“I was so nervous when I left Ma Maison,” Wolfgang Puck once said. “I put on 25 pounds. Patrick (Terrail) went around telling everybody that I was a great cook but that I couldn’t manage anything. It was a terrible time.”
That, of course, is history. Less than a year later, on Jan. 16, 1982, Spago opened. This is what it did not do:
It did not introduce the gourmet pizza (Alice Waters had already been serving that in her Cafe at Chez Panisse in Berkeley for a year).
It did not inaugurate the open kitchen (the Cafe at Chez Panisse already had one). It did not invent California cuisine (Michael McCarty, among others, had been serving that for at least three years).
This is what it did do: change restaurants in America forever. For Puck, and his wife, Barbara Lazaroff, were the first to recognize that the old era of formal dining was over. They realized that rich people didn’t want to eat rich food anymore--and that they didn’t want to dress up in rich clothes either. Puck created a new kind of restaurant that epitomized casual chic.
But Puck did more than that: he invented the celebrity chef. Smart, charming, good-looking and media-conscious, he proved to Terrail (and the world) that he could not only manage, but manage well. Parents all over America who want someone to blame for the fact that their kids want to go to cooking school instead of college can probably blame Puck.
The Taste Makers project was edited by David Fox, assistant Sunday Calendar editor.