Wolfgang Puck opens up about abusive father and mental health in new documentary: 'Finding a mentor is really the most important thing'
Take a seat at Yahoo Life’s 3D chef’s table to explore the dishes that put Wolfgang Puck on the map. By activating the audio icon in the upper right corner, hear the stories behind these recipes from the chef himself.
The name Wolfgang Puck invokes images of glitzy fine dining establishments, star-studded Oscar parties, and years of jovial TV appearances with a veritable who’s who of talk show and late-night hosts. But behind America’s most ubiquitous TV chef, there’s an inspiring rags-to-riches story, explored in the new Disney+ documentary Wolfgang, out June 25.
Directed by David Gelb, the creator of Chef’s Table and director of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the film tells the story of Puck’s rise from a difficult childhood in Austria to the head of a massive culinary empire.
"I always see the glass half full and I was lucky in a way because I started out low and moved up," Puck tells Yahoo Life. "I never thought I would come to L.A. or open one restaurant — forget about so many — and meet the most interesting people in the world all the time."
Here, Puck shares what drives him, who has inspired him, and what he’s learned about family and relationships throughout his career.
What initially drove you to become a chef?
My mother was a chef in Austria, and my stepfather was very, very nasty. He abused us mentally and physically, me and my sister, and I couldn't wait to leave. The job my mother found for me was in a hotel 50 miles away, so I moved away there and started my apprenticeship. One Sunday, a few weeks into it, we ran out of mashed potatoes, and it was all my fault. The chef fired me, and that probably was my worst day in my professional life. I walked on the bridge that was over the river and I thought, "I'm going to jump in and kill myself." I was 14 years old. I was standing there for a while thinking about my life, and then all of a sudden it came in my head, like a flash went off, and I said, "I’m just gonna to go back tomorrow. And we'll see." So I went back the next day. The apprentice who was there before me, he saw me coming and he was so excited. He says, "Oh, you're back. Thank God, so I don't think I have to peel potatoes and onions again." And he hid me down in the vegetable cellar. A few weeks into it, the chef came down and started screaming, "I fired you, what are you doing here?" He called the owner of the hotel and said, "I don't know what to do with this dumb kid." The owner was a little bit nicer, had a little bit more empathy. And he sent me to his other hotel, and there they had a woman chef and she had kids my age. Everything went better from there. Finding a mentor and finding your passion is really the most important thing.
You worked your way up through fine dining restaurants in Paris and eventually landed in Los Angeles. When your flagship restaurant Spago opened in West Hollywood in 1983, it quickly became a celebrity hangout. What are some of your favorite memories from that time?
It started at Ma Maison before I even opened Spago. I got to know Orson Welles and Billy Wilder really well. When I opened Spago, I called Billy Wilder up and I said, "Billy, I have my new restaurant open. You have to come." He said, "OK, I’ll come. Put me down on Friday night for eight or 10 people." He showed up with Gregory Peck and Sidney Poitier and Joan Collins. All of a sudden, they were sitting in the middle of the restaurant, and everybody said, "Oh my God, Spago is THE restaurant. All the big stars are coming to Spago." Even I was shocked. And so then it just continued to grow. And then Swifty Lazar in 1985 started to do his Oscar party there, so that helped us. So certainly the celebrity part helped a lot, but we also had to try to continue to improve. Because if the food wasn’t good and interesting, people wouldn't come, so it's really important to keep on evolving.
In the film, you mention that Johnny Carson was the genesis of your frozen pizza line, since he used to order several pizzas to take home and freeze. Were any other dishes inspired by famous friends?
When we did the smoked salmon pizza, it was out of necessity because we ran out of brioche which we used to serve the salmon. Joan Collins, she used to come in and order the smoked salmon and I didn't have any more brioche, so I said, "What am I going to do?" So I cooked a pizza dough and then I put some dill cream on top and some smoked salmon. And because it was Joan Collins, I put a little extra caviar on top. And she loved it. There's nothing better. It got so popular that I never could take it off the menu. In a way it's good, they can taste a little bit of our tradition. Innovation is important, but a little tradition is great too.
