Wolfgang Puck, celebrity chef and restaurant mogul, has a wicked streak.He likes his new gig as a judge on Bravo's Top Chef, which begins its 10th season at 9 p.m. Wednesday, because he knows the chef contestants are often intimidated by him.He enjoys toying with and tormenting them."It's always fun to see the young chefs being all nervous, being all worked up and so on," Puck says. "Sometimes they do really well and sometimes they make silly mistakes where you say, 'What happened today? Yesterday it was so good. Today, what happened?'"The "chef-testants" put up with his gentle hazing because a $125,000 prize at the end will make it worth it.The person who earns the title of "Top Chef" also will get a feature in Food & Wine magazine and a showcase at the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo.We talked with Puck last week about cooking and about the new season of Top Chef: Seattle. What made you want to join Top Chef this season as a judge? It makes it easy for me. I don't have to cook. I just have to taste and give my opinion.After all your years in the kitchen, how easy is it for you to spot someone who isn't ready, even if the chef talks a good game?Some of them have the big talk. Then I give them three eggs and I say, 'Make me an omelet.' I give them a regular pan, not a Teflon-coated pan, and most of them cannot make it right. All these people say they worked in all of these fancy restaurants. But often now chefs forget about learning the basics. So I show them in two seconds: 'You talk a lot, but you don't even know how to cook eggs.'In your opinion, what's the worst mistake that a cook can make in the kitchen?If somebody would not season the dish or over-season it. How can you forget to do that? It's like you forget to put your clothes on. Anybody could cook a steak medium instead of medium rare. That could happen. It's just a little overdone. I could close an eye on that. But I would be very upset if a chef doesn't season the food right, which means he doesn't taste.I tell all of my young chefs and everybody in the kitchen, the most important thing for a chef is to taste.Being a world-class chef, is it more about art or craft?I think a chef is a mixture maybe of artistry and craft. You have to learn the craft really to get there. Then you could be called an artist if you make the dishes artistically. But it's more a craft than an art. To me, a world-class chef has to have his own style.A world-class chef is a guy who has a great palate, but he has his own ideas and he has people who can execute them perfectly.If you had competed on a show like this when you were just starting out, how do you think you would have fared?It really would depend on what time of my career. Don't forget, I started to cook professionally when I was 14 years old. So by the time I was 24, I already did that for 10 years in some of the best restaurants in the world. So I think I could measure up. I think I would have done pretty well, because I always had a good instinct about food and I always was very clear about using great ingredients.
The North Texas connection
Three of this season's Top Chef hopefuls have Dallas ties:
Danyele McPherson, 31, a native of Waynesville, N.C., is a sous-chef at the Grape Restaurant in Dallas. Working under Brian C. Lusher, she focuses on bistro fare with a strong specialization in charcuterie.
John Tesar, 54, a native New Yorker, is the executive chef at the new Spoon Bar & Kitchen, a seafood-focused fine dining restaurant in Dallas. Tesar was proud to be named "Most Hated Chef in Dallas" by D Magazine in 2011.
Joshua Valentine, 33, an Oklahoma City native, was the general manager and executive chef at the popular Divine Swine Pork Bistro in Oklahoma City. But after competing on Top Chef, he relocated to Dallas and is a pastry chef at FT33 with chef Matt McCallister.