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All things to all people
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We just had to ask: The executive chef
Story by Brock Radke
“It’s like being a mason, building a house in one day, and then overnight someone comes and blows it up and you have to start from scratch the next day.”
Eric Klein, executive chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago
Desert Companion: When you meet someone for the first time and tell them you’re a chef, what’s the reaction?
Eric Klein: They say, “Where are you working?”
DC: And you say, “Wolfgang Puck’s Spago.” Then what?
EK: They say, “Oh my god, you must be good.”
DC: Is that strange to you?
EK: You know, “chef” is a big word. At the end of the day, I love cooking. I’m very humble. The perception of who you work for, people want to label you sometimes. “Oh, you work at a fancy place on the Strip.” I came to Las Vegas to work with Wolfgang Puck, and I left for a while and have done other things. But when Wolfgang called me to ask me to come back to Spago, I didn’t think too long about it. It’s the best thing I could have ever done. I don’t work for Wolfgang, I work with Wolfgang, and all these people. We’re partners. We work together, and we are the restaurant.
DC: What was your first job like?
EK: I was 13 and it was a small restaurant in Alsace. You see, I’m a farmer, in my heart. A country boy. My mother asked me what I wanted to be when I was young. I thought, I can be a farmer, I can be a butcher like you, but my mom said no. She wanted something better for me. She wanted me to learn something, to travel the world and see things, and have a better life. Of course, she didn’t understand what she was saying because the restaurant business is even more like a farmer, hard work! But she wanted me to experience things and I appreciate that.
DC: So you were always cooking?
EK: Well, sometimes when you make a decision for your life, everything is already in front of you but you don’t know how to use it. I grew up on a farm next to a coven full of nuns. Every Sunday I’d go to help and I spent all my time in the kitchen. It felt very comfortable. I loved to help and to make people happy but I didn’t know what I was doing. So my mother said I should be like my cousin and work in a restaurant, and that lead to an apprenticeship at a restaurant called ... oh, I can’t remember, it’s been a long time.
DC: How is being a chef different in Europe than in the United States?
EK: It’s very different. In Austria or Germany or France, if you’re the chef, people expect to see you all the time. In America, people are more open, more flexible with their dining. And they’re not doing three, four, five turns at dinner like we do in Vegas. This restaurant is an animal. Also in Vegas, you have to constantly adapt in order to understand what your customer likes. You’re constantly evaluating and adjusting. It’s the only way to be consistent.
DC: What is your least favorite part of the job?
EK: I wish I could spend more time with my family. Honestly, I don’t have any dislikes being a chef, but sometimes I am frustrated because people have no patience. It’s like being a mason, building a house in one day, and then overnight someone comes and blows it up and you have to start from scratch the next day. We know it can be expensive to dine out sometimes, but it’s not just food, right? You sit in a custom chair. There’s fine china and silverware from France. The tablecloth has been pressed for you. You have a wine glass, great table service, your bread was baked fresh this morning, and then you come in and say, “25 dollars for a pasta?” It’s not only pasta. It’s 26 egg yolks, a pound of flour, cooked to order and not sitting in a steam table. I say take your time and appreciate it, because someone spent six hours preparing it for you. Sometimes it can feel a bit under-appreciated.
DC: What is your favorite part of the job?
EK: I’ll share something with you: When I was growing up on top of the mountain, I didn’t have many friends. When I grew up and started discovering all these things, that was always something I wanted. And now I want to have people coming in and saying, “Hey Chef Eric, come here.” It’s personal to me, I want to do that, I love to find out what you like or even just ask how you’re doing. But a lot of people, they’re not used to the social part of it, so they just come in and order from the menu. But at the end of the day, I love to be able to share and to teach and talk about our philosophy, and I’m passionate about it. I’m excited to say I do something I love.
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