The first time I met Wolfgang Puck was over 30 years ago while working at the famous Ma Maison in Southern California. For decades, I have enjoyed his cuisine and hospitality at countless Oscar parties at his legendary original Spago Restaurant in the hills above Sunset Blvd and then finally at the new excavations in Beverly Hills.
His early life is a roller coaster of pain and heartache. As a teenager in Austria, Wolfgang Puck exploited his love of cooking to escape his stepfather’s strict rule. Working long hours in the kitchen for free finally led him to a famous French restaurant before finally landing in America at the age of 24. In the 70s, Puck started working in Ma Maison, creating a menu of fresh ingredients and after having gained some respect from Ma Maison’s owner, Puck took the biggest risk of his career and opened his first restaurant, Spago, which became an instant hit. Puck is the first celebrity chef with his decades of television appearances after launching a huge empire of restaurants, cafes and products around the world.
With such a recognized career, a new documentary will be released on June 25 at Disney +, directed by David Gelb and the creators of Chef’s Table, with the title WOLFGANG. It’s a raw look at the legend as he deals with a life of rags to riches and documents his return to Austria to recount his troubled childhood.
I spent several hours with Wolfgang at his restaurant at the Hotel Bel Air as he took me into the large kitchen to prepare some Austrian specialties, including his delicious Weinerchnitzel (full video cooking lesson below). I enjoyed a great sit-down meal with the meaty chef for a memorable afternoon talking about his life and what awaits his future. I also sat down with Wolfgang’s son Byron Puck, who heads the amazing new Merois Restaurant on the roof of the Pendry Hotel in West Hollywood, to discuss growing up with the legendary chef.
Your mother was a professional cook; how much did she influence you as a child?
WOLFGANG PUCK: “I learned it by looking at her, but I left my home when I was 14. So every summer I used to go to the hotel where she worked and spend time in the kitchen. I picked up tennis balls on the tennis court there, and they always gave me good tips.We did not have a car, we did not have a phone and we did not even have plumbing in the house.We did not have a refrigerator, just cold milk and that was it.When I tell it to my children, says “What do you think you could not turn on the water? And I tell them we had a big bucket of water. If we wanted hot water, they had to heat the stove.”
What made you decide to leave home at fourteen?
“My stepfather was what I called a terrorist. He was terrible. He always told me I was good for nothing. These days he would surely be arrested and imprisoned. I think something was better for me than staying home by it.I just took everything, went to the train station and ended up renting a room an hour away from and an elderly lady.I started working in a hotel and the chef there was just as crazy as my stepfather, so I went from one bad place to another. After four weeks we ran out of potatoes; the chef called me and said you’re good for nothing. “
“I went from torment to torment. That was when I said; I want to jump into the river and die; it’s better than going home again. So I stood on a bridge overlooking the river Drauor, and then suddenly, I decided to go back to work the next morning.Maybe the chef changed his mind.The next day an older apprentice hid me in the basement and I peeled potatoes.When the chef found me, he grabbed me by my jacket and told me to go home to my mother “I said I did not travel. He called the owner who sent me to his other restaurant nearby. The chef there was a woman and she was nice.”
When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
“I really wanted to be an architect, but it was too complicated. I was going to Vienna and go to school there, and it’s expensive. So I could not do it because we did not have the money. So cooking was my second option, and I did not really like it so much in the beginning, not even a new place.As a child I saw my friends playing football or skiing on the weekends and I had to work and it was not fun.And then when I was seventeen, we got this French restaurant to do a gastronomic week every week, and they cooked with wine and made escargots, and chefs used to drink the wine and not use it for cooking. “
“I had to cook at different stations. I worked at the vegetable station and then at the salad stage, an appetizer station. In three years you’ll pretty much go through all the different stations and the kitchen. And then I said I want to go to “France and see what’s really going on there because I was fascinated by what they were doing. So I went to the Aux Trois Faisans in Dijon and started working there.”
“I wrote to all the three-star French restaurants in the Michelin guide and asked for a job and offered to work for free. The first chef to say yes was Raymond Thuilier from L’Oustau de Baumanière in Provence. That was my “life changed at the age of 19. My mentor was 70 and he was so passionate about food. I could see him coming into the kitchen with Elizabeth Taylor and then Marcello Mastroianni with George Pompidou. Even Picasso came into the kitchen one day.”
How many years did you have to put in before something happened?
