In her 2020 New York Times piece “The End of Chefs,” journalist Tejal Rao asks the reader to imagine a great restaurant and the chef who is running it. “He is a man, probably,” she writes. “A genius, definitely. Let’s say this genius is volatile, meticulous, impenetrable, charming, camera-ready. He doesn’t just manage the staff behind a great restaurant. He is the great restaurant.” She compares him to a director with a singular, fantastic vision, a vision so important that everyone else’s labor must naturally come second, often to their great detriment. What would the restaurant industry look like, she asks, if we celebrated collaboration instead of the genius of one man?
Despite a recent push to view chefs and celebrity through a wider, more critical lens, Wolfgang, a new documentary on Disney+ that will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival before its Disney+ premiere on June 25, upholds the singular chef narrative. In it, famed chef Wolfgang Puck is portrayed as a man with unique drive and talent, fighting his way to the top and deserving everything he got once he arrived there. He is credited for a slew of firsts, and the film, to its disservice, rarely contextualizes or expands on the environment and culture that assisted his rise.
That now is the time for a Puck retrospective comes as no surprise. After all, “Spago Rock” is an accepted musical genre. There is also a rising nostalgia and cultural appreciation for the yuppie aesthetics of the ’80s and ’90s, with restaurants decked in upholstered pastel cocaine chic, fast food going retro, and restaurants serving food that reminds diners of 30 years ago. Hell, even Viennetta is back. Puck has never fallen from prominence and is still in the kitchen, opening restaurants, and producing a grocery store brand, but still his legacy is tied to the ’80s and ’90s, decades everyone seemingly wants to relive (or in some young people’s case, live for the first time) now.
In her Times piece, Rao names Puck as the harbinger of chef-as-auteur and in all fairness, his is a compelling story. Raised in Austria by a poor mother and abusive stepfather, Puck found solace in the kitchen. He worked his way to France and then to America. After making Ma Maison an L.A. hot spot, he became a full-fledged celebrity when he opened Spago in 1982. At Spago, he changed the perception of fine dining and you probably know the beats from there — he created the smoked salmon pizza! Became the official chef of the Oscars! He’s got restaurants in airports now! And through it all, he appears impossibly charming with his pristine teeth shining through a boyish smile. He’s one of many to claim the title of “first celebrity chef” and he makes a good case for it.
It’s hard to undersell Puck’s influence on American dining and celebrity culture. The most compelling parts of the documentary, directed by David Gelb, are when it reminds viewers that commonplace things are common because Puck revolutionized them. The idea of pizza on a fine-dining menu — and one topped with smoked salmon and caviar at that — was hitherto unheard of. As were concepts like an open kitchen where diners could watch the cooking action, the fusing Asian and French flavors in fine dining, and the idea that the restaurant’s chef is not just the person behind the food but a visionary.
There are moments when it seems like Wolfgang is going to analyze Puck-the-phenomenon rather than laud Puck-the-man. Most of that happens around Barbara Lazaroff, Puck’s ex-wife and co-founder of the Wolfgang Puck brand. According to Wolfgang, it was Lazaroff who pushed Puck to make Spago a fine-dining restaurant and not just a pizzeria, conceptualized and designed the open kitchen, and managed Puck’s talent, turning him into a brand. Through her, you begin to see how Wolfgang Puck, the celebrity, was created.
But such explorations are short-lived. Rather the documentary seems more intent on presenting Puck as the ultimate One Great Man — be it through interviews with his fans, his friends and family, and Puck himself — even ignoring known facts in favor of the narrative of Puck as an innovator and genius.
In one instance, he is credited for inventing the Chinese Chicken Salad. While his version at restaurant Chinois is certainly one of his signature dishes and he’s responsible for popularizing it, many credit the salad’s invention to Sylvia Wu 20 years earlier at L.A.’s Madame Wu’s. Wolfgang could have acknowledged the influence Puck played with and built on, but instead made it seem like the dish sprang from his head like Athena.
Wolfgang paints a direct line between the genius of its eponymous chef and his success. He started out with nothing, but because Puck had such a singular mind, such talent, and such drive, he created opportunity after opportunity for himself. Which leads me to question what happened to those who had aspirations or dreams similar to Puck’s but failed. Those who believe in meritocracy would argue that others were less brilliant or hard working. But despite Puck’s humble beginnings, he still had the advantage of being the de facto — white and male — for French kitchens and the connections required land a job at Ma Maison, setting the stage for his career and fame.
The concept of deserving success is always tricky and two things can be true at once: Puck is a brilliant innovator and chef, and certain privileges played a role in getting him where he is now. Wolfgang invests all its time convincing the viewer that Puck deserves it all, and maybe he does, but so do a lot of people who aren’t as famous or successful. We’ve long accepted the narrative that Puck is one of the world’s great chefs. So why not tell a new story?