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In David Gelb’s documentary Wolfgang, about the renowned chef Wolfgang Puck that launches today on Disney+, Puck states a simple but surefire mantra: “You start out with the best product, and then you don’t screw it up.”
Puck took the farm-to-table concept that he inherited from mentor and father figure Raymond Thuilier in Provence and brought it to Los Angeles, where he transformed the menu at Ma Maison into something worthy of its celebrity clientele before becoming an overnight smash in 1982 with Spago in West Hollywood.
That flagship restaurant, perched above the Sunset Strip, became the epitome of Hollywood power dining, where Irving “Swifty” Lazar hosted his famous Oscar parties and getting a reservation was akin to scoring courtside seats at the Fabulous Forum during the Lakers’ showtime years.
The film had its premiere at the Tribeca Festival recently alongside Morgan Neville’s Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, and the two chefs’ personalities could not be more different. If Bourdain was the Sid Vicious of rock star chefs, Puck was the Paul McCartney of his field—a prolific composer of dishes that sang with bold, bright flavors; a people pleaser whose career was remarkably free of scandal. If being a workaholic was his greatest sin, he’s practically a saint.
But as Gelb and his movie point out, he did have his demons. “Wolfgang is somewhat haunted by his childhood,” says the director. “The biggest conflict that he has with himself is he didn’t have a good example set for him when he was a kid. He had this nasty stepfather, so when he had kids, he had difficulty finding himself in the father role. He had to work at it and find his stride there.”
Gelb adds that he “didn’t find a telling scandal but perhaps that’s why this movie works on Disney+.”
One of the film’s more revealing moments was the origin of Puck’s famous smoked salmon pizza, an improvisation he whipped up for Joan Collins when he ran out of bread to make the actress’s favorite dish: brioche and gravlax with dill cream. That exotic concoction, along with other unusual pizza toppings like duck sausage, seeded a food empire that spans the globe. (Is it any coincidence that California Pizza Kitchen was launched in the wake of Spago’s success?)
“There’s this concept of, ‘oh, is the chef selling out by opening so many restaurants or launching all these product lines?’” says Gelb. “I don’t think Wolfgang thinks about it that much. Ruth Reichl says something really interesting in the movie where she thinks one of the reasons [Puck] takes every opportunity that he can is because he has this feeling that the Cinderella carriage is going to turn back into a pumpkin and that this whole thing is like a dream. And if he doesn’t seize every opportunity and keep going, that the whole thing could collapse and he’ll be back peeling potatoes. So I think coming from this place of poverty and having to have worked for everything he got, I think he never could break that mentality.”
Reichl is one of several food luminaries who sing Puck’s praises in the film, along with the recently departed Mark Peel, who with then significant other Nancy Silverton helped make Spago a mecca of California Cuisine before launching their own landmark of L.A. fine dining, Campanile. Also interviewed is Barbara Lazaroff, Puck’s ex who helped pioneer the open kitchen concept at Spago and whose contentious divorce from the celebrity chef is nowhere in evidence in Gelb’s film. “I was pleasantly surprised by how warmly they spoke about each other,” says Gelb.
With his production company Supper Club, Gelb is somewhat of a pioneer himself, with such documentaries as Jiri Dreams of Sushi (2011) and the series Chef’s Table elevating foodie entertainment into a fine art with pristine production values, bringing new meaning to the phrase “food porn.”
“I like to call it food romance,” says Gelb. “There’s a story and there’s characters. When Jiro Dreams of Sushi came out, it was really kind of a breakthrough for food film and cinematography. And then Chef’s Table continued that. But now it’s become ubiquitous. All the unscripted food shows are shooting on cinema cameras, often with cinema lenses, and that look has become totally common. My challenge is how do I step up the visuals. I want to put all the cinematic tools to bear. I want to use the best cinematography in a way that best tells the story.”
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