Will each get a slice of Puck’s pizza empire?

Times Staff Writers

After months, if not years of rumors, the power couple behind the Puck restaurant empire are splitting up. While it’s no surprise to friends and those in the food world, it leaves the future of their international group of restaurants and other businesses in limbo.

Citing “irreconcilable differences,” Barbara Lazaroff filed for divorce from her husband of 19 years, Wolfgang Puck, the day before Thanksgiving. The couple separated Nov. 16, according to court papers.

“It’s an emotional thing,” said Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino in Santa Monica and a longtime intimate of the couple. “I’m saddened, but I thank God they are both strong and professional.”


Considered one of the original celebrity chefs, Puck, 53, launched an empire based on a casually chic style of California cuisine and the popularity of the wood-fired pizza he introduced at the original Spago restaurant in West Hollywood in 1982. But Lazaroff, 48, was responsible for the eye-catching design of many of the couple’s eateries, and it was her ambition, her sense of style and her flair for showmanship that helped push Puck out of the kitchen, into stardom on the charity circuit, in supermarkets and, ultimately, in television, radio, and in a series of cookbooks.

Their multimillion-dollar food empire now includes 34 cafes and airport pizza parlors, as well as a group of tony, celebrity-friendly restaurants modeled after the original Spago and Puck’s Santa Monica-based Chinois on Main. Those two restaurants are among the most admired and successful in Los Angeles.

Together, Puck and Lazaroff have built an international food empire that “the divorce shouldn’t affect at all,” Selvaggio said. “They will still be business partners. They won’t make the business suffer.... If nothing else, they will make sure the kids are not at all hurt by this, reason alone to make this whole thing civilized, appropriate.”

Puck and Lazaroff were unavailable for comment, but their spokesman, David Beckwith, called the divorce “amicable” and a “personal matter” that would not affect the couple’s business partnership.

However, documents filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Nov. 27 show that future is somewhat less clear. And there are hints that the split may be less than amicable.

The details of how the couple plan to divide their assets, property and obligations won’t be clear until a still unscheduled hearing. Lazaroff has petitioned the court to order Puck to pay her spousal support and cover her legal fees. She also petitioned to retain physical custody of their two sons, 8 and 13.


Puck is on a nationwide book tour for his recently released “Live, Love, Eat! The Best of Wolfgang Puck.”

The couple married Sept. 1, 1983, 10 years after Puck moved to the U.S. from his native Austria.

A classically trained chef, Puck started out in the kitchens of the Hotel de Paris in Monaco and Maxim’s in Paris before moving to Los Angeles in 1975 where he became both chef and, he says, part owner of Ma Maison. Puck published his first cookbook, “Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen” in 1981 and, together with Lazaroff as his designer, opened Spago on the Sunset Strip the next year.

“Wolfgang was the talent, the image,” said Selvaggio. “Barbara was the motivator when it was started, but that was only for 20 minutes. It has grown way beyond that.”


Puck launched his line of frozen food in 1987, through the Wolfgang Puck Food Co., offering frozen desserts and quickly expanding into frozen pizzas.

In 1995, Puck began manufacturing and marketing a line of cookware and other cooking-oriented consumer products.


A TV show featuring Puck for the Food Network premiered in 2001 in addition to his regular appearances on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

The couple’s dispositions are famously opposite. “I’m not a guy who likes conflict,” Puck said recently. “Barbara thrives on it.”

In interviews, Lazaroff has acknowledged that her hard charging drive rubbed some people the wrong way.

“Have I been difficult sometimes? Absolutely,” she said. “Has Wolfgang? Absolutely. The difference between the two of us is I was willing to show it, and he’d do it covertly. I think one of the reasons I have a reputation for being difficult is I have standards of excellence.”

Puck added, “I’m attracted to Barbara’s toughness. I can’t be the way she is, but sometimes I’d like to be.”

“Barbara taught me to enjoy the money I made,” he said, acknowledging that they had fought over money. “She’s so headstrong, it feels like whatever I told her, she wanted to do the opposite.”