DETROIT---I had stepped into the MGM Grand Detroit in an effort to change my luck. I walked by the Wolfgang Puck color portrait in the Wolfgang Puck Grille in the casino just after chef Wolfgang Puck had finished a signing session for his cookbook "Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy [Rutledge Hill Press, $35]." I saw Puck. Shot on goal!
The cookbook is for someone like me who makes cooking hard.
A Puck sighting was good karma since I was on my way to D.C. for the Presidential Inauguration. I knew Puck was chef for David Geffen's reception after the 2007 Barack Obama "Dining for Dollars" fundraiser in Los Angeles hosted by Geffen and Steven Spielberg. But I did not know Puck has also cooked for Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and both George Bushes...........
Ironically, Puck also has an American/Asian restaurant called The Source in the Newseum in D.C. where I will likely watch the inaugural parade. For Jan. 20 reservations call (202) 637-6100. Just kidding.
"The President-elect came to the Source when he was a senator," Puck said before splitting to catch a plane back to Los Angeles. "When I cook for presidents, generally the security makes it very bad. Everyone wants to eat and go. I cooked at Sumner Redstone's (Viacom and Paramount Studio owner) house. He had Jimmy Carter and some other people over. They had a nice dinner. It was summer time and we made a great blackberry cobbler for dessert with ice cream. We had more time.
"There have been some special requests. Like Bill Clinton always said not to use too much fat or don't use any butter. Well? Whatever. I tell him to go running the next day. When we do big benefits the menu depends on how much money people have or if things are donated but its always too hectic."
I asked Puck if he checked out Detroit's underappreciated dining scene when he is in town.
Anthony Bourdain just rolled through here heralding the pleasures of the Polish duck's blood soup at Polonia in Hamtramck, adjacent to Detroit. His stop reportedly will be part of a "Rust Belt" episode of his "No Reservations" series on the Travel Channel.
"If I lived here, I would go out," Puck said. "But even in L.A. I don't go to new restaurants. Half of them are the guys who used to work for me so I know how good they are. Its rare I go somewhere that knocks me out. The only one that I go to is Grant Achatz's Alinea in Chicago. He is really different. His presentation or whatever it is, he does a fantastic job." Like he needs more ink.
Puck's cookbook has more than 100 recipes, many of which are more basic than what you would find at Spago Beverly Hills or Chicago.
I said I thought I could tackle his pan-fried trout with lemon and caper sauce with caper berries. I love capers. Puck's recipe comes at you in four easy steps.
"If I cook at home I don't cook the same way I cook in the restaurant," he explained. "At home I try to keep it pure and simple. I don't use much cream and butter. The trout is very simple. You can get trout filets everywhere and there's only a few ingredients. It has lemon which gives it the acidity. It really is a traditional French thing. I don't like the skin of the trout because it is rubbery. I have them fileted and you can sear and cook it in no time. My cooking is more about the ingredients than anything."
I also don't like to follow the rules of a recipe. I enjoy improvisation.
Puck's eyes lit up. He said, "You can do that with the trout. Maybe dice up some sweet apples and throw them in there or if you want to spice it up, add a little finely chopped jalapeno. Or if you want it sweet, soak some raisins in water, remove them and add." That got Puck going. "One thing I would like to do in the future is to teach parents more about what to do with the kids," he said. "Jessica Seinfield says you bake a cookie and put some broccoli or cauliflower in it so they get some vegetables.
After leaving the casino I had time to check out the new People's Records, just several blocks away from the downtown Fox Theater, 615 W. Forest [(313) 831-0864; www.peoplesdetroit.com]. The previous People's near the campus of Wayne State University went down in a fire. The last time I visited that location I stocked up on some precious Curtis Mayfield and Staple Signers LPs.
The store still has an excellent and affordable assortment of R&B, jazz, gospel and soul vinyl. The clerks had a great time tormenting me about all the riff raff in the ghetto neighborhood. In line with the spiritual change-is-gonna-come ambiance of my road trip, I found a mint version of Mahalia Jackson's "How I Got Over," a collection of television recordings and CBS radio performances of the 1950s including "Move On Up A Little Higher" and "I Been Buked and I Been Scorned." I paid $4.72 for the vinyl. I also shelled out $4.72 for Etta James and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson's "The Late Show," recorded live in 1986 at a Los Angeles supper club (with Shuggie Otis on guitar).
I don't have a turntable in my car, but if I did, I'd be checking out their covers of "Teach Me Tonight" ---which I tried to get Sergio Mayora to sing last Saturday night at Weeds--- and Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed."