There are two words that usually precede Austrian-born, Wolfgang Puck’s name: star chef. Behind the celebrity chef moniker is a dynamic, tireless, multilingual entrepreneur who’s established a remarkably successful international brand in the highly competitive hospitality sector. Among one of the first chefs to appear on the Food Network, Puck has been at the forefront of ushering in a new era in American dining and is a James Beard Foundation multi-award winner. He’s the second chef to earn a television star, which he receives today, April 26, on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Look for Puck’s star in front of Hollywood & Highland’s Dolby Theatre.
Puck’s stellar achievements are the result of his adherence to traditional standards of hospitality and, simply put, delicious food. His famous and well-connected customers and friends haven’t hurt his career either: from Cary Grant to Elizabeth Taylor to Ben Affleck and Taylor Swift, and execs like Marvin Davis, legendary agent Swifty Lazar and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Hollywood’s heavyweights have all burnished the reputation of his flagship restaurant Spago. And for 23 years, Puck has shaped the Academy Awards’ Governors Ball into a culinary extravaganza.
Puck’s beginnings were modest. He grew up on a farm and from the age of 18, he worked his way up through Michelin-starred kitchens in France, from L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence to Maxim’s in Paris, where the pastry chef suggested he move to America to follow his dream of opening a restaurant. In 1973, he landed a gig at Indianapolis’ La Tour and took a Greyhound to the Indy 500’s hometown.
“I thought it would be more like Monte Carlo because of the car race,” Puck recalls; the memory of preparing too many well-done steaks still gives him pause.
Puck transferred to downtown Los Angeles’ Francois at the Arco Plaza (since shuttered); he then began his stint at Ma Maison, where his fruitful liaison with Hollywood developed. Although his first paycheck bounced, Puck’s association with Ma Maison’s owner Patrick Terrail and the restaurant’s celeb crowd earned him a following. In an oft-reported move of marketing brilliance, the restaurant’s phone number was un-listed, creating even more buzz for the eatery.
However, Puck still yearned to open his own “neighborhood place” with an emphasis on seasonal produce and California’s bounty, similar to coastal spots he loved in the South of France.
He realized that dream in 1982 when he opened Spago in West Hollywood. Spago’s first menus were simple and focused. “It was an interesting time, people were not educated on food,” remembers Puck.
The restaurant’s open kitchen, quality, fresh-from-Chino Farm ingredients and casual atmosphere were a unique combination in 1982. Although Puck opened with no money in the bank — “I didn’t know if I would make payroll,” he says — press accolades and then crowds soon followed. “It was like a fire, it was so crazy busy, people had to wait for a table even with a reservation,” adds Puck of Spago’s early momentum.
CAA’s co-founder Michael Ovitz helped facilitate the personable chef’s first national television appearance, cooking live on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Puck was the first chef to appear on “Late Show With David Letterman.”
Despite his many on-air appearances and his ease in talking with the media, Puck has never been formally coached; his on-air skills are natural, honed from years of greeting his customers on a daily basis. He even has a system so he doesn’t miss a table when he walks his dining rooms, greeting regulars and first timers alike.
“It’s very difficult to get a steady clientele: if you don’t have hospitality or have the consistency, you don’t have the customers,” Puck notes. He reminds his staff that customers must have a welcoming experience; those that have attitude are shown the door.
His good friend, music manager, film producer and devoted foodie Shep Gordon, believes that Puck’s longevity is due his artistry and ability to stay current.
“Because he’s a great artist, he keeps creating new things,” says Gordon, lauding Puck’s talent at reinvention while still playing his “greatest hits every night.”
Is there a dream dinner Puck wants to prepare? Not really. Adds the seasoned chef: “If I do a dinner, it’s who I cook for; cooking is one of the most gratifying professions, you get instant gratification.” And so do his devoted audiences.
Puck is also a longstanding contributor to Hollywood’s most beloved charities. The following trio are some of the nonprofits Puck, along with his team and multiple enterprises, have supported throughout the decades. As with many other chefs, he supports philanthropic causes to feed people in the community, as well as to end hunger such as:
Meals on Wheels
In 1982, when Puck helped found what came to be known as the American Wine & Food Festival, it was a novelty to showcase chefs at charity events. “We had Jeremiah Tower, Paul Prudhomme [of New Orleans’ Chez Paul] and the chef from Le Dome in parking lot at the old Spago,” recalls the chef of the inaugural outing. The culinary event, which eventually grew into the premier fest of its kind, moved to the Universal Studios backlot, and for 28 years raised millions for St. Vincent Meals on Wheels. According to Puck, tireless Sister Sam continues to run the 40-year-old service organization that brings warm meals to L.A.’s elderly and sick who are homebound.
The organization redistributes leftover prepared foods donated from L.A.’s restaurants and select catered events, such as the Governors Ball, which takes place after the Academy Awards. The nonprofit established by food vendor LA & SF Specialty seeks to reduce food waste and aid those in need by delivering provisions to area food banks and homeless shelters. Kitchen staff and chefs package unused portions in supplied pans and LA & SF Specialty delivers to partner organizations.
of Love Gala
The gala originated as a dinner for friends at the private upstairs dining room at Las Vegas’ Spago; now the gala event seats 1,700 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Puck has participated for 21 years in the fundraising night, which benefits the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. The center backs brain-science research and treats patients with Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
The cause is personal for the chef; his mother suffered from Alzheimer’s, while his friend and center benefactor Larry Ruvo’s father died from the disease. The 2016 gala — including silent auction — netted $17 million. On April 27, Puck will once again lead the evening’s culinary team, along with fellow star chef Michael Mina.