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The House That Beef Built

Peter Zwiener talks of the steakhouse that was his fatherWolfgang’s dream

WAITERS have the extraordinary privilege and duty of knowing the back and front of the house. Especially skilled ones can master every area of the restaurant, giving them all the tools for the food business. One such former waiter fulfilled his own American dream by opening his own restaurant.

Wolfgang Zwiener was the head waiter for 40 years at a storied New York steakhouse, the Peter Luger Steakhouse. Upon his retirement, he opened his own, named after himself, Wolfgang’s. That American dream has expanded beyond the shores of the United States, bringing it across Asia. Wolfgang’s Steakhouse now has over 30 locations worldwide, across Japan, Korea, China, and the Philippines.

This week, Wolfgang’s opened its fourth branch in the Philippines at the City of Dreams. Other branches in the country are in Newport World Resorts, The Podium, and in BGC. Two others are being planned, with one in Araneta City in Quezon City.

Peter Zwiener, President and Co-founder (and Wolfgang’s son), was present at the City of Dreams branch’s opening on May 16.

“It’s really myself who convinced him to do it,” said the younger Zwiener of his father. “We always talked about opening a restaurant when he was a waiter. He was working at Peter Luger even before I was born.” They finally opened their first restaurant in 2004 in New York City’s Park Avenue. By then the younger Mr. Zwiener had become an investment banker.

His father, a German immigrant, learned about service in trade schools in Germany before moving to the US. “He’s trained in service, knowing about the kitchen — he’s trained in everything,” said Mr. Zwiener. “Working there for 40 years, you’re going to learn everything.”

It may be harsh to say this, but it seems that Wolfgang’s star has already surpassed where he came from. Peter Luger received a zero-star review in the New York Times from restaurant critic Pete Wells in 2019 (“Peter Luger Used to Sizzle. Now It Sputters”), while it had been stripped of its Michelin star in 2022. Meanwhile, Wolfgang’s is opening more locations in Indonesia, Seoul, Bangkok, and China this year.

“I respect Peter Luger because that’s how my dad made a living and he was able to support me, and my mother, and my brother,” said Mr. Zwiener. He points out though that the actual Peter Luger had died in the 1940s, with the business being taken over by his son, and then auctioned off to another family. According to Mr. Zwiener, it’s now being run by a grandson of one of the new owners. “Little by little, the passion wasn’t anymore there. It was just someone who was given a brand,” he said. “I have feelings for Peter Luger the brand because that was where my father made his career. It really lost its soul, because there’s really no more soul in Peter Luger. It’s just a name that people are just passing on to other people,” he noted.

“Whereas in Wolfgang’s, the founders — myself, my dad, and some other partners that are with us — we’re still very much involved, and we care about everything about the brand, and we’re still very eager to grow the brand.”

Mr. Zwiener moved on to talk about what determines very good beef, the type that gets served sizzling on their tables.

In the US, beef is graded from Prime, Choice, to Select, and then Non-Rated. Only 2% of all beef in the US is graded Prime, rated through the level of fat in the intermuscular tissue. “You don’t want too much fat, that is globs of fat,” said Mr. Zwiener. “You have to make sure that the lines of the fat, the amount is perfect in that piece of beef.” They have a purveyor from which they select a short loin, a sub-primal cut that would include their trademark porterhouse, striploin, and rib eye. After that, the meat is aged for about 28 days.

Asked where else he eats steak aside from their own restaurant, he laughed and said, “I don’t.”

“If I go to another restaurant, I’ll eat another type of food. Maybe something meat-related, but I’m not going to think about what type of steak it is.”

Just as well, since he visits all the Wolfgang’s branches in the world quite regularly — he counts that he eats at a Wolfgang’s about 200 to 250 times a year. “Those days that I don’t eat at Wolfgang’s, I’m not going to eat another steak. I may have a steak when I enter a new country, just to see what’s out there. But now I’ve done it so many times I don’t really have to eat and know what the other steak is, because I know essentially what the competition is.”

As mentioned above, they’re expanding in Asia. “The Asian market is growing so rapidly. I think it’s important to be in all the premier countries in there… there’s so much potential in this market,” he said.

On a lighter note, when asked about a memorable celebrity guest, he said, “We have so many.”

After about a moment, he said, “Donald Trump,” the former president of the United States, currently facing legal problems, and rumored to consume his steak well-done, with ketchup. According to Mr. Zwiener, when Mr. Trump dines at Wolfgang’s, he orders his steak medium-well.

At the heart of it all is a story about a loving relationship. Asked about the advantage of the father-son relationship that propped up this steak empire, Mr. Zwiener said, “There’s an inherent love between son and father. We get along very well. There were many years when I was doing my own thing, and he was doing his own thing. When we came together, we wanted that, to develop that relationship again,” he said.

“It’s a benefit because we trust each other implicitly, and we work well together.”

Asked about the things he learned from his father, he said, “It’s all about quality. Not quantity.” But that’s only about what the senior Zwiener taught about the kitchen. “Outside of the kitchen, be honest, faithful, loyal — and keep to your word.”

Wolfgang’s City of Dreams is open daily from 11 a.m. to midnight. For reservations, contact 8536-9287 via landline, 0956-794-0075 via mobile, or via e-mail. — Joseph L. Garcia

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