In “Wolfgang” there is a good story that captures how a cook goes with the flow. It was a busy night in Spago (the only kind of night Spago had in the 80s) and she walked in, Joan Collins, at the height of her “Dynasty” fame. She always ordered one of Wolfgang Puck’s most popular dishes: smoked salmon on a brioche. But the whole brioche was gone, and Puck didn’t want to face Alexis’ anger. So he improvised. He cooked a pizza without tomato sauce and spread dill cream on it, covered it with smoked salmon and topped it with caviar. Voilà! A Spago classic was born.
This is an anecdote that makes you hungry, which often happens in “Wolfgang”, a Disney Plus documentary that tells Wolfgang Puck’s story in a crisp 78 minutes and does it justice. It just so happens that the pizza factor plays a big role in the puck legend. For starters, he made sublime pizzas: the chewy stone-baked crust, the delicacy of the cheese, the toppings that were more artsy than you were used to from pizza (duck sausage!) But in a way that made you “How could nobody put that on a pizza before?”
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But the other element of the pizza factor is that when Puck brought the revolution he called California Cuisine to Los Angeles and, it turned out, the rest of America – a revolution in taste, in savory farm produce Its natural essence, in the amalgamation of French cooking techniques and a kind of promiscuous American bite – that the restaurant turned pizza into a divinely hip dish became an advertisement for something: that Wolfgang Puck never forgets his culinary center (or ours). He made great food for fun, not only tasty and classy and healthy, but also juicy in a way that appealed to the child. People went to Spago because they wanted to be seen, but also because it was an evening culinary party. It was Puck who broke the throat of high-end restaurants, and that ghost swept through New York and other food meccas and sloshed into the hinterland. Former Spago chef Evan Funke says in the film: “He is the founding father of the way we eat in this country.”
The story goes on
If Puck hadn’t done anything else, he’d be a giant. But when “Wolfgang”, directed by David Gelb (“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”) captures entertainingly, Puck plunged into innovations that became more influential than anyone, including he, would have expected. When he decided to go alone, he and partner Barbara Lazaroff (they had been married for 19 years since 1983) bought a dive restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, which they built from scratch. We see photos of it before the renovation, and it’s a horror show – like the “Before” scenes from an episode of Restaurant: Impossible. They opted for an open kitchen, which was a completely unconventional idea at the time. She created a visual drama of smoke and stainless steel, wafting the cooking aromas into the dining room and putting the chef in the spotlight. “It was theater,” says Lazaroff. “And he was the star.”
A star surrounded by a star galaxy. Spago became a place for business that doubled as a Hollywood celebrity cantina. I remember hearing about it with a touch of awe from a friend who was just about to get into the film industry. That he went there at all was less impressive than the fact that he was sitting at one of the good tables over on the east side of the restaurant. He stated that he would refuse any attempt to seat him at one of the déclassé tables as that would have made a statement about his (or lack of) clout in the industry. It wasn’t just people who had dinner. They were planets of power orbiting on exactly the right trajectory.
The great food writer Ruth Reichl is interviewed in the film, and as she emphasizes: “In the 1970s, a cook was a working class job. It was a terrible job. People knew who owned the restaurant, they rarely knew who cooked. And Wolf is changing that on a big scale. ”He worked with a perfectionism that came from his education in France, but part of Puck’s talent was his ability to cultivate. He wasn’t a tall or imposing man, but he had a Mick Jagger-meets-Matt Damon-baby face with a touch of Siegfried and Roy as a showman. He was cute, sexy, and … well, sassy. He used his Austrian accent with a dramatic articulation, as Arnold did. In the restaurant, he befriended super agent Michael Ovitz, who talks about how he started Puck’s TV career. He brought the president of ABC-TV to Spago, and Puck served them a tasting menu to die for, along with a ladle full of charm. By the end of dinner, Ovitz had gotten a deal for Puck to appear in Good Morning America.
He made his way through as a television personality and became a staple on morning shows and Late Night with David Letterman, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the spirit he brought in – the zest and wit, the seriousness of cooking, the everyone-can-do-it casualness – essentially the concept of the food channel brought into being. He was the first celebrity chef (although Julia Child may have beaten him) and certainly the first to become a brand. In the film, Puck recalls Johnny Carson coming to Spago one night and asking if he could have 10 pizzas to take away when he was ready to go. Puck asked why, and Johnny said he wanted to freeze her; they were so good. This gave Puck the idea of launching its own quality-controlled frozen pizza line on the market. (You can joke about mass marketing, but when I spy on a Wolfgang Puck outpost in a kitchen-compromised airport, I breathe a sigh of relief.) And then of course there were all the restaurants: the one in Vegas, the one around the world. He became an empire.
The film goes back to its roots in Austria, where he fell in love with the kitchen at a young age, cooked Wiener schnitzel and liver dumplings with his mother and grandmother, but was haunted by the abuse of his stepfather. As he admits in the film, he has tried all his life to escape this sense of failure. When he became head chef at the fabled but lousy LA restaurant Ma Maison with his AstroTurf rug, he laughingly explains how awful the food was and how he knew he could cash it when he found the Chino Ranch in Del Mar . who grew products comparable to those he had seen in France.
I think the film is doing a major omission in not mentioning Alice Waters who really put this revolution on the map, but it was Puck who activated the new food gospel. And at 71 he is still there, with silver hair and a timelessly playful warmth, never arrogant, just a love of food and life. When he presents Wiener Schnitzel at Spago and it becomes a huge hit, the circle of his story comes full circle – and the dish looks so golden and crispy that you want to order it right away. The one “dark side” of Wolfgang Puck that the film presents is that he was so obsessed with work that he neglected his children. That sounds less than scandalous, but Puck knows what a compromise it was; he wasn’t there for his children. (That’s a weight it carries.) As a film, “Wolfgang” is short and sweet enough that there are a lot of things that I’m sure to leave out. But what there is is real and as hearty as it should be.
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