The evening of March 24, 2002, was unseasonably cool in Los Angeles.
It was the night of the 74th Academy Awards, and the first to be held at the newly completed Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. As the show’s honorees began arriving at the venue and walking the red carpet, temperatures were dipping as low as 50 degrees. Producers had portable outdoor heaters installed around the entrance to keep the guests warm as they made their way inside.
Those heaters used a lot of electricity. They used so much electricity, in fact, that after the ceremony, in the middle of the Governors Ball dinner, the two kitchens at the Hollywood & Highland ballroom lost power.
Wolfgang Puck is usually an unflappable guy. But even he was nervous. And why wouldn’t he be? The world-famous chef, restaurateur, and official caterer of the Academy’s post-show Governors Ball dinner was in the middle of serving the most esteemed gathering of diners anywhere in the world — and he still had more than 800 steaks and servings of salmon to prepare.
“All of a sudden we had no electricity, no gas, no nothing,” he says. “The minutes went on and on. I don’t know how long it’s going to last. I don’t know how we’re going to finish this dinner.”
So Puck improvised. “I said, ‘OK, let’s get the little propane cookers out.’ We lined up 30 of them and started cooking.”
Meanwhile someone tracked down an engineer who’d been barred from entering the premises, owing to the tight post-9/11 security. Within minutes he had everything up and running again.
“I was so happy. But I nearly had a heart attack.”
Freak power outages don’t often interfere with Wolfgang Puck’s catering. But these are the risks you take when you’re in charge of the most prestigious and glamorous dinner service of the year — the “premier event in America,” as he himself puts it.
Feb. 24 will mark the 25th consecutive year that Puck has catered the Governors Ball. Over such a long and eventful tenure, things are bound to get tricky from time to time.
In the early 1990s, the Governors Ball was not a hot ticket. The official after-party of the Academy Awards, it had a reputation as being the place you dropped by before heading to the place you wanted to be. At the time Puck was running his wildly fashionable flagship Spago restaurant on the Sunset Strip. And at the time it was Spago where Oscar winners and nominees would typically wind up.
“Nobody really went to the Governors Ball,” Puck recalls. “People would go for two minutes — they wouldn’t even sit down — and then they would come right to Spago.”
If everyone is heading to Puck’s anyhow, the board of governors reasoned, the Governors Ball might as well just hire Puck. “They said, ‘Wolfgang, why don’t you cater our event?’ So I said, ‘OK, that might be something interesting.’”
Puck’s involvement made the guests stay longer. “All of the customers we had at Spago knew from the press that I’m gonna cook. They said, ‘If you’re cooking, we’re coming.’ So everybody went to the party.”
In those days the Oscars were still held at the Shrine Auditorium, which was not an ideal location for an awards ceremony and a sit-down dinner for 1,500 guests. He and his team had to build part of the kitchen in the parking lot outside the auditorium, and some years it was a regular sight to find him and his chefs suffering in the rain and wind, whipping up risotto for a thousand hungry people. “It was not an easy thing,” he reflects. “It was like cooking in a camping kitchen.”
When the Kodak, since renamed the Dolby Theatre, was built expressly for the Academy Awards, Puck was heavily involved in the design of the ballroom and its two state-of-the-art adjoining kitchens, better suited all-around for the enormous task at hand. On the night of the dinner, Puck commands a team of more than 300 chefs, together churning out a deluxe meal that includes cutting-edge dishes including caviar baked potatoes and crispy quail with waffles, as well as such beloved Puck classics as smoked salmon pizza.
You would think serving such extravagant food for 1,500 distinguished luminaries would be daunting for a professional chef. Not so much for Puck, who is used to serving household names every day.
“I know most of these people already from my restaurant. I know Sean Connery and Sly Stallone and Julia Roberts, all the big people, because they come in my restaurant all the time.”
It would be a very different Puck who would find this experience at all outside the norm. “If we had our business in Kansas City or Indianapolis and then came to Hollywood to do this party once a year, it might be a different perception. But here in L.A. it’s all the time.”
He counts a great many Oscar winners among his admirers. He likes to tell the story of running into Barbra Streisand at the Bel-Air a couple of years ago: she told him how much she loved his signature chicken pot pie. It’s
experiences such as these that make serving celebrities no big deal. Fame is in Puck’s blood; no one today is capable of making him nervous.
“I was good friends with Orson Welles and Billy Wilder 40 years ago. It’s not like I’m saying ‘Oh my god, here comes Clint Eastwood now.’ I’m not all nervous. No, no, no. The only thing that makes me nervous now is that the food tastes right and it gets out on time. I just get nervous that everything will be to perfection.”