Articles

The Chef Who Started It All

The Chef Who Started It All -- Appetite for Life -- © Microsoft
Two hopeful young Austrians moved to the U.S. in the Nixon years — and conquered Hollywood. Arnold Schwarzenegger became a movie star and then governor. The other, Wolfgang Puck, outgrew his adopted state to stand astride the food world as a celebrity chef of unprecedented influence.

"He's like the Steven Spielberg or James Cameron of restaurants," young French-born Los Angeles chef and "The Taste" judge Ludo Lefebvre told The New York Times in 2012. "It's true. He is very smart. We are all watching him."

"Fortunately, I think young," Puck says late one afternoon in Beverly Hills, California, touching down between stops in Dubai and Zimbabwe. "I always change. I think cooking [and] restaurants need an evolution if not to get old and tired looking and stale so people don't respond anymore."

Not only does the sun never set on Puck's international empire of more than 100 restaurants, but he can shepherd you through the day with his varied products. Sip his Organa blueberry pomegranate tea or Jamaica Me Crazy coffee in the morning. Around noon, heat up his Wolfgang Puck Signature Butternut Squash soup in a saucepan from the Wolfgang Puck 10 Piece Stainless Steel Cookware Set he sold you while seamlessly cooking dish after dish on the Home Shopping Network. At night, prepare his smoked salmon and caviar pizza from the recipe on his extensive, welcoming website.

More than any other dish, that pizza — which debuted after the opening of Puck's flagship restaurant, Spago, in West Hollywood in 1982 — encapsulates the creativity and attitude that launched the career of the first multimedia restaurant and retail megastar. It combines high (caviar) and low (pizza), luxe and casual, salty and creamy, serious and fun.

In a bright, inviting space with an open kitchen and fresh flowers, Puck, sporting a baseball cap and a smile, became and remains a go-to chef for both the Hollywood elite and rising young kitchen talent. To get a sense of the breadth of his connections, his "Wolfgang Puck Cookbook" from 1986 has a blurb from Vincent Price and an introduction by legendary director (and fellow Austrian) Billy Wilder. The 2013 Oscars Governors Ball was Puck's 19th as caterer; he served small bites from his various restaurants to more than 1,500 A-list guests after the broadcast. He has also fed heads of state and authored more cookbooks, which are impossible to read without hearing his genial Austrian accent in your head.

Puck says all of this — the restaurants, the catering company, the product line — stems from his early kitchen experience with his beloved mother, and a teen apprenticeship with legendary French chef Raymond Thulier, founder of L'Oustau de Baumanière in Provence. "It was a three-star restaurant," Puck says, "and he really was my inspiration. He really was my idol. I told him, 'I want to own my own restaurant. I want to be a chef. I want to have all these famous people come to my restaurant.'"

He does, he is, they do — and thanks to him, chefs all over the world have opportunities that didn't exist before.