Virtually Meeting Wolfgang Puck

The Celebrity Chef who spawned them all, talks to Unreserved
Friday 25 June 2021
Photo: Disney

Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.” — Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

I started this article with a quote from Wolfgang Puck’s fellow countryman, another famous Austrian export, as perhaps if the Chef Extraordinaire could be distilled in an essence, that would be it: His love and passion for cooking and life fuelled the desire to succeed. Perhaps a close second to that, a history of father-like figures who either dismissed or inspired him, that comes through quite palpably in David Gelb’s beautiful portrait of a life that is vigorously well lived, in the documentary, “Wolfgang.”

In the film, Wolfgang’s zest for life and his ebullient energy vibrates throughout. It is here that you sense how this one man’s vision has led him to establish an empire of cookware, recipe books, and over 60 restaurants from Los Angeles to Singapore, with another one opening in Budapest in a month. Whilst Puck protests that he never likes to look back, the film forced him to confront both the excitement of his early success in Los Angeles, and probed further back still to a childhood that was poor and difficult. He made his mark working at Ma Maison, which he says was on the verge of bankruptcy when he turned up at the age of 24. But under his watchful eye, the food that revolutionised American cuisine (up to that point mainly cooked up frozen food) was born. In the 80’s, the Reagan and Wall Street “Greed is good” mantra for money and conspicuous consumption probably helped cement Ma Maison’s reputation as it became the ‘It’ place when celebrity and flash were all the rage. 

It is Wolfgang’s successes that define him now. The talent was nurtured from hours spent cooking with his mother, who was a pastry chef. He has mentioned in his past interviews that he originally wanted to be an architect, but it was too complex, and they were probably too poor. But the drive that fed the talent was infused in no small part from his troubled relationship with his stepfather. He describes his stepfather as abusive, a man who would beat both himself and his younger sister, who told him that he would amount to nothing and chastised him for not getting a ‘man’s job’, when his mother got him an apprenticeship at a restaurant in Austria at the tender age of 14. 

The documentary poignantly re-enacts the extraordinary moment when a 14-year-old Wolfgang considered throwing himself into the river when he was fired from his job as an apprentice. He drew parallels between the resident Chef and his stepfather and could not consider going home with his tail tucked between his legs and admit defeat and give his stepfather the satisfaction that he was right about Wolfgang. I leave you to watch the documentary to see what happened next, as clearly, Wolfgang did not make that jump.

However, the theme of the abusive stepfather figure loomed so pervasively in his life, that when we had a virtual sit down, the first question I felt compelled to ask him after watching the documentary, was did he ever get a moment of validation, or a ‘well done’ from anyone who might have doubted his abilities? It is a subject that Wolfgang spoke candidly about. He replied, “My mother…she was very proud of me and proud of my sister who was head of her school and so forth. She was very proud. My stepfather, when I became successful, he turned the whole thing around and said I was successful because of him. Even though he told me for years I was good for nothing. He said if I would have been nice to you, you’d probably be nothing. So, he took the credit for himself, but I also told him, “You know, that doesn’t mean you had to beat me up or beat my sister up or whatever”. So, he still was a terrible father. So, I told him, whatever ingredients it took to make me successful you know, I don’t think the stick was the right ingredient.”

At 19, Puck found himself at Baumaniere in France, under the tutelage of renowned Michelin star Chef, Raymond Thuilier. Thuilier also seemed to loom as a sort of benevolent father figure, albeit a little distant and reserved in expression. Puck recounts his experience with Thuilier, “…He really appreciated me. When he visited on occasion…he always told the main chef in the restaurant, “You know, I want Wolfgang to do the sauces, I want Wolfgang to be here”. Even if it was my day off. So that made me feel really good, you know. He never told it to me, ‘you are a great cook or whatever,”, but I knew (sic it from) the way he acted. Action sometimes means more than talking. The way he acts, for me, it gave me confidence, it made me feel good and it made me go away from my first feeling from my stepfather that I’m good for nothing.”

If fortune favours the bold, then Wolfgang Puck is the living embodiment of that cliché. At 24, with a burning desire for success and an appetite for adventure, he packed up for Los Angeles and lived cheaply bunking out with another aspiring chef. He landed a job at Ma Maison, the experience is fleshed out in detail, as it was a pivotal moment in the plot that is his life. Whilst Puck might have helped save the fortunes of owner Patrick Terrail (whom Wolfgang describes as having similar attributes to his stepfather), he also introduced the concept of California Cuisine to the nation at large. In the beginning, it was Patrick Terrail as the restauranteur who was the star, and the Chef merely the cook, and Terrail did not want to share the attention. 

As Puck says, “Well you know in the old times, everybody knew, at least in the US and in Europe, they know the owner of the restaurant, they knew the maître d of the restaurant, but the chef was always in the back. The prime example of course is when I started in Ma Maison, Patrick was the owner, he was out there in his three-piece suit with the tie and the flower walking around and kissing the women. If somebody asked him about the food, he would say it’s my food, it’s my recipe. He never even consulted me. I never knew what he told the people….” 

When the restaurant became the darling of the Hollywood scene, and its reservation list read like a who’s who of Tinseltown, Wolfgang finally managed to get the credit he deserved, largely from being part owner of the restaurant. And it seems, not because Terrail was feeling generous, as Puck illuminates, “My first paycheck bounced so he gave me a small piece of the restaurant, and the restaurant got better. Even up to today he still thinks he’s the most important ingredient at Ma Maison. And 3 years after I left, Spago was very successful, and he closed his restaurant. But his arrogance and his ego did not change.”

Terrail has not, in the press accredited Puck’s departure as the reason for the closure of Ma Maison, rather its association with a rather seamy tale of murder of a young actress, Dominique Dunne, at the hand of her boyfriend John Sweeney who was sous chef under Puck and took over after Puck left. Dominique’s father, Dominick Dunne, would later write sizzling true crime stories of the wealthy and the damned in the US for Vanity Fair, but that as they say is another story. Whatever the reason for its demise, clearly Puck’s departure did not help. 

My first paycheck bounced so he gave me a small piece of the restaurant, and the restaurant got better. Even up to today he still thinks he’s the most important ingredient at Ma Maison. And 3 years after I left, Spago was very successful, and he closed his restaurant. But his arrogance and his ego did not change.”

The very fact that Terrail appeared in the documentary to speak openly about their halcyon days together, and the later unravelling of their collaboration that had everyone from Sidney Poitier to Elizabeth Taylor walking through its doors, is for lack of a better word, rather juicy. Puck has described the end of his time with Terrail as his first bad divorce (the second was with his founding partner at Spago’s and two decades later his ex-wife Barbara Lazaroff). Film creator David Gelb says, “Patrick, he was glad to be in the film. He has a very strong opinion about how things went during that time. It’s always interesting when you can see the contrasting points of view. And it was kind of like a metaphor for the change between the power of the restaurateur vs the chef. And Wolfgang decided he’s going to go out on his own and make his own restaurant and he’s going to put the chef at the centre stage. I think that really set a trend that gave the chef much more power and rightfully so because they were the ones feeding the customers and the customers were coming to eat their food. That was a big change and Patrick was very generous with his time and he was very honest with his opinions.”

To which Wolfgang couldn’t help but add, “He really has his own opinions. And even in failure he did not change his opinion. And that was very interesting. It’s the same guy the way he was, when I was there. He got so jealous of the talk, so he told me to leave the restaurant. He cut my credit card in half; he took the restaurant car away. One day I woke up I went outside to the sidewalk; my car was gone. Has somebody stolen my car? And I called up the secretary at Ma Maison because I didn’t talk to Patrick anymore and then. And she said, “No, no, no, we had to call the company and took the car away because you are not working here anymore.” Clearly Puck had the last word going onto create the empire he did, but even with his success, when Terrail was diagnosed with cancer, it was Puck who organised a dinner for him. So, despite the difference in opinions, the two men seemed to have laid down their arms. 

I once went to Spago’s in the late 1990’s with friends from the music industry – it would have been difficult for me as Joe Public to get a last-minute reservation at the restaurant, I think. There was an understated glamour, and whilst we certainly were not A-listers, the service was impeccable and friendly. I did like the down to earthiness of the place once you got through the doors in terms of the menu and service, since I am not a fan of snooty waiters who serve you three peas on a plate and call that an appetizer. To be such an A-list restaurant without the pretension was refreshing, and perhaps it is the reason for its enduring popularity.

At the end of the day, Wolfgang Puck does what he does with so much passion and it is for the people who love food and their appetites that he creates, rather than for ‘show’ and snob appeal, and he never once mentioned the Michelin stars he has gotten, as clearly that was not his priority. Perhaps it is his passion, his no nonsense approach to food and business, and the appreciation of the people around him, that is his genius ingredient in his recipe for success. 

At the end of the interview, he said, “I have never been to your beautiful country so maybe I need to go there and get inspired there and maybe more influences from Malaysia,” to which I say, “You would always be welcome, and we will bring our appetites.”

“Wolfgang” a film by David Gelb, streams today on Disney+ Hotstar.