Tribeca Film Festival 2021: Wolfgang

Year: 2021
Runtime: 79 minutes
Director: David Gelb

By Joan Amenn

Wolfgang Puck is unquestionable a great innovator and exquisitely trained in the classic French tradition but he also represents the excessive marketing of “celebrity chefs” that have become a plague on cable television. Decades ago, he came to America looking for work as a somewhat insecure young man with something to prove. Director David Gelb, who is best known for “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (2011), seems to want to make the case that all Puck ever wanted was the love he never got from his abusive stepfather. An empire of restaurants, packaged prepared foods with his name on them, TV appearances and at least half a dozen cookbooks all point to a fiercely focused perfectionist driven to make up for childhood trauma.

By his own admittance, growing up in his native Austria was horrific. His mother found him an apprenticeship in the kitchen of a hotel when he was fourteen. He fled his home and never looked back. Working in various low paying positions, he eventually found success in America in a small restaurant in Los Angeles known as “Ma Maison.” This was during a new awakening in America about what healthy food meant and what the experience of eating in a restaurant could be in the late 1970’s through the 1980’s.

“Puck tells an amusing story of how his line of frozen pizzas came into being which might or might not be true. There is a lot of showmanship in this chef and in this documentary but it really sparkles when he is shown preparing food or discussing his love for it.”

At one point in this documentary, Michael Ovitz incorrectly identifies Puck as the first nationally recognized chef in the US in the 1980’s. Obviously, Julia Child was a huge hit on public television starting in the 1960’s and Graham Kerr’s show, “The Galloping Gourmet” (1969-1971) won two Emmy awards so that Puck was following a path already cleared for him by other pioneer chefs. What Ovitz is hinting at is that he helped create the phenomenon of the “celebrity chef” when he strongarmed a television executive at a dinner created by Puck to give the chef a guest appearance on “Good Morning America.” In truth, a great deal of the credit for Puck’s success goes to the marketing and design genius of his second wife Barbara Lazaroff. She created the distinctive look of his restaurant, “Spago” with its open kitchen and indoor wood burning stove. She had been trained in theater set design which turned out to be perfect for creating a restaurant that took Hollywood by storm.

Puck tells an amusing story of how his line of frozen pizzas came into being which might or might not be true. There is a lot of showmanship in this chef and in this documentary but it really sparkles when he is shown preparing food or discussing his love for it. Without doubt, Wolfgang Puck has a secure legacy as a great chef and a food pioneer. This film does not have to convince us of that, it just has to get out of the man’s way and let him cook.

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