As soon as the last envelope is opened and the curtain falls on Sunday’s Oscars, it’s showtime for Wolfgang Puck. The celebrity chef behind the multi-course meal served to 1,600 at the Governors Ball immediately following the awards faces a pantry full of potential problems.
Puck and his kitchen staff of 350 not only have to turn out thousands of appetizers, small dinner plates and desserts in a matter of minutes, but also must please picky Hollywood diners — from hard-core vegans (look for the kale salad with grilled artichokes) to veterans of a certain age who want their lamb chops overcooked to the texture of a baseball mitt.
At the same time, the menu needs to include plenty of comfort food to console dejected losers and enough celebratory fare — like the baked-to-order chocolate soufflé cake with shaved espresso ice — for those toting golden statuettes.
“For me, it’s the biggest party — it’s bigger than the inauguration of the president,” the 63-year-old said in his catering kitchen adjacent to the Hollywood & Highland ballroom where the ball is held, as he cooked several recipes planned for this year’s bash. It’s his 19th year with the Academy Awards, and in addition to the ball, Puck caters the reception inside the Dolby Theatre before the ceremony begins. “All the stars, all the producers, directors, studio heads — they all get together on one night.”
Success is defined by whether his guests stay and actually eat, rather than blow a few air kisses and scurry off toward Beverly Hills. Many Oscar winners, nominees, presenters and guests are also invited to swanky affairs hosted by the likes of Vanity Fair and Elton John, so it’s Puck’s job to make the official after-party at Hollywood & Highland a destination, not just a drive-by.
The numbers behind the meal are daunting. The kitchen staff will have to wrap 2,750 dates in bacon, boil 6,000 chestnut tortellini, de-vein 7,500 shrimp and shuck 1,300 farmed oysters. And that’s just for a handful of the nearly four dozen separate dishes that Puck’s chefs will hand off to the waiters.
“You really have to get organized,” Puck said, emulsifying the ingredients for a cilantro mint vinaigrette into a Vitamix blender powerful enough to mince an oak tree. “Now we have it down to a science.”
When the Oscars relocated to Hollywood & Highland in 2002 from the Shrine Auditorium and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Puck no longer had to build mobile kitchens and fight the elements. He now has two huge kitchens flanking the ballroom on the mall’s fifth floor, meaning he and chef Matt Bencivenga don’t have to worry about the wind blowing out the flames on portable ranges, as happened one year at the Shrine.
But disaster is still a possibility. The first year Puck cooked at Hollywood & Highland, he lost electricity and gas for 15 minutes halfway through dinner service. “Just like the Super Bowl!” Puck said with a laugh, although it was hardly hilarious at the time.
Not long after moving to the United States at age 24, the Austrian-born Puck became a co-owner of Ma Maison, a restaurant hugely popular with entertainment industry diners. In 1982, he and then-wife Barbara Lazaroff opened Spago on Sunset Boulevard, and its pizzas made it even more of a Hollywood canteen than Ma Maison. The restaurant moved to Beverly Hills in 1997, and late last year underwent an extensive remodel and menu makeover. It remains one of the top eating establishments in the United States.
Now, Puck’s culinary empire includes more than 20 fine-dining restaurants in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Detroit, Singapore and Maui, among other places. He also has airport fast-food outlets and sells frozen pizzas, soups, coffee, cookbooks, appliances, cutlery and pots and pans. His catering business alone has annual revenue of more than $150 million.
He says that while the Governors Ball is a profitable job, its real value is worldwide publicity — Puck’s menu is showcased for TV crews on the red carpet.
Unlike many famous chefs whose business dealings leave little time for cooking, Puck said he rarely goes into the office. “Maybe I’d be richer if I was in the office,” he said. But cooking and marketing, he said, is “what makes me go.”
Cooking for 1,600, Puck says, isn’t that different than hosting a dinner party for 16. Use the best fresh ingredients, make sure you’re really prepared and never try to cook something new.
Following the maxim that the customer is always right, Puck lards his Governors Ball menu with a variety of culinary crowd-pleasers, like chicken pot pie with black truffles and smoked salmon pizza.
“We know what people like. Most of the people who come to the Governors Ball are our customers anyway — they eat at the restaurant all the time,” Puck said, stirring in broth in a mushroom risotto that he prefers toothy and loose. “Some of the academy members want to eat the same thing every year. So we keep some people happy — I don’t mind it.”
Puck says he will intentionally leave 10 racks of lamb in the oven far longer than even a home chef who lost track of time.
“There was a time when I was really young when I would not have served that,” Puck said. “But as I get older, I get more tolerant. Even in our restaurants now, I’m totally flexible. The most important thing is that the guests are happy.”
Puck acknowledges that attentive diners would be able to distinguish differences between the Governors Ball food and what they might eat at Spago, Cut, WP24 or any of his other high-end restaurants.
“We can do almost every dish” at the Oscars, he said. “We just cannot make really elaborate presentations or plates with 16 different things on it.” Given the travel time from the kitchen to the guests, some of the food also may not be piping hot.
Puck hopes guests will leave the Governors Ball talking as much about the food as the Oscars.
“I want people to remember what they ate — not just that it looked so good, but that it tasted so good,” Puck said. “The greatest compliment for me is always when I see the people on Tuesday night or Wednesday night or a week after at Spago and they would say, ‘Wolfgang, can I have the same lobster or the same pasta I was served at the Governors Ball?’ Because you know when you served something that good for 1,600 people, you did a good job.”
By the Numbers: The Governors Ball
Pieces of California micro greens: 20,000
Pounds of troll-caught Atlantic bigeye tuna: 250
Stone crab claws: 1,250
Cage-free eggs: 5,000
Mini brioche buns: 6,000
Gallons cocktail sauce: 30
Local fruit and vegetable farmers: 80
Pounds of edible gold dust: 30
Cocktail forks: 6,000
Bamboo skewers: 4,500
Source: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences