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Review: ‘Wolfgang’ charts the rise of celebrity chef Puck and an era of California cuisine

A chef stands in his kitchen facing camerapeople and reporters in the documentary "Wolfgang."
Wolfgang Puck in the documentary “Wolfgang.”
(Alex Berliner / Ab Images)

The documentary “Wolfgang” is an inspiring, briskly entertaining look at Wolfgang Puck, the innovative and wildly influential chef who brought celebrity to restaurant kitchens and launched a food empire. It also provides a nostalgic time capsule of the 1970s and ’80s Los Angeles cuisine scene, and neatly recounts how Puck’s early reign would help set the stage for the media and the public’s fascination with all things food for decades to come.

Director David Gelb (“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”) and writer Brian McGinn tell the super-chef’s extraordinary story with a healthy on-camera assist from the warm and ebullient — and seemingly quite sincere — Puck himself. Using evocative archival clips, re-created bits, and present day on-the-go footage of the maestro at work, the film paints a vigorous portrait of how the Austrian-born Puck strove for success, often in an effort to surmount a difficult childhood, and prove his abusive, naysaying stepfather wrong. And he did so — in spades.

As tracked here, Puck began working in restaurants as a teenager in the 1960s, moved to the south of France where he apprenticed at the renowned L’Oustau de Baumanière, and relocated to the U.S. in 1973 at age 24. He would eventually land in L.A. and chef for Patrick Terrail at his Melrose Avenue bistro, Ma Maison, which became a starry hot spot thanks to Puck’s burgeoning culinary skills that brought a French flair to locally sourced ingredients and birthed the term “California nouvelle.”

David Gelb’s film follows Puck’s progression as a chef, working at his first restaurants, clashing with Patrick Terrail at Ma Maison and relishing the breakout success of Spago.

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One of the movie’s highlights is its recount of Puck’s splashy foray into restaurateuring with the 1982 opening of the legendary Spago, which he created and ran with Barbara Lazaroff, to whom he was married from 1983 to 2002. The lively Sunset Strip eatery, with its unique open kitchen, posited that fine dining could also be fun and drew hordes of celebrities, dignitaries, trendsetters and tourists. It would spawn a succession of other Puck restaurants and cafes around the world.

Among his many memories of his early years at Spago, Puck enjoyably relates how his famed smoked salmon pizza fortuitously came to be (thank you, Joan Collins) and how a casual comment from regular patron Johnny Carson led Puck to start what would became a booming frozen pizza business.

The film includes fine perspective on Puck from such experts and observers as former Los Angeles Times food critic and editor Ruth Reichl; pioneering L.A. chef Mark Peel, who worked for Puck at both Ma Maison and the original Spago (Peel died last week at 66); celebrated California chef, baker and restaurateur (and Peel’s ex-wife) Nancy Silverton; master L.A. pasta maker (and another onetime Puck employee) Evan Funke; erstwhile mega-agent Michael Ovitz (who helped make Puck a frequent TV presence); Times arts and entertainment editor Laurie Ochoa; plus Lazaroff and her and Puck’s son, Byron, who’s now following in his dad’s footsteps. We also hear from Terrail, seemingly still as hesitant to overpraise Puck as he was back in the day.

In addition, there’s a telling visit Puck has with his sister in Austria, which reopens a few old family wounds.

For the now-71-year-old Puck, who appears as shocked as anyone by his stratospheric success, his love of cooking and food has admittedly never waned. Yet, despite all the gorgeous cuisine on display here, watching him prepare and savor the perfect Wiener schnitzel, a humble and unfussy Austrian mainstay, is perhaps one of the movie’s most delicious moments.

'Wolfgang'

In English and German with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes

Playing: Available on Disney+


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