Monday, June 21, 2021

Wolfgang (Puck), the Documentary

There is a small army of Food Network stars who owe their gigs and fortunes to Wolfgang Puck. He didn’t quite singe-handedly create the concept of the celebrity chef (as this documentary suggests), but he certainly established a professional template for later chefs to follow. David Gelb (the food documentarian) chronicles Puck’s life and career in Wolfgang, which premieres Friday on Disney+.

If you want to see a film about Wolfgang Puck, this would definitely qualify as one. Gelb covers Puck’s entire life, starting with his difficult childhood in Austria. Puck’s Teagen-esque step-father bullied him to brink of suicide, but he found refuge in a part-time kitchen job. Briefly working with a French chef in-residence inspired Puck to study in France. From there, he was off to American.

Puck was largely responsible for resuscitating the now legendary Ma Maison, but restaurateur Patrick Terrail (who fearlessly appears in the film) was loathe to give a lowly chef credit or an equal stake. As a result, Puck set out on his own, with the help of his partner (and now ex-wife) Barbara Lazaroff (who also participated in the film) opened Spago. (Like Ma Maison, the name of Spago might ring bells with viewers, but they might not know why. The film does a nice job explaining their cultural and media significance.)

Gelb’s cast of experts argue Puck launched what became known as “California Cuisine” and invented gourmet pizza as we now know it. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but Puck was certainly instrumental in the rise of both. Frankly, it is pretty wild for any regular Food Network viewer to compare the current state of culinary media with Puck’s rise to fame in the 1980s, through the lens of the film. Weirdly,
Wolfgang pairs well with CNN’s Lady Boss (Joan Collins appears in both). Some of the archival footage of his early television appearances also reminds us how funny the Letterman show was back in the 80s, on NBC.

Gelb does not take a lot of risks with his subject matter, but he does not gloss over Puck’s personal failings. He and his talking heads make a convincing case for Puck’s importance to both culinary and pop culture history. It is a professional grade doc that offers up some freshly-squeezed 1980s nostalgia, which is always entertaining. Solidly recommended,
Wolfgang starts screening this Friday on Disney+ (and as far as we know, no scenes were filmed in Xinjiang).