Most people know Wolfgang Puck as the ebullient proprietor of celebrity-saturated Spago, purveyor of frozen pizzas to the masses and ubiquitous presence on TV magazine shows. But before all he blazed the trail as one of the first true celebrity chefs, there was an uncertain boy who grew up in a poor Austrian family with a difficult stepfather, who left to work in France at just 14 years old before coming to Hollywood.
That’s the story David Gelb, director of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and “Chef’s Table” creator, tells in “Wolfgang,” the new documentary about the man who not only invented the smoked salmon and goat cheese pizza but mentored a generation of chefs while building a restaurant empire. “Wolfgang” premieres Saturday at the Tribeca Festival and begins streaming on Disney Plus on June 25.
Puck has been driven by his early need for his stepfather’s approval his whole life, says Gelb, who finds the massively successful restaurateur ready to reflect on his long career and the costs it extracted along the way.
Longtime Angelenos might remember Puck cooking for the likes of Orson Welles at Ma Maison, who introduced the then-radical concept of farm-fresh produce to the French menu before quitting to open his own restaurant, Spago, in 1982. Gelb talks about Puck’s influence with food world figures like Ma Maison proprietor Patrick Terrail, super-agent Mike Ovitz, chefs Nancy Silverton and Evan Funke, former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl and early Spago maître’d Jannis Swerman, now a restaurant publicist. Also featured is Puck’s ex-wife Barbara Lazaroff, who gets her due for her substantial contributions to his early success.
Puck was hardly the first to popularize sourcing from farmers — Alice Waters was doing that at Chez Panisse in Berkeley — while Julia Child became a popular figure for her TV cooking show. But Puck is unique in his ability to expand into dozens of restaurants while still keeping fine dining establishments like Spago and Cut at the top of the restaurant game.
Gelb talked to Variety about the scope of Puck’s more than five decades in restaurants ahead of the Tribeca premiere.
What’s the theme of the documentary?
It’s a story about a vulnerable young man who was running away from his home. And then he found something to run toward, something that he really loved.
Did you know Wolfgang already?
The first time I met Wolfgang was when I was 13. I was eating in Spago. I was brought there by my dad. And he came out and he shook every single person in the restaurant’s hand. And I just felt really special. Of course he didn’t remember that, but later, after “Jiro” came out, we built up a bit of a rapport.
He had turned down documentary projects before – why was he finally ready now?
He always talks about how he only likes to think about the future. This was a moment where he was willing to kind of go back. And he also said he wanted his kids to see it. He wanted people to see his life story and show that it is a struggle, and it requires real perseverance and that there are successes and failures along the way.
What did he bring when he came to Los Angeles?
The food culture was not up to par with Europe. It seemed like a big breakthrough that Wolf brought to Ma Maison was using fresh ingredients, making the produce kind of the center of the dish, rather than just the technique and the sauce. And in doing so, he started to infuse the story behind the food that he was serving, by telling “this is where these vegetables come from, they come from the Chino farm.” By putting that kind of context with the food, and then also the customers getting familiar with the personality that was in the kitchen, the food became more personal, and of course, more delicious.
And this happened to coincide with the rise of celebrity culture?
All these celebrities were coming to the same restaurant — first Ma Maison and later Spago — Orson Welles, Burt Reynolds, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Sidney Poitier, Sean Connery. The entire CAA client list was there every single day. Him being photographed amongst these stars made people look at the chef in a totally different way. It’s kind of a watershed moment for chefs and celebrity culture.
What part did CAA chairman Mike Ovitz play in Puck’s career?
Mike Ovitz plays an instrumental part in the sense of turning Wolfgang into a celebrity. Mike told the story in the film about how he managed to get Wolfgang his first appearance on “Good Morning America,” and how he kind of instrumented this little plot to get family members and CAA agents all calling into the switchboard to show ABC what a success this was. Then Wolfgang would make sure that Ovitz and his people had the tables they needed. We have a great section in the movie where we talk about the jockeying for tables and the power dynamics that the tables represent.
Ma Maison owner Patrick Terrail and Wolfgang famously didn’t speak for years. How did he agree to be interviewed?
It was important to include that part of the story, because that’s the turning of the dynamic between restaurateur and chef, where before the restaurateur was the star. Now the chef is the story, the chef very often is the restaurant. He was quite gracious, said many nice things about Wolfgang. He has great admiration for his friend, and they had reconciled.
What happened between them?
Wolfgang didn’t leave on great terms. When Wolfgang left to start his pizzeria, Patrick had said some things to the press about how he thought it would fail. And these are things that kind of fed Wolfgang’s own insecurities. Wolfgang came from a household where he was told that he was fail on a daily basis, he was told would never amount to anything. And he was ridiculed for wanting to be a cook by his stepfather. And so those voices of doubt weigh really heavily on him.
How did you pull together so many decades of archival footage and material?
You know, we were very fortunate that our subject is probably the best documented chef in history, there is so much archival material in the vaults of various TV studios. Barbara Lazaroff was fantastic, and she was able to give us a lot of archival photos, especially of Spago, like the building of the restaurants.
How does Barbara Lazaroff feel after all this time?
We wanted to give Barbara her due. We thought that was important, because it was a real team effort. Barbara’s contribution had a lot to do with the open kitchen, and emotional support for Wolfgang because he had these voices of doubt in his mind. Barbara pushed him and said, “you can do this, we can do this,” and help make his dreams reality. For both Wolf and Barbara, you know, we, there are a lot of happy times to recount and then there are difficult times as well. And they were both quite candid and forthcoming about it.
What was Wolfgang’s role in celebrity chef culture?
Wolfgang being on TV, and being photographed, and around all these movie stars, doing the Oscars, that brought the level of chef celebrity to a whole other level. Today, chefs are our superstars.
Did you get the sense that he felt that he had kind of overextended himself with so many restaurants and product lines?
Ruth Reichl gives kind of an interesting way of looking at it — he started out peeling potatoes in the kitchen, and he always kind of worries, is this dream going to run out? So he wants to keep going.
What do you think he wants his legacy to be at this point? Is he ready to retire?
I don’t think he’ll ever retire. I think that he wants his legacy to be that, you know, if you work hard, and dream it, with a little bit of luck, you can do it. He’s a little poor kid from Austria who had dreams of being something more than that. And he did it.
A lot of cooking talent has come out of his kitchens.
He is someone who has fostered the careers of many young chefs who started as line cooks. As they mature, he’ll open a restaurant to give these chefs opportunities. And so it’s almost like a kind of like a school system. He has people who have been working with him for decades. They all grow together.
What’s your favorite of his specialties?
The smoked salmon pizza, of course. I also love the tuna tartare cones, I think they are just like some of the most delicious little bites you can have.