Synopsis: A documentary on chef Wolfgang Puck. (Streaming on Disney+)
Apologies if you are hoping that Wolfgang is a docu on classical music genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or modern day musician Wolfgang Van Halen; it’s not. Rather, it’s a lookback on famous chef Wolfgang Puck’s career, complete with recent interviews in California, where he has lived for decades, and in Austria, his home country.
Wolfgang Johannes Topfschnig Puck was born in 1949 in Austria. His birth as a celeb chef occurred in 1980’s California. For better or worse, he set the stage for -in the better category- Emeril Lagasse (damn & BAM his banana cream pie is the bomb), Rachael Ray, Ina Garten (the bestest lemon cake), Jamie Oliver (Jen Aniston’s fave 😉 & Giada De Laurentiis. In the worse category, scandals and bad cooking beget Paula Deen (racism accusations), Mario Batali (sexual harassment accusations), Guy Fieri (bad cooking… see reviews for his Times Square restaurant) and Gordon Ramsay (sheer meanness).
Puck’s ascendancy occurred in Los Angeles at Ma Maison and then his own restaurant, Spago where he is credited with ushering in California cuisine. Director David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) includes footage of the stars –in scary 1980’s streaky blush and bulky shoulder pads–packing the tables. Joan Collins of Dynasty fame was a regular and always ordered the smoked salmon, but with little fish left that day, Wolfgang improvised, making pizza with no red sauce, but dressed up with salmon and caviar. It became an instant success and took him far from the wienerschnitzel of his youth…
Early in the film, we see Wolfgang return to Austria to visit his sister. They must have an easy and close relationship because she sets to making lunch for him while he looks over her collection of his cookbooks. Even though I boast about my chocolate cake, if I had to bake for celeb baker Duff Goldman, I would faint.
Wolfgang reminisces about cooking with his mom and grandma. He says that the kitchen was a refuge for him; he was a victim of child abuse. His monstrous stepfather “terrorized us,” beating young Wolfgang and assailing him with insults. After recalling his torment, the director makes Herr Puck wander through the forest looking lost.
Desperate to escape his stepfather’s abuse, Puck managed to secure a kitchen job and lodging at a hotel at the age of just fourteen. For decades, the trauma would effect his decisions and feelings of self worth. Beyond Puck’s empire that includes restaurants, cafes, merchandise, and prepared foods, he made as many TV appearances as he could. In addition to morning show cooking demonstrations, his drive to succeed and his attendant fear of failure had him grabbing at opportunities to appear as himself on Frasier, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Chef Smurf on The Smurfs.
Wolfgang brightens when he talks of his mentor in Paris, chef Raymond Thuilier and how much he learned from him. The docu zips to Puck’s mid-seventies work at Ma Maison and includes interviews with the ghoulish owner of Ma Maison, Patrick Terrail , who gives little credit to Puck for his cooking. Fortunately, Wolfie has a girlfriend, Barbara Lazaroff who believes in him. In contemporary interviews, she looks like Cher in Mamma Mia 2. She dishes on their business partnership when Spago was put into motion on the Sunset Strip.
Grossly, it seems that few gourmet restaurants bothered to use fresh produce or locally sourced ingredients — meat, starch & dairy seems to have been the extent of things. Puck wanted the kind of produce that French diners expected. Every week he rushed between seafood markets and Chino Farm in Rancho Santa Fe for the best produce. He excelled at giving people what they didn’t know they’d been missing.
Wolfgang is a good summary of Puck’s career and he deserves a lot of credit for shining a light on child abuse and its horrible lifelong effects. But it skips mentioning whatever the chef would rather forget like his first marriage and, I guess, his pre-Cali work in Indianapolis. Understandable. And I would have liked to have heard more about the past ten years or so of his career, as he has been making decisions for his food empire that are more environmentally responsible and humane: using organic produce and seafood sourced from certified sustainable fisheries, eliminating foie gras from the menu and declining to use eggs from cage chickens or meat from animals that were “crate-raised.” And maybe he could’ve spilled a little tea gleaned from celeb encounters of the past few years.
- And I have a few burning questions…
- 1) What gave you the idea to expand Wolfgang Express beyond airports and into JC Penney (at the Monroeville Mall in Pennsylvania)?
- 2) Isn’t it a stretch to call the Nancy Reagan Salad a salad when it contains so much non-salad (chicken, turkey bacon, cheddar cheese and egg)?
- 3) Do you let your friends call you Wolfie?
P.S. According to the Wolfgang Puck cooking school some of the chef’s best include: Spago Smoked Salmon Pizza, Chino Chopped Vegetable Salad and “Kaiserschmarren” Viennese Dessert Souffle Pancake.
P.P.S. The 92nd Academy Awards post-show Governor’s Ball (February 2020) was catered for the 26th time by Puck. The menu was 70% plant based and included Mini Taro Root Taco with Braised Hibiscus and Tomatillo Salsa, Moroccan Spiced Vegetable Tagine, Parfait of Boba and —give me lots… Chocolate Oscars. See the whole menu here.