and co-founder of INSPIRE. “We appreciate Mr. Puck's reinforcement of lifelong learning, the importance of maintaining good relationships with colleagues and for the need of having a global view of business."

The Austrian-born chef and restaurateur, who helped pioneer the rise of California cuisine in the early 1970s, has built a global cooking empire that includes over 20 fine dining restaurants, premium catering services, more than 80 licensed restaurants worldwide, books, and kitchen and food merchandise. He’s considered one of the most famous and richest chefs in the world, with a net worth of $120 million.

But the celebrated chef had a rough early life. Puck recounted his difficult childhood marked by poverty and an abusive stepfather. “He always told me I was good for nothing, and that’s why I couldn’t wait to leave my home,” explained Puck. At the age of 14, he took a job as a cook’s apprentice at a hotel in his hometown in Austria to escape the harsh rule of his house, and never went back.

His culinary passion brought him to France, where he worked in some of the country’s greatest restaurants, including the Michelin 3-starred L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence. There, he worked with chef Raymond Thuilier, who quickly became his mentor. “He was very passionate and he trusted me,” said Puck. “That gave me a boost of confidence and really changed my life because I decided I wanted to be like him.”

At the age of 24, he took a leap of faith and moved to the U.S. After a year working in Indianapolis, he settled in Los Angeles and quickly became famous among the Hollywood elite as chef of Ma Maison in West Hollywood. In the early 1980s, he opened his first flagship restaurant, the world-famous Spago, which became an instant hit. The following year, he opened his second restaurant, Chinois, in Santa Monica. Since then, Puck and his Fine Dining Group have opened restaurants across the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Professor Christian Teeter introducing Puck as the final guest of the 2021-2022 INSPIRE Speaker Series
Professor Christian Teeter introducing Puck as the final guest of the 2021-2022 INSPIRE Speaker Series

The legendary chef shared inspiring lessons from his successful career during the hour-long session. “As an entrepreneur, one of the most important things is to not be worried about failure and take opportunities,” said Puck. “My mentor once told me: ‘Opportunities are like trains at the train station. If you only look at them, you are always going to be stuck there. You have to take one train, and hopefully it’s the right train that will take you where you want to go.’”

The 73-year-old businessman has no plans to leave the culinary business. He has a number of new fine-dining restaurants in development around the world, and he recently opened two new restaurants in Los Angeles last year. “I don’t think I’m going to stop anytime soon. This is what I love to do and it’s what I’m passionate about. Restaurants are like my therapy. I still love to go to the farmers market and pick my own ingredients.”

Other guest speakers who have participated in the INSPIRE series this year include: George Kyriacou, comptroller and director of finance at the World Health Organization; Frederick Lawrence, CEO and secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society; and Armani Tillman MBA '16, human resources business partner at Cox Communication.

The second edition of the INSPIRE series will launch this fall and the business administration department is currently finalizing the program for the next academic year.