To be frank with you, I do not know much about how famous Wolfgang Puck has been during last four decades, so documentary film “Wolfgang”, which is currently available on Disney+, fills my blind spot to some degree. Here is a man who has been willingly devoted himself to his craft for many years while also having a string of impressive successes beyond his expectation, and the documentary would be more interesting if it simply lets us get to know more about who he is instead of focusing too much on the rather superficial details of his professional career.
After the quick summary on how successful Puck has been since he opened his first restaurant in the late 1980s, the documentary lets Puck talk about his humble beginning in Austria. He was born to an unmarried mother who subsequently married a coal miner, and it is clear to us that he still feels hurtful about his very unhappy childhood years. His stepfather was frequently abusive to his wife and her children, and Puck was already quite determined to leave his unhappy home and then prove himself someday even when he was only 14.
Having been interested in cooking since he was very young, Puck knew he wanted to be a chef, but the first years of his professional career were not so easy to say the least. At first, he was employed as a junior employee at a hotel restaurant, but he got fired just because he did not prepare enough potatoes, and that certainly humiliated him a lot. As a matter of fact, he even considered jumping into a river at one point, but he decided not to give up at any chance in the future, and this desperate determination of his eventually led him to more opportunities during next several years.
After learning a lot from a number of fine restaurants in France, Puck came to try his luck in US, but the circumstance was rather grim for him in many aspects. During that time, the American cuisine culture was far less sophisticated compared to the French one, and Puck certainly experienced lots of culture shock as trying to find any decent restaurant for him. He managed to get employed in some seemingly fancy French restaurant in LA, but he was horrified to see how this restaurant was lousy in many aspects. For example, nobody cared about getting fresh ingredients, and that surely added more bad reputation to this restaurant.
However, things got changed in the end when Puck later became the new chef after the previous one got fired due to one scathing review article on the restaurant. First, he focused on getting fresh ingredients for his cooking, and, fortunately for him, there was a nearby farm which could steadily provide him many different vegetables. In addition, he paid a lot of attention to the qualities of meat, and this also contributed a lot to the following improvement of the restaurant.
Around the time when the restaurant became much more popular and successful than before, Puck came across Barbara Lazaroff, who would marry him as constantly supporting and promoting his career. Motivated by Lazaroff’s sincere support, Puck eventually decided to walk away from the restaurant after seeing that he was not appreciated enough despite his considerable contribution to its amazing success, and he and his wife subsequently opened a restaurant of their own in West Hollywood. Although everything seemed to be messy and chaotic even on its opening day, their restaurant turned out to be quite successful right from the start, and this big breakthrough led him to much more fame and success. Via one prominent Hollywood agent who frequented his restaurant a lot, Puck began to appear on TV, and, thanks to his natural charm and charisma, he quickly became the most famous chef in US since Julia Child.
Since that point, Puck has kept going on while devoting a lot of himself to his craft and career, and he is still happily working as usual, but, as he frankly admits in the documentary, he did not pay much attention to his family life in the meantime. In case of Lazaroff, she does not have much bitterness about her husband or their eventual divorce in 2003, but she confides to us how unhappy she often was for being frequently under-appreciated during that time. Although she was crucial in many of her ex-husband’s successes, Puck was always the one who got all the attentions in public, and that inevitably caused more conflict and estrangement between them.
As entering his later years at present, Puck becomes more reflective about his life and career, and we see how he tries to make peace with his past in Austria while looking forward to the future. There is a little touching scene where he visits a family tomb along with his younger sister, and he also shows some regret on his absence at the time of his dear grandmother’s death. In addition, he interacts more with young chefs willing to learn more from him, and one of such people is one of his four children, who may have his own distinguished professional career someday.
“Wolfgang” is directed by David Gelb, who previously made “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (2011), which is about one dedicated sushi master in Tokyo. Although it is not as good and satisfying as “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, “Wolfgang” is still fairly enjoyable mainly due to Puck’s engaging presence as well as some delicious shots of cooking and dishes, and it is rather disappointing that the documentary did not go deeper into his life and personality. I did savor its tasty moments, but it could be richer and more insightful in my trivial opinion, so I will just let you decide whether you will watch it or not.