Lee Hefter, right, brought his sous chef, Cameron Lewark, to Lanai for his weekend series of dinners.

Spago chef shares his
recipes for success

Hard work and a love of food
have made his Beverly Hill
restaurant a haven for the stars

Marianne E W. Schultz
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Chef Lee Hefter began his career at age 15, peeling vegetables in a Chinese restaurant near his home in New Jersey.

He now is partner and executive chef of the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group and the man in charge of Spago Beverly Hills, Puck's showcase restaurant and a favorite of Hollywood celebrities.

Earning his way from coast to coast and from prep station to executive chef was a "hard-core" effort that began straight out of high school, inspired by curiosity and a love of foods. Hefter uses that one term frequently when discussing his career and work ethic: "I just worked hard core ... from the bottom up."

In restaurants from New York to California, from France to Italy, Hefter perfected his technique and learned the management skills to create teams of people who share his vision.

His renown in the kitchen and the reflected star power of the Spago clientele has brought Hefter his own full measure of celebrity, which puts him in demand for special events all over the world. Last weekend found him at the Lodge at Koele, as part of the Lanai Visiting Artists program.

There, he served two signature dinners and held a cooking class, applying his Pacific Rim styling to a bounty of local products. His enthusiasm was obvious when he spoke of the ingredients -- Kula onions, Lanai venison, pohole ferns, Big Island moi, Kona Maine lobster, Kahuku sweet corn.

"There is a fantastic product here. I've always been impressed with the consistent quality and integrity of the farmers out here ... and the fish is impeccable, impeccable fish," he said. "Everything from the islands is used -- except we have to bring in the foie gras."


Wherever he travels he seeks out local foods and specialties. On Lanai he enjoyed simple plate lunches at Blue Ginger and Tanigawa's, as well as lavish meals at Manele Bay and the Lodge. On Maui, he visited the new Spago at the Four Seasons at Wailea.

Checking in on all the Puck Enterprise locations requires frequent traveling, but home base is Beverly Hills. Hefter has been with Puck for 10 years, overseeing Spago for six.

He likes to think of Spago as a safe haven for his movie-star guests -- at least after they have made their way past the photographers always stationed outside. Tom Cruise, he said, will call at the last minute for a reservation and ask to enter through the kitchen. When he leaves, his car meets him at the back door.

"If you have some big ones like that, you try to do that for them to avoid the paparazzi," Hefter said.

Hefter said he likes to believe that Spago customers "go there for the food and experience, ... (but) I am sure that a lot of people go there hoping to see a celebrity. That's the L.A. factor."

Hefter says he enjoys coming out of the kitchen to "talk food" with guests and to make sure they are comfortable and happy. Special requests are common and special dietary requirements and other preferences are often met in advance for even the largest catered events. After all these years, nothing seems unusual.

"Because we're Spago, we try to say yes and always accommodate. I really don't feel that in the hospitality business that it's necessary to say no. If we can do it, we're gonna do it."

Through Wolfgang Puck Catering & Events, which Hefter also oversees, he recreates the Spago experience for as many as 2,000 guests at a time. Everything is done on-site; often parking lots become mobile kitchens. One of the biggest events is the annual party at the site of the Academy Awards show. It takes a team of more than 100 working in a flurry of activity to feed the hungry crowd as soon as the show ends.

" We try not to do too much in advance. We try to do as much as we can on-site so that we can emulate what it is like in the restaurant," Hefter said. "So if we have a seared fish dish, we won't sear it until right before the dinner goes out. We'll wait until the last minute."

Hefter SAID HE tells aspiring chefs that they must be committed and expect to sacrifice lots of time to the profession, especially holidays and weekends (he usually gets just two days off a month). Often the working conditions are not the greatest and some tasks are not glamorous, he said. What impresses him most, he said, is that "hard-core" ethic and a passion for the work.

What little free time is left in his 100-hour work week Hefter spends with his wife, Sharon, walking on the beach, going out for sushi, maybe chatting in a coffee shop. They have been together 13 years and she is his ultimate inspiration, he said.

"Without her I'd probably still be flipping burgers somewhere in New Jersey. She's the one who pushed me to go forward and has always believed in me and my abilities, and that's something that is invaluable."

Upon returning to Spago, Hefter will begin work on his winter menu, which as always will feature game. For three to four months he'll serve grouse, hare, woodcock, pheasant, partridge and venison, largely purveyed from Scotland. Hefter said he loves game and enjoys this time of year.

"Cooking is a constant evolution. You have to keep teaching yourself, keep trying new ideas. We can't rest on our laurels. We have to just keep going forward."

Caramelized Sweet Corn
and Kula Onion Risotto

Chef Lee Hefter

6 ounces plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 cup raw corn kernels
1 small yellow onion, diced
1/2 cup grated raw corn
1 pound risotto (carnaroli)
2 cups white wine
Salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup grated raw corn
1 garlic clove, smashed
Hot chicken stock, as needed (about 3 cups)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium heat in a small frying pan. Add corn kernels and sauté, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes, or until cooked through. Set aside.

In heavy, medium-size pot, melt 4 ounces of the butter over low heat and sauté the onion, stirring gently, until onion is soft and translucent, about 8-10 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, gently stir in rice, making sure to coat all the grains. Add wine, salt and pepper. Stir constantly and continue to cook over medium-high heat until wine is reduced to 1/4 in volume. Stir in grated corn and garlic.

Add 1/2 cup of chicken broth, stirring constantly, until broth is absorbed. Add remaining chicken broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and continue to cook and stir until pasta is al dente -- when only a tiny speck of white remains in the center of each grain. Remove from heat. Stir in the Parmesan and remaining 2 ounces of butter until rice is creamy.

Add additional salt and pepper, as necessary. Remove garlic clove. Transfer risotto to a warm bowl and garnish with sautéed corn and parsley. Serve immediately. Serves 5.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving (without added salt to taste): 740 calories, 33 g total fat, 20 g saturated fat, 85 g cholesterol, 120 milligrams sodium, 84 g carbohydrate, 13 g protein.*

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