I was 19 years old or so when I got there. Then I stayed there two and a half years there. And he really trusted me, and that was such an important part that someone finally trusted me. When he went away a few days, he told the restaurant chef that Wolfgang was going to make the sauces. This was like a culinary school for me because this really opened my mind, opened my brain and really gave me the building block from which I could decide that this is what I want to do. This is who I would like to emulate. You know, this guy meant so much to me, by far the most important part of my professional life. “
At what point did you finally feel like you were not a failure? Even when you worked at Ma Maison, you were not treated well.
“When I came to Ma Maison, Patrick Terrail had such a big ego. He was the movie star. I met Barbara (Lazaroff); she had a boyfriend at the time and was in the music business and made really good money. She looked at my Ma Maison. payslip and was shocked at what I was doing in a week.When I told her it was my check for two weeks, she said I was crazy.You work six days a week from nine in the morning to eleven o ‘clock at night, and that’s what he pays you? ‘
“So when I left in 1981, I found this place up on Sunset Boulevard. I wanted to turn this into a pizza place with a wood stove and a grill. Just keep it really simple food, not even white tablecloths or whatever. I had many, many sleepless nights and thought.What if I’m a failure? What if no customers come? At first it was very difficult.I remember I ran out of money to open the restaurant.But on the opening night, I looked around and there was not an empty table in the restaurant. “
For Byron Puck, the experience of growing up with a famous chef’s father proved valuable in his education. “When I first started working in kitchens, my father warned me that this is not an easy industry,” he said. “This is not something you get into for money. This is something you get into because you love it and you love it day in and day out. And I think that’s so much of it that goes into my dad, too. As I often talk to him, it’s like we’re both awake at night, because when you’m not in the restaurant, it feels like your child and you’re worried about it. And when you are away from it, it feels like it just feels wrong in a way. ”
Speaking of Austria, do you own property there?
“No, I have no desire. The cities that are as old – like Villach, where I grew up – have not changed much in 60 years. It was nice to show people around, but the memories are not good there. My wife said why do not we buy a house by the lake, a small house.Even as beautiful as it is, I do not feel happy there.And then I think I like to go to different places when I am on vacation . “
How is your life now?
“My life is so much better now. The film shows that succeeding also means having a big family. My first son, Cameron, just got his PhD Byron, my second son, went to Cornell and worked in various kitchens in Spain., France, New York, etc. He is 26 years old now and manages one of our restaurants (Merois) .I have two younger boys Oliver and Alexander who go to boarding school in Switzerland.Be successful in your profession is one thing, but you have to have balance.When I look at my life today, it’s what I’m so proud of, my children.We just opened Merois, we open in Budapest next month at Matild Palace, and “I have been invited back to the Middle East to make the Red Sea. Gelila is also working on a whole new healthy food concept.”
You have a pretty simple life with only one residence. Do you have any toys like a private jet or Ferrari?
“I only have one home in Bel Air, seven minutes from my restaurant (bought by Hyatt Hotel heir Anthony Pritzker). I remember when we were at Cala di Volpe in Sardinia, probably one of the most expensive hotels you can stay. If I owned a property in Sardinia we would not get the service we want and we will have to cook or hire a chef and hire someone to clean up and do small things.I said I will spend two weeks to travel, to be pampered, and have everything I want and just enjoy life. And I do not want to worry. “
“As for material things, I have a $ 150,000 French Molteni stove in my kitchen. I saw General Motors make an electric lobster, which would be nice. And the only thing I love to collect is art. “
Byron Puck adds: “My father is so down to earth and humble when it comes to material possessions, and so do I. I still drive a $ 10,000 car from 2003 every day. But these things are really not what matters in life. Materialistic things can be fun, but they do not last. The experiences are lasting. What more do you need than to have a genuine and unadulterated passion and love for something? Why get all the ferraris and mansions when it feels unnecessary and redundant at the time. ”
What is your dream for the future? Do you ever retire?
“My dream is really to find the right balance between enjoying life outside the restaurant. The restaurants give me all the energy and keep me young. I love people. I love food. I love going to the fish market and the farmer’s market. So for me, it pleasure, not work. I grow more organic. I have to live life as the people are first and the locations are second. And I think in the end it is better than any holiday. “
How many vacations do you take per year?
“We generally go a couple of times, just like with the boys, to spring break. We went to the Middle East, to Bahrain, where we have two restaurants and we have good friends. And then we want to look for new locations in Riyadh and in Jeddah. to expand in this region.I think that after our trip to Sardinia this summer we will go to Turkey with our friends.That’s how I want to spend money, not buy another house and have a headache.So eventually , we have the memories. “