Jennifer Radman discusses Disney
The most surprising thing about the new Disney+ documentary Wolfgang is that it exists at all.
For one thing, Wolfgang Puck doesn’t look backward, as he notes in the movie’s opening minutes. Though Puck is America’s original celebrity chef and one of the world’s most famous, he has been reluctant to talk about his childhood, his personal life, or how he built his business empire, estimated to be worth at least US$90 million. He has been singularly focused on advancing his brand, which encompasses everything from popular steakhouses to cookware.
The documentary, which will start streaming on Disney+ on June 25, will also get some attention for putting the spotlight back on white male chefs. The current culinary moment belongs to projects such as High on the Hog, the celebrated Netflix series about the history of Black food.
Now 71, the Austrian-American Puck has decided to open up to director David Gelb of Jiro Dreams of Sushi fame. In Gelb’s Wolfgang, Puck talks, as he rarely does, about his childhood and his abusive stepfather, his public divorce from his second wife and business partner Barbara Lazaroff, and his strained relationship with his kids. (Disclosure: Puck’s oldest son is a close friend of this writer.)
The result is no revelation. Many aspects of his private life are glossed over or skipped entirely, including his first wife, Marie France Trouillot, and the affair that led to the end of his marriage to Lazaroff. This is a Disney movie, after all.
Instead, Wolfgang is a very traditional documentary about the origin story of the country’s first celebrity chef and how he made cooks into household names and a restaurant the hottest piece of real estate in town. At its best, the film delivers fun anecdotes about Puck’s start and footage from the early days at Spago, the restaurant that made him famous and a staple at the Oscars.
For instance: Puck invented Spago’s famed smoked salmon pizza by accident when Joan Collins came for lunch and the kitchen was out of brioche. Collins, one of that era’s most famous TV actresses, always ordered the salmon. Puck serendipitously threw the smoked fish on a pizza for her.
Likewise, when he found out that Johnny Carson was taking home 10 pies at a time so he could freeze them, Puck began selling pizzas in supermarkets. In the process, he helped launch chefs’ direct-to-consumer products, which gave rise to such brands as the ubiquitous Rao’s and now Carbone pasta sauces.
Puck became a staple on Good Morning America because Hollywood super agent Michael Ovitz took the head of ABC to dinner at Spago and got him drunk. The chef’s TV career has endured for more than three decades.
The food aspect of the documentary basically stops two decades ago, robbing viewers of a look at how Puck turned his initial culinary genius into one of the world’s largest, most successful hospitality empires. The movie doesn’t mention his steakhouse Cut, which is now his biggest restaurant chain. Not does it talk about his vast catering business, beyond the obligatory references to the Oscars.
This approach opens the documentary to criticism, especially that Wolfgang subscribes to the great man theory—that Puck did it all by himself. It’s easy to forget, watching myriad images of Puck surrounded by cameras, that he’s had an army of talented people behind him, especially Lazaroff, who gets some face time but could get more credit for his rise.
Puck is an unexpected subject for Gelb, who helped initiate the U.S. obsession with culinary documentaries via his Netflix series Chef’s Table, which he started in 2015. Along with Anthony Bourdain, Gelb has helped food lovers discover visual stories that aren’t focused on obvious food celebrities and restaurants, and has paved the way for shows like Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and the Mexican street-food hit Taco Chronicles. (Gelb makes the Netflix show Street Food as well.)
By comparison, Wolfgang feels tailored to consumers who’ve purchased his soups or knives at local markets.
“We really feel like it’s for a broad audience,” Gelb says, describing Puck’s life story as a classic archetype about a man running from something he fears (his stepfather) only to discover what he loves (cooking).
It remains to be seen whether this is a good fit for Disney+, a streaming service thus far associated with Marvel TV shows and kids’ shows. Wolfgang sits alongside National Geographic documentaries as family-friendly programming that feels out of place alongside Loki and The Mandalorian.
Yet none of this—not the documentary, a potential biography, or any criticism—will slow Puck down. Spago weathered the pandemic and—almost 40 years after the original location opened—remains an L.A. dining destination. This spring, Puck launched his newest restaurant, Merois, on the Sunset Strip. Merois is run by Puck’s son Byron. In Wolfgang, Puck makes a show of handing over the reins to Byron. But that’s just in the movie, for now.