Where do you start when talking of a man who literally put food on the map. Let’s put it this way, years ago, when things like cell phones, Instagram, and Twitter didn’t exist, restaurants were dramatically different as well. For those who could afford it, going out to dinner at fancy Los Angeles restaurant meant being served a multiple course melangerie of something along the lines of the oh-so-austere conventions of French cooking. The food might be wonderful, but it was also things people never really ate, especially Americans. And the very high-end gourmet restaurants such as L’Orangerie and L’Hermitage were stuffy, with waiters wearing tuxedos. So not only was “he” better dressed than you were, “he” (as yes, it was always a “he”), was always rude as well. “He” always looked down on you if by chance, you couldn’t pronounce the food on the menu precisely. That all changed with Wolfgang Puck.
Puck was 25 when he came to Los Angeles in 1975. At 14, he left his native Austria, where he had peeled potatoes in the back of hotel kitchens at a very early age to escape his abusive stepfather. Wolfgang went to serve as an apprentice cook in the south of France, and then in Paris as well, before coming to Los Angeles where he worked briefly in a DTLA restaurant before going to Ma Maison. Back then the owners of restaurants were the ‘Kings’ so to speak, and Patrick Terrail was just that, the owner/king of Ma Maison. But it wasn’t till Terrail was almost on the brink of bankruptcy that he let Wolfgang become head chef at Ma Maison and create his own menu, that the restaurant got put on the ‘map’ so to speak.
After years of giving it his all to get no credit whatsoever as again, owners were king and Terrail took credit for everything Puck was doing. So upon the advice of many, but mostly his girlfriend at the time, Barbara Lazaroff, Wolfgang pooled some money together with a lot of different partners chipping in what they could, took the plunge, and bought an old Russian-Armenian restaurant that had once been a private home right on a hill up-top the famed Sunset Blvd, and viola’ ~ Spago’s was born. Lazaroff became the interior designer and it was only because of lack of money that the ‘open kitchen’ was put forth and became their trademark ‘thing’. It became famous for it and and they served pizza no less from a true wood-burning oven, with fresh ingredients only as Wolfgang himself would get up early and go to the fish market. They had product picked up from a farm Wolfgang had found about 3 hours outside of the city, talk about straight off the farm, American’s in the city didn’t know what hit them. And everyone followed suit.
Spago’s was a magical place where you could ask and answer the question; what would it be like to have dinner with a big room of the most famous people in the world, and have a blast doing it, It was said that Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and Sidney Poitier had dinner together in the center table, and no one around them would leave. I wholeheartedly believe this. From Spago’s Wolfgang Puck went on to start Chinois in Santa Monica, the first ever ‘fusion’ restaurant of it’s kind. He of course became a media darling as well, going on every talk show, starting his own brand of soup and pizza and building an empire with his name on it and of course, doing every post Oscar’s Governors Ball dinner since 1994. This doesn’t come without a price, and not just the personal cost of losing your wife and not being as present in your children’s lives as they might have wanted, but the price being a workaholic who was a part of every single decision. This includes the one to leave the old location that made him famous on Sunset Blvd. behind and open a new Spagos in Beverly Hills, featuring a menu more close to his heart, of food he grew up with alongside his famous dishes. Of course it succeeded, because how could it not, he cooked with love and from passion, and that is one recipe that always works. Add in the fact that now Bryon Puck, his son, is following in his footsteps and becoming a chef, Wolfgang seems to be making up for lost time and there is no greater success than to see that of your child loving the same things you do. Puck also had son Cameron with Barbara and has remarried to Gelila Assefa with whom he had two additional sons Alexander and Oliver, and it was lovely to see them shown all together in a kitchen teaching and learning from their Masterchef father.
Adding in a personal note, I remember my first job as an Assistant to a Talent Agent in the late 90’s, I was fresh out of school, wanted to be in this world I found so fascinating. Our offices were at 9000 Sunset Blvd, right down the street from Spagos and the first time I ever went I was terrified, nervous, excited, everything all wrapped up into one thing and it was simply and truly .. magical. There was a energy, a life to it – like it was it’s own being – and the food was fantastic. I was always a fan of Anthony Bourdain as he taught us to travel and experience food, but without Wolfgang Puck cutting the path to making food and the chefs and their staff who work 12-15 hour days making it, and to tell us what food really is and can be, we might never have had the opportunity to get to know anyone else. With that, how can you not give mad respect to the master, the original, Wolfgang Puck.
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Tribeca Virtual screening of ‘Wolfgang’ ~ courtesy of ID-PR
“WOLFGANG” DEBUTS ON DISNEY+ FRIDAY, JUNE 25, 2021