‘Wolfgang’: Documenting ‘the best documented chef in history’
Wolfgang Puck was making the rounds in the front of his restaurant, mingling with diners — celebrity and otherwise — shaking hands and offering menu recommendations. Just another day at Spago Beverly Hills. But for one starstruck 14-year-old boy, the brief interaction almost 25 years ago was life-changing.
Over the years, their paths crossed several times. The chef went on to build a culinary empire, and the boy became a filmmaker best known for the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” A few years ago, the now-37-year-old David Gelb approached Puck about making a film about his life. The result, “Wolfgang,” premiered June 12 at the Tribeca Film Festival and debuts on Disney+ on June 25.
For the record:
3:38 p.m. June 21, 2021An earlier version of this story included an incorrect name for one of Wolfgang Puck’s teenage sons. His name is Alexander.
The biodoc traces Puck’s life from his childhood in a village in Austria — in a house without running water, an indoor bathroom or a refrigerator — to his emergence as one of the world’s best-known chefs, with a restaurant empire that spans the globe.
But the film is not simply about the rise of a chef who became a household name. “Wolfgang” tells a story of self-doubt, hard work and perseverance.
“I think the timing is right,” Puck, 71, says in an interview from his Cut restaurant in Washington, D.C. “I wanted to go back and discuss for the first time my childhood, where I grew up and how I grew up. I think maybe it’s a good thing for young people to see that you can overcome adversity and make something good.”
The life Puck was born into bears little resemblance to the starry life he leads now. His mother, Maria Topitschnig, was a pastry chef at a resort, a single mom who married Josef Puck, a coal miner, when Wolfgang was young. Some of Puck’s fondest memories involve spending time at his mother’s side as she cooked — something that also allowed him to escape his stepfather.
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Josef Puck terrorized his stepson, calling him lazy and searing into the young boy’s mind that he would never amount to anything. He was physically abusive not only to Puck but to Puck’s mother and sister. Even today, when he speaks of his stepfather, his voice hardens.
“I spent my whole life hating my stepfather,” Puck says. “If it wouldn’t have been for my mother, I think I would have never talked to him again.”
When Puck was 14, he left home to take a job as a cook’s apprentice at a hotel and never looked back. His stepfather told the teenager he would fail and would be back home in a month. “I decided at that moment I wanted to prove him wrong,” Puck recalls.
The film follows Puck’s progression as a chef— working at the Michelin-starred restaurant L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence under famed French chef Raymond Thuillier, clashing with Patrick Terrail at Ma Maison and relishing the breakout success of Spago and beyond.
Though Puck – who has earned his own Michelin stars — is used to being in charge, he put his trust in Gelb, who also created the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” and “Street Food.”
Gelb, who began researching and shooting the film in 2018 while working on his Netflix shows, calls “Wolfgang” a labor of love. “People who have known Wolfgang to this point, they see him with celebrities, they see him at the Oscars, they see him on talk shows — this bubbly, comedic, really fun personality. And that’s a big side of who he is,” Gelb says. “But there’s also an introspective side; there’s a quiet side that has a story to tell.”
It was important to Gelb that the film portray its subject with honesty, showing Puck’s struggles as well as successes. Terrail and Puck’s former wife Barbara Lazaroff, both of whom had acrimonious splits from the restaurateur, appear in “Wolfgang,” he says, because “they’re a big part of his story. For it to be a thorough and complete film, you need to have the different perspectives.”
Interviews with former Spago chefs Nancy Silverton, Mark Peel and Evan Funke, as well as food writer Ruth Reichl and Laurie Ochoa, a longtime food writer and a deputy editor with The Times’ Entertainment and Arts team, remind viewers of Puck’s milestones that are embedded in our culinary DNA: gourmet pizza, Asian-fusion cuisine and Wolfgang Puck food at grocery stores.
“He was the first chef since Chef Boyardee to say, ‘What if I take my food and make it available to people who are home cooks?’” Reichl says in the film. “After that, he became a brand.”
Puck also helped to popularize a concept many take for granted: the open kitchen. By pulling back the curtain on meal preparation, Spago helped transform the chef from a figure hidden in the back to the star cooking on center stage. Together with Lazaroff, who designed the early restaurant spaces, Puck began building his brand and changing the perception of chefs and fine dining.
