With a little bit of Puck

Chef sheds old tent tensions as he feeds 1,650 in new site

If Oscar has found new digs at Hollywood’s Kodak Theater, then Wolfgang Puck is equally at home in its kitchens.

After years of cooking Governors Ball chow in tents adjacent to the Shrine Auditorium or the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Puck has two chef-friendly kitchens — one almost 7,000 square feet, the other 1,100 — flanking the Grand Ballroom at the new Hollywood & Highland complex, which houses the Kodak.

“On those past Oscar nights, what we had was a makeshift kitchen, like the field kitchen for an army,” Puck says. “Now we don’t have to go through a parking lot with the plates. Ten feet away is the dining room so the food is going to be hot for sure.”

Wolfgang Puck Catering prexy Carl Schuster puts it this way: “For the past seven years we’ve been playing away games; this time we have home court advantage.”

An observer pictures a production line Henry Ford would have admired when Puck gestures toward his stainless-steel table and describes how the food will be prepared (“One puts the mashed potatoes, one puts the vegetable, one puts the salmon, one puts the meat and one puts the sauce at the end”) that belies how elegantly and quickly the 1,650 dinners will appear.

The Spago founder is going to need an almost McDonald’s-like speed in preparing the food. After the four-hour telecast, the highly demanding crowd will be famished and antsy. Greeting the hungry black-tie hordes will be Puck’s army of 450 waiters with varied hors d’oeuvres, plus each table will be set with salads so guests can begin eating immediately.

“The thing about this ballroom is so many people are able to enter it at once,” says Dianna Wong, the architect for the ballroom’s interior. “The entire length of the room is composed of doors. That maximizes the number of guests who can arrive simultaneously.”

To accommodate this wave of arrivals with warm food, Puck has a total of 12 ovens capable of cooking 100 salmon each within five minutes. As opposed to most other banquet dinners, the food will come straight from the kitchen, not from warming carts.

“The biggest problem is you don’t want to jump the gun, we really want to do it at the last moment,” the chef says. “Because if not, we have to reheat it and then it’s twice as much work.”

As an example, he mentions the mashed potatoes, which have some celery root puree added to them. “If you add the vegetable too early, they turn gray.”

Puck seems to have an almost 19th-century Irish fondness for potatoes. He says he likes using them mashed because they “keep hot for a long time and it’s comforting to eat.” And combined with plates taken from a hot box, the heat in the potatoes helps keep the serving warm.

In choosing the menu, Puck avoids foods that are too complicated. For a major occasion like this, he disdains “something we have to saute a little bit at a time.” Don’t look for Oscar night to ever feature chocolate souffles “because we couldn’t cook them fast enough.”

Puck’s is a set menu. He thinks it complicates matters if the wait staff takes separate orders from the guests at the ball. Vegetarian and kosher meals will be available, otherwise they’re all getting the same lavishly elegant meal.

“They didn’t give me choice for the movies,” says Puck. “So they’re going to eat my food. We give people the best quality possible and then if somebody doesn’t want it, they can still get a chicken breast or a vegetarian meal.”

Puck says of his relationship with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences: “We do the food and they do the show. As far as I know, none of these guys on the board of governors is a chef.”

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