We also meet your ex-wife Barbara Lazaroff in the film, who helped you build your empire. You have two children together and you have two children with your current wife. What’s the key to a successful blended family? How do you balance work and home life?
You cannot neglect one. If you neglect the restaurant, then the restaurant will close, but the family doesn't close, they just forget about you. You end up being an old man, and the kids will never come and visit you. To enjoy being with your family, it's really a thing I had to learn because I didn't grow up like that. I was happy when my stepfather left our house, not when he came home. And Gelila, my new wife, really helped me understand how important family is and how we have to raise the kids. You know, they don't grow by themselves. You really have to work and be an example. I spend so much more time now with my children than I did before. I drove my kids to school and picked them up so that was always really quality time with them. I better do it now, because if I don't do it now, when? As I said in the movie too, there's only that many summers left for me. So I have to really keep the relationship going. And what is good too is that Gelila now is really involved also in the business. So I think it's great to be able to work together, but also to have a family together.
Your son Byron has followed you into the business. Were you happy about that decision? Do you want that for your other children as well?
I really love it. Why? Because I really didn't want to sell our business. I wanted it to continue in the family. Now it’s in the second generation, maybe one day in the third generation, ideally speaking. Hopefully it lasts for a while and, hopefully, Byron can pull it off. It’s very exciting to see your son doing work and being good at it. I get so many great comments about how he runs the restaurant, so it's really a very good feeling.
To make your own wiener schnitzel from the 3D chef's table experience, you will need:
Warm potato salad ingredients:
1 cup Champagne vinegar
1/4 cup peanut oil
2-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 small organic yellow onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 pound organic fingerling potatoes, washed
3 whole peeled garlic cloves
3 sprigs fresh parsley
Wiener schnitzel ingredients:
Peanut oil for deep-frying
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cage-free eggs, beaten with 2 tablespoons cold water
4 cups panko or fresh dry, white bread crumbs
4 eight-ounce veal scaloppine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup whole parsley leaves, rinsed and thoroughly dried
2 lemons, each cut into 4 wedges
To prepare the warm potato salad: In a nonreactive mixing bowl, combine the vinegar, peanut oil, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of the kosher salt, thyme, pepper and onion. Whisk until well blended. Set aside.
In a large saucepan, combine the potatoes, garlic, parsley and remaining 2 teaspoons of salt. Add enough cold water to cover the potatoes completely. Bring the water to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook until the potatoes are just tender enough to be pierced easily with a knife tip, 8 to 10 minutes. Do not overcook them. Drain the potatoes. When they are cool enough to handle, cut them crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick round slices, add them to the bowl containing the dressing and toss thoroughly but gently. Leave them to marinate for at least 20 minutes before serving.
To make the wiener schnitzel: In a deep, heavy skillet or saucepan, preheat about 3 inches of oil to 375 degrees Fahrenheit on a deep-frying thermometer.
Put the flour, egg mixture and bread crumbs in each of three large, shallow pie plates or soup plates, side by side. Season the veal scaloppine on both sides with salt and pepper. One at a time, dredge the scaloppine in flour to coat them evenly; then dip them on both sides in egg wash; then turn them in the panko or bread crumbs to coat them evenly. Gently shake off the excess crumbs. On a work surface, use a sharp knife to lightly score the breading four times in a crosshatch pattern, to help secure the breading and prevent curling. Carefully slip the scaloppine into the hot oil and deep-fry until golden on both sides, about 3 minutes. Remove with a wire skimmer or slotted spoon, and transfer to paper towels to drain.
While the schnitzels are frying, put the potato salad in a sauté pan and, over high heat, quickly rewarm it. Spoon the potato salad onto each of 4 warmed serving plates.
As soon as the schnitzels are done frying, put the parsley into the hot oil and fry until dark green and crisp, 15 to 20 seconds. Remove the parsley with the skimmer or slotted spoon, and drain on paper towels.
Place a wiener schnitzel on each plate, partly overlapping the potato salad. Garnish with fried parsley leaves and lemon wedges and serve immediately.
Recipe courtesy Wolfgang Puck, Live, Love, Eat! Random House, 2002
AR Produced by Tim Chaffee and Nicholas Rudzewick
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