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Naples Winter Wine Festival 2011: "It's One of a Kind, Really"

Celebrity Chef Wolfgang PuckLike a lot of first-timers, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck had no idea what was in store for him when he agreed to cook at the Naples Winter Wine Festival in 2007.

“I was shocked,” he says. “I’d never seen anything like it. People were buying like crazy.”

It’s a pretty common reaction. You don’t often see $12 million donated to charity over the course of a few hours, as it was at the festival’s auction last year. It’s also not often that chefs of Puck’s caliber team up with the best vintners in the world, as he will this year with Ann Colgin. But then again, the wine festival isn’t your typical event.

“I think it’s one of a kind, really,” Puck says.

Kind of like Puck, actually. The chef was one of the first of a long line of heavyweight European chefs to bring their brands to America when he landed in Los Angeles in the mid-’70s. Now he’s pretty much synonymous with a simple, but playful style of cooking that continues to wow.

Even if smoked salmon pizza is no longer a novelty, it’s still impressive. Just like the wine festival, actually.

Those lucky enough to have a seat at Puck’s dinner will probably get to try the real thing along with other favorites from Spago, his Los Angeles flagship. As for the rest of the meal, Puck hasn’t given it much thought yet. But that’s not unusual.

Puck’s signature style is to take great ingredients and not tinker with them too much. So he’ll be finalizing his menu up until the day of the event. Some of it will depend on the lay of the land at the home where he’s preparing the meal. But mostly it will be up to the ingredients to inspire him.

“I use whatever is freshest and then try not to mess it up,” he says. “So what we cook will depend on what is happening then.”

Whatever it is, expect it to be luxurious. Puck says he believes that folks around the country have come to expect the best.

“It wasn’t like that 30 years ago,” he says. “You certainly didn’t have great restaurants in Naples then, or even Miami. There were just a few in New York, maybe one in Chicago and a few in Los Angeles. Now there is great food everywhere. Back then, you had to import everything from Europe. Now we make great goat cheese here. Your perception of what you can get has changed.”

And that’s what keeps cooking fun for the 62-year-old Austrian.

“I love what I do,” he says. “I still go to the markets in the morning to see what’s fresh and I still go to the kitchen and cook.”

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