In her 2020 New York Occasions piece “The End of Chefs,” journalist Tejal Rao asks the reader to think about an incredible restaurant and the chef who’s working it. “He’s a person, most likely,” she writes. “A genius, undoubtedly. Let’s say this genius is risky, meticulous, impenetrable, charming, camera-ready. He doesn’t simply handle the workers behind an incredible restaurant. He is the nice restaurant.” She compares him to a director with a singular, implausible imaginative and prescient, a imaginative and prescient so vital that everybody else’s labor should naturally come second, typically to their nice detriment. What would the restaurant trade appear like, she asks, if we celebrated collaboration as an alternative of the genius of 1 man?
Regardless of a current push to view cooks and celeb via a wider, extra essential lens, Wolfgang, a brand new documentary on Disney+ that can display on the Tribeca Movie Pageant earlier than its Disney+ premiere on June 25, upholds the singular chef narrative. In it, famed chef Wolfgang Puck is portrayed as a person with distinctive drive and expertise, preventing his approach to the highest and deserving all the things he obtained as soon as he arrived there. He’s credited for a slew of firsts, and the movie, to its disservice, not often contextualizes or expands on the atmosphere and tradition that assisted his rise.
That now’s the time for a Puck retrospective comes as no shock. In spite of everything, “Spago Rock” is an accepted musical style. There’s additionally a rising nostalgia and cultural appreciation for the yuppie aesthetics of the ’80s and ’90s, with eating places decked in upholstered pastel cocaine chic, fast food going retro, and eating places serving food that reminds diners of 30 years in the past. Hell, even Viennetta is back. Puck has by no means fallen from prominence and continues to be within the kitchen, opening eating places, and producing a grocery retailer model, however nonetheless his legacy is tied to the ’80s and ’90s, many years everybody seemingly desires to relive (or in some younger folks’s case, reside for the primary time) now.
In her Occasions piece, Rao names Puck because the harbinger of chef-as-auteur and in all equity, his is a compelling story. Raised in Austria by a poor mom and abusive stepfather, Puck discovered solace within the kitchen. He labored his approach to France after which to America. After making Ma Maison an L.A. hot spot, he grew to become a full-fledged celeb when he opened Spago in 1982. At Spago, he modified the notion of wonderful eating and also you most likely know the beats from there — he created the smoked salmon pizza! Turned the official chef of the Oscars! He’s obtained eating places in airports now! And thru all of it, he seems impossibly charming together with his pristine enamel shining via a boyish smile. He’s one in every of many to assert the title of “first celeb chef” and he makes case for it.
It’s arduous to undersell Puck’s affect on American eating and celeb tradition. Probably the most compelling elements of the documentary, directed by David Gelb, are when it reminds viewers that commonplace issues are frequent as a result of Puck revolutionized them. The concept of pizza on a fine-dining menu — and one topped with smoked salmon and caviar at that — was hitherto exceptional. As have been ideas like an open kitchen the place diners may watch the cooking motion, the fusing Asian and French flavors in wonderful eating, and the concept that the restaurant’s chef is not only the individual behind the meals however a visionary.
There are moments when it looks as if Wolfgang goes to research Puck-the-phenomenon slightly than laud Puck-the-man. Most of that occurs round Barbara Lazaroff, Puck’s ex-wife and co-founder of the Wolfgang Puck model. In accordance with Wolfgang, it was Lazaroff who pushed Puck to make Spago a fine-dining restaurant and never only a pizzeria, conceptualized and designed the open kitchen, and managed Puck’s expertise, turning him right into a model. By her, you start to see how Wolfgang Puck, the celeb, was created.
However such explorations are short-lived. Fairly the documentary appears extra intent on presenting Puck as the last word One Nice Man — be it via interviews together with his followers, his family and friends, and Puck himself — even ignoring identified information 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 may have acknowledged the affect Puck performed with and constructed on, however as an alternative made it appear to be the dish sprang from his head like Athena.
Wolfgang paints a direct line between the genius of its eponymous chef and his success. He began out with nothing, however as a result of Puck had such a singular thoughts, such expertise, and such drive, he created alternative after alternative for himself. Which leads me to query what occurred to those that had aspirations or goals much like Puck’s however failed. Those that consider in meritocracy would argue that others have been much less sensible or arduous working. However regardless of Puck’s humble beginnings, he nonetheless had the benefit 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 profession and fame.
The idea of deserving success is all the time difficult and two issues might be true directly: Puck is an excellent innovator and chef, and sure privileges performed a job in getting him the place he’s now. Wolfgang invests all its time convincing the viewer that Puck deserves all of it, and perhaps he does, however so do lots of people who aren’t as well-known or profitable. We’ve lengthy accepted the narrative that Puck is among the world’s nice cooks. So why not inform a brand new story?