When Spencer’s Executive Chef Eric Wadlund was training under James Beard Award-winning Chef Jeffrey Buben in Washington, D.C., Princess Grace came into his restaurant. Eager to roll out the royal treatment, the staff asked Wadlund where to seat her. “I don’t care,” he said. “She’s a one-time guest. Save our good tables for our regular people.” This loyalty policy — and the cuisine — is what keeps local patrons coming back to Spencer’s, where Wadlund has headed the kitchen since 2008. The restaurant and chef’s reputation earned an invitation to serve President Obama and China President Xi during their meeting at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage. The menu remains “top secret,” but Wadlund says, “The president said he’s never been treated so well at any state event he’s attended. It was one of the highlights of my career.” Palm Springs Life sat at the chef’s table to find out what else he could dish.
As a chef at one of Washington, D.C.’s most prestigious restaurants, have you cooked for other presidents?
I’ve also cooked for President (H.W.) Bush. It’s a humbling experience, cooking for the most powerful man in the country. You don’t think about it much when you’re in it, but afterward you think, “Wow, that was a pretty amazing thing we just did.”
How did your dad, who had a bakery in Wisconsin, inspire your culinary path?
My dad taught me that I didn’t want to be a baker. The job starts at 3 a.m., and I’m not a morning person. I’ve always loved the art of food. Baking is a science, and cooking is an art. It’s one of the few [types of art] where you have to buy the supplies and use them within two days.
What’s the secret to great cooking?
Learn the fundamentals — sautéing, grilling, poaching — and then you can be creative. If you don’t have the basics down first, your food won’t have the right balance. The biggest challenge for a chef is preparing food that looks good but also has the right flavors, textures, and contrasts. That yin-yang is the secret to everything.
What dish do you enjoy the least?
This is funny. Something I don’t like to make or eat — and we probably have the best of it in town — is liver.
What do you like to cook at home for family and friends?
Fajita-style Mexican food. I can have lobster here everyday, so I keep it simple at home. I also like to entertain for big groups, so sometimes I’ll get together with some friends [who are chefs], and we’ll make elaborate meals, like duck confit soufflé or prime rib. You can’t make 30 ribs for yourself.
What’s your favorite dish on Spencer’s menu?
I’m asked that all the time. Items with “W” on the menu are my signature dishes, so I guess I’m a little fonder of those, but I really like all of our food (minus the liver).