"Food is love" is a common theme among chefs. "There is something that is very fulfilling in giving and cooking for someone," the French chef Jacques Pépin once said. When he signs books, he often adds, "Cook with love." But, at the same time, it's about being loved.
"I think of it as an act of enormous generosity and great neediness at the same time," the Food Network's Ted Allen told me some years ago. "It's show and tell: ‘Look at what we got today. You won't believe the razorneck clams that we've managed to find today, and look what we've done with them.' And then you present them to your customer and stand back and say, ‘Tell me how great I am.'"
This dynamic is on full display in Wolfgang, a documentary about the life of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck now streaming on Disney+. Directed by David Gelb, this retrospective contains many of the same ingredients as Gelb's highly acclaimed Jiro Dreams of Sushi: one man's passion, drive, and genius, plus a commitment to excellence. But unlike Jiro Ono, who spent years in one place making one thing with monastic devotion, Puck became a brand and built an empire.
Born in Austria, Wolfgang Puck grew up in the shadow of an abusive stepfather and sought refuge in the kitchen. He became a chef's apprentice but was fired after he ran out of potatoes during service. Gelb dramatizes the moment as a turning point in the young chef's life, with Puck deciding that "giving up is not an option." He simply refused to accept his firing and was transferred to another hotel—a second chance he calls a "gift from heaven." Puck then trained in Provence under Raymond Thuilier and, to spite his stepfather, did not contact his family for a year and a half.
When he arrived in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Puck discovered the awfulness of American cuisine, which valued convenience over freshness. As the writer Christopher Caldwell once pointed out, "In 1975, the United States ranked with Australia and Ireland as one of the worst countries to eat in the industrialized world." Even the L.A. hotspot Ma Maison relied on frozen meats. As the new head chef, Puck brightened the menu by sourcing his produce from Chino Farm. In 1982, upon the urging of his wife, Barbara Lazaroff, Puck struck out on his own and opened Spago. All of Hollywood went with him.
Wolfgang chronicles the rise of the celebrity chef with amusing anecdotes along the way. CAA cofounder Michael Ovitz takes credit for getting Puck on television (he brought the head of ABC to Spago and wrote out the chef's contract on a cocktail napkin). The smoked salmon pizza was invented when the restaurant ran out of brioche and Puck had to find a way to serve Joan Collins her salmon and caviar.
The very notion of featuring pizza on the menu at a high-end restaurant was a Puck innovation, as was the nontraditional pizza itself—which became a part of California cuisine. He led the way on Asian fusion when he opened Chinois on Main (though, as Eater recently noted, the Chinese chicken salad was created by Sylvia Wu some 20 years earlier). He also came up with the open kitchen concept, which turned dining into an entertainment experience.
From the red carpet at the Oscars to the frozen food aisle to a cameo on The Simpsons, Puck was everywhere—just not at home with his family.
"It's tough to be married and be a chef," said the late Michel Richard. "When your family is dining together, you're not there. You're married to the kitchen." This point is driven home in the film when Puck's son Byron says he had to eat at Spago just to have a family dinner. The strain of celebrity life eventually took its toll, and in 2003 he and his wife called it quits.
As Wolfgang concludes, the chef, now 71, is seen as having finally struck the right balance between his professional and family life (he remarried in 2007 and has two young children). The film portrays him spending more time in his kitchens and less time globetrotting, striving to bring a sense of closure with close-ups of the chef looking introspective, reflecting on his life's work.
Looking back, Puck says he is most proud of his longevity. And he has certainly outlasted many of his contemporaries (who remembers Dean Fearing, Jasper White, Larry Forgione?). At the same time, he admits still having the impulse to constantly change and do more because he's running out of time—"I only have that many summers left, really."
With whatever time is left, Puck will continue doing what he does best: "Making people feel happy is my purpose in life." And being surrounded by those happy people no doubt makes him happy too. It's a two way street.