Before long, Puck became a regular on morning and late-night TV shows, such as “Good Morning America” and “The Late Show With David Letterman,” putting California cuisine on the map. It didn’t hurt that Puck was blessed with boyish good looks, a charming Austrian accent and an ebullient personality. His television appearances helped set the stage for the Food Network and today’s plethora of cooking programs.
Along the way, Puck became known as one of the first “celebrity chefs,” a term that makes him bristle.
“I don’t like the word because it doesn’t mean anything. If you’re a painter, they don’t call you a celebrity artist,” Puck says.
Still, his impact in Hollywood was undeniable. From its birth in 1982 in its original location on the Sunset Strip, Spago was the place to be and be seen.
“Wolfgang is probably the best documented chef in history,” Gelb says. “It’s a blessing and a curse. There’s so much to choose from, but it’s very difficult to make those decisions.”
The 79-minute film weaves in scenes of Puck’s life in the spotlight with a who’s who of A-list stars like Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Johnny Carson. Those flashy moments contrast with quieter scenes as Puck returns to Austria to reconnect with his sister, Christina, and the past that haunted him.
At one point, the siblings visit the cemetery where Puck’s grandmother, mother and stepfather are buried. Watching the film, Puck says, unlocked feelings about his stepfather that he had tried to suppress.
“When I came to America, I was 24, and I said, ‘Maybe I should bring my mother and my siblings over here to get away from him.’ But they were scared. They thought he would come after us and kill us,” he says, recalling a particularly dark secret his sister shared with him after they were adults. “I was so upset. When he passed away, I said, ‘Throw his ashes in the river, don’t put him next to our mother.’”
But, he says, “At the end of the day for me to prove my stepfather wrong motivated me.”
Fatherhood, Gelb says, is a key theme of the movie. “It’s something I’ve been interested in, going back to ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ — what’s it’s like to live in the shadow of a very famous father,” says the filmmaker, whose father is Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, and whose grandfather was journalist Arthur Gelb.
“Wolf’s biological father was absent. Then his stepfather was an abusive jerk. Now he’s put in a position where he’s a father. He doesn’t have the template. He doesn’t have someone who was his father by example,” Gelb says. “That was a bit of a journey we explore in the film.”
Puck insists he has no regrets and prefers to think about the future rather than looking back — and his future continues to include growth. But even though his empire continues to expand, the chef may not be collecting as many glowing accolades as he once received.
Two years ago, Times restaurant critic Bill Addison returned to Spago and made the following observations: “When Puck opened Spago with Barbara Lazaroff in 1982, it hastened stuffy Continental dining’s undoing. … Continental-French cooking is having a resurgent moment across America, but to see the restaurant that helped spur a culinary revolution serve a dish, without irony, that summons the traditions Puck once rebelled against is a real trip. Truly, everything is cyclical.”
Puck says he feels no pressure to keep innovating, but he isn’t ready to rest on his laurels. “I don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to innovate,’” he says. “This is my life. This is my DNA. This is what I love to do.”
With a possible end in sight to the pandemic, Puck is beginning to reopen his restaurants. He’s launching a new one in Budapest and has just signed a deal in Saudi Arabia. He’s toying with the idea of a coffee table book featuring photographs — but no recipes — of dishes from his WP Test Kitchen, which offers an intimate tasting menu. And he might just be making an appearance on a popular TV food show. “We cannot talk about that,” he says after letting the name slip, “or they’re going to send me a bad note.”
But what he really wants to do most, he says, is spend time with his family. His wife, Gelila Assefa, and their two teenage sons, Oliver and Alexander, and his older sons from his marriage to Lazarus, Cameron and Byron, all appear in “Wolfgang.” Assefa is creative director for Wolfgang Puck Co., and Byron has followed in his father’s footsteps as a professional chef and oversees Puck’s new West Hollywood restaurants Merois and Ospero.
“I think the grandest achievement today is really the balance I have with my family,” he says. “I want it to say one day on my tombstone not that he made good pizza. I want it to say he was a good father and a good husband.”
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