Wolfgang Puck became a household name in the 1980s. After his restaurant Spago became a favorite of Hollywood elites, he went on to launch an empire. Today, he has dozens of restaurants worldwide, supermarkets carry his food, and he’s considered as the first true celebrity chef who redefined American cuisine.
It’s all in stark contrast to him growing up poor in Austria with an abusive stepfather.
Puck is the subject of “Wolfgang,” a new documentary on Disney+ by David Gelb (“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”).
Gelb says when he was a teenager, he visited Spago for the first time, and that’s where his relationship with Puck started.
“He comes out of the kitchen and he greets every single table. I was starstruck. I thought the food was amazing. And I thought that he was so fun,” Gelb tells KCRW. “He really treated us like we were guests that [were] in his home. It always stuck with me.”
In working on “Wolfgang,” Gelb says he learned more about Puck’s personal life and the extent of his tough upbringing.
“He really lived in real poverty. They didn't have a bathroom in their house. It was an outhouse, and there was no running water,” he explains. “[Puck’s] stepfather was this incredibly abusive and nasty character to an extreme that I was unaware of.”
As a safe place from his stepfather, Puck turned to the kitchen. “He was in the kitchen because his stepfather wouldn't chase him in there,” says Gelb. “His stepfather had no interest in being in the kitchen. And that was a place where it would be a refuge for him.”
The filmmaker explains that Puck’s stepfather told him he was “good for nothing,” and he was fired by the first chef he worked for as a teenager.
“He decided not to give up,” says Gelb. “It started as a journey running away from something, but it became a pursuit of the thing that he loved.”
The big break
After Puck arrived in LA (from Austria) and joined the staff at Ma Maison, he began to gain notoriety, says Gelb. At the time, the restaurant on Melrose wasn’t getting great reviews, and Puck decided to introduce fresh produce the staff hadn’t used before, and he brought in a sense of fine French dining.
But due to Puck’s conflict with Ma Maison owner Patrick Terrail, the Austrian chef left and opened Spago, bringing some of Ma Maison’s celebrity clientele with him.
“He's being photographed with Tom Hanks and Sidney Poitier and Sean Connery. It becomes legendary,” Gelb says. “It [was] the food and the personality. It's the open kitchen. It's the atmosphere. There'd never been a restaurant like this, that was such a scene. The kitchen was completely viewable to the diners.”
He adds, “They could see Wolfgang, and he had this kind of rapport with the celebrities. … People were seeing a chef being photographed with movie stars. And they revered him. He rose up to the level of his clients.”
A new way of cooking and dining
Alongside Northern California chef Alice Waters, Gelb says that Puck helped elevate produce. “We have a wonderful climate in California. It rivals that of France or Spain.”
Gelb says Puck’s showmanship made him unique. “What Wolfgang brought is a certain kind of prestige to being a chef. That's one big part of it. And then the other [part is] the restaurant experience. He really nailed the hospitality.”
Behind closed doors
But the director points out that beyond the confident chef and restaurateur, there’s a complicated man. Some of that stems from his difficult childhood.
“It's the duality that he's dealing with because he's told his whole life, or at least in his early life, that he wasn't worth anything. And he decided that he was going to prove them wrong. And then when success came, he would say yes to everything. As long as he could get it up to his general standard of quality, he was going for it.”
He adds, “He's always been concerned that the carriage would turn back into a pumpkin and that he'd be back in a closet hiding from his stepfather or hiding from that nasty chef that fired him when he was a kid. … He doesn't take success for granted. He has tons of plans for new projects all over the world. He is absolutely non-stop. And of course, there is a personal cost that comes with that.”
Wolfgang Puck today
Now Puck is working on becoming more involved with his own family. He had his first child in his 40s, and approached fatherhood with trepidation at the time.
His second wife Barbara Lazaroff (who he’s now divorced) helped establish his brand and still remains involved in his businesses.
“The way that Wolfgang describes it is that Barbara really believed in him and told him that he could do it, even when these voices of self doubt were keeping him down,” Gelb says. “She had a big part in continuing this fire that was in him and helping him step out from the kitchen and become who he is today.”