Wolfgang Puck Express
553 Cool Springs Blvd., Franklin. 771-9066
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.
Customers at Wolfgang Puck Express in Cool Springs late one Sunday morning might have felt like they had stepped from reality into Reality, or at least wondered which was which. There they were, minding their own business, still in their church clothes, enjoying a bowl of butternut squash soup and Chinois chicken salad as clips from Wolfgang Puck's Kitchen aired on the flat-screen television. Puck's exuberant motto, "Live, Love, Eat!" fairly shouted at them in five-foot-high letters painted on the back wall. But wait a minute. That guy in the white chef's coat, strolling about the restaurant, going from table to table to ask diners if they were enjoying their mealdidn't he bear an amazing resemblance to the peripatetic chef?
Bingo. To the delight of his devoted followers, it really was the Austrian-born, California-based celebrity chef, who has branded his name and reputation on more than 60 restaurants, a catering company, television programs, products, a syndicated newspaper column and six cookbooks, including the one he was promoting that day. Published by Nashville's Rutledge Hill Press, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy collects more than 150 recipes for amateurs with delusions of culinary grandeur. "I wanted to make a cookbook for home cooks," Puck explained as he sat under his motto, signing copies for customers. "Most cookbooks that chefs write are for other chefs. I wanted this book to have recipes that people can make at home with things they have on hand, can easily purchase or make. When I cook at home, I don't have veal stock on hand. So I use hoisin sauce instead. The book has many tips like that."
When it comes to cooking, the chef adamantly, emphatically, unequivocally and repeatedly insists on three basic rules: simplicity, quality ingredients, good equipment. Most important, he says, are top-notch ingredients. That seems to be stating the obvious, but it must bear repeating because chef after chef puts the command in cookbook after cookbook. "Even a great sauce can't make a dish wonderful if the main ingredients aren't of the highest quality," is how Puck puts it.
The chef had just flown in that morning from Chicago, where he participated with Emeril LaGasse, Mario Batali and Charlie Trotter, three other big wheels on the food front, in an event for Wine Spectator magazine's unveiling of the year's top 10 wines. "My dish was the most difficult," he said rather immodestlytypical of a professional chef, an occupation that seems particularly attractive to big egos.
Though the results are genuinely impressive, the dishes in Puck's new book aren't difficult. The pan-seared pork chops with hoisin sauce and dried cranberries is a prime example of how he Makes It Easy. Introducing the recipe, Puck reassures readers that "hoisin sauce is the modern answer to demi-glace, the ingredient that classical European cooks spend hours making to get rich pan sauces." It takes another 50 or so words just to explain the basic technique of making demi-glace. So he recommends Chinese hoisin sauce, made from fermented wheat or soybeans, as a great stand-in. "It's thick as jam and as savory as nicely seared meat, even though it contains none. Here I use it to enhance a port wine sauce with dried cranberries, an easy and elegant accompaniment to pork chops." Indeed, the eight ingredients and instructions are as simple as something Food Network's perky Rachel Ray might whip up on her 30 Minute Meals show.
Time management is essential to Puck, who after two thick-as-jam-packed days in Nashville was going to Atlanta, then Houston, then home to Los Angeles for a few days before hitting the road again. (When does he find time to cook?) A woman who handed him her cookbook to autograph exclaimed, "I was just watching you on television this morning!" He looked up at her. "Was I cooking turkey?" he asked. She nodded. Another woman told him she had all five of his other cookbooks, had been to his restaurants in Las Vegas and Santa Monica, and watched his show religiously.
"My life is filled with all these things," he sighed, pausing between autographs. "Just to cook is relaxing to me. When I am 65, I am going to sell everything and open a very small restaurant."
The next woman in line put her cookbook in front of him. "I love your butternut squash soup!" she gushed.
Passing the Puck
While Puck chatted and signed books, businessman Ted Moats, CEO of WPE Enterprises, explained that the Cool Springs restaurant was the first freestanding store in the Wolfgang Puck Express chain. The eatery debuted in 1991 in high-traffic areas such as Disneyworld and busy airports, making it one of the first to introduce the "fast casual" concept that has since become the norm in the industry. Moats, who co-owns the Cool Springs store, as well as one in Atlanta and others in development, says what distinguishes Wolfgang Puck Express from places like Atlanta Bread Company and Baja Fresh is the sophisticated decor, the availability of wines by the glass and the breadth of the menu, which features dishes created or approved by Puck. Several items have recently been added, including a burger made from Black Angus beef and a grilled salmon entrée. Wolfgang Puck Express has also just launched attractively packaged box lunches, which include a choice of sandwich or salad, a side dish and a dessert; they're being marketed as an option for small gatherings, office meetings, sporting events and outdoor concerts.