Watch: With Disney+ Documentary, Wolfgang Puck Gets Personal

by Steve Duffy

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday July 18, 2021
Originally published on June 25, 2021

Wolfgang Puck in a still from "Wolfgang"
Wolfgang Puck in a still from "Wolfgang"  (Source:Disney+)

In the foodie universe, there is no bigger talent than Wolfgang Puck. The 71-year old celebrity chef was instrumental in changing the perception of the role of the chef in the cuisine culture and, it can be said, the way Americans perceive dining and food.

In "Wolfgang," the new documentary by David Gelb that premieres today on Disney+, food writer Ruth Reichl points out: "In the '70s, being a chef was a blue-collar job. It was a terrible job. People knew who owned the restaurant, they rarely knew who did the cooking. And Wolf changes that, in a really big way."

Puck moved from Europe to America in 1974. After a few years, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he become chef and part-owner of Ma Maison restaurant. From there, he opened Spago, the hugely popular Sunset Strip dining spot, in 1992. He parlayed that success into an international brand through appearances on cooking shows, recipe columns, cookbooks and even some acting roles.

Filmmaker David Gelb had his breakout film with the 2011 documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" that chronicled the life of Tokyo chef Jiro Ono. He has gone on to "Chef's Table," Netflix's first documentary series in 2015 that follows the template from "Sushi" of looking at the lives of famous cooks and their approach to cooking. The show, which has run for four seasons, takes a more documentary-film approach to its subjects than the standard reality television approach.

EDGE spoke to Puck and director Gelb about how the film came to be, Puck's career and his passion for chocolate.

Wolfgang Puck and David Gelb in "Wolfgang."  

EDGE: David, how did you get involved in the project?

David Gelb: Well, you know, I've always been a huge fan of Wolfgang's. Ever since I was little and I had the privilege of eating at Spago. My dad (Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb) took me with some of his friends, and Wolfgang came out of the kitchen and introduced himself at every single table, including mine. I was starstruck. That was one of the factors that led me on the path to filming chefs, making that part of my career. And so I thought to myself, 'You know, there is no real movie about Wolfgang, and I would love to be the one to do it.' So we approached Wolfgang with the idea. Disney+ was very excited to be part of it because they felt like it was a very inspiring story that would work really well with their audience, and, you know, it was off to the races.

EDGE: And Wolfgang, you are known as the original celebrity chef. Did you ever think that food and chefs would, like, take over the world? I mean the popularity of the genre is just amazing.

Wolfgang Puck: Yeah, absolutely right. What I'm most proud of is making our profession what it is today — also having so many young Americans going into the cooking profession. Forty years ago, if somebody whose father was a lawyer or a doctor had said, 'I'm gonna become a chef,' (their parent) would have looked at them and said, 'Okay. What's wrong with you? I'm gonna take you out of my will if you do that. You go to college and get a real profession...'

I think we changed our profession. Television made chefs famous to some degree, some more than others. But for me, my real passion is the restaurant business, especially the hospitality business, because food and how we make customers feel when they come to our restaurant is the most important part for me... my passion is in the kitchen, and my passion is really making customers feel good.

Wolfgang Puck in "Wolfgang"  (Source: Disney+)

EDGE: It has got to be intimate filming this way — being followed around with the camera. Wolfgang, was it easy to get used to? And, David, how did you approach the filming?

David: We wanted everyone to feel comfortable. And so, you know, we asked very nicely if we can invade their lives, both in their minds and in their physical spaces. I can't even tell you how many times we took over the restaurant Spago, taking over his kitchen, not only (showing the kitchen) creating dishes that they're making that day so we can film them. I would have them also make things from back when Wolfgang was cooking in the South of France, where he really kind of gained his inspiration and confidence. And dishes for when he was chef at Ma Maison.

The movie really works because of what Wolfgang and his team put into it. Wolfgang was really willing to go the distance with us. He was there, ready to give his story in a very candid and honest way, and that it's that partnership that makes it great.

EDGE: Wolfgang, in the film, you say that the kitchen makes you feel safe. What is it about the kitchen that makes you feel that way because the kitchen scares me...

Wolfgang: I think that because my mother or my grandmother was in the kitchen all the time and I was helping. I felt good about that. I always loved the smell of the food... In a way, it was like my refuge. I think since a young kid, it was always the kitchen. When I was 12 years old, my mother was a chef, and I used to go and help her out so that way I didn't have to deal with my stepfather because when he was always impossible.

Wolfgang Puck in "Wolfgang"  (Source: Disney+)

EDGE: What did you guys learn about each other from this experience?

David: I learned about how Wolfgang treats his customers like guests in his own home. I guess we call them guests and not customers. I observed this when I was young, but I also observed this behind the scenes (in making the film). The way he is with his staff. He's like a teacher, and all of these chefs are like students. Some of them kind of graduate from this kitchen, and then he will open a new restaurant for them as a way for them to continue to grow and expand. I thought that was really moving. He's just so generous. He made sure that my crew, which is not a small crew, was always fed. He just made us feel so at home and so welcome. And I think that's one of the beautiful things about Wolfgang is his generosity and kindness.

Wolfgang: I think when I watched David's early movies like "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" and some episodes of "Chef's Table," and I thought, 'You know what? He brought a new way of looking at food or filming food in a way that was never done. He is really an innovator in that path.' When he came to talk to me about doing a story, a bigger story than one told on "Chef's Table," I thought that he's the right guy to do that because I trusted him and because I know he has respect for our profession.

EDGE: David, did you cook for Wolfgang?

David: No way... But I think that one of the things that we have in common is our love to eat. We love food and have a lot of respect for it, and I think that was one of the things that may work together looks great.

EDGE Wolfgang, Is there a cuisine that you haven't mastered yet, or you still struggle with or no?

Wolfgang: My wife is from Ethiopia, and they have a very distinctive cuisine... And I always threaten my wife with, 'I got to modernize Ethiopian cuisine.' She always said, 'Don't touch it. It's so good the way it is.' But I say, 'We have if we are going to bring it into the 21st century.'

Wolfgang Puck in an archival photo from "Wolfgang"  (Source: Disney+)

EDGE: What is a guilty food pleasure for both of you?

David: I am obsessed with like, I think it's by Nestle, you know the Drumsticks. It's like this ice cream cone. It's something that I've always loved since I was a kid. My wife recently got some of these mini-ones as a way to introduce our little two-year-old son to ice cream. And I found when nobody was looking, I was eating these little ice cream cones. I love great food made from great ingredients, but there are a couple of instances where some of these food products kind of hit the spot in a nostalgic way for me.

Wolfgang: I didn't have any of these guilty pleasures when I was a kid; to get any kind of fast food together, anything like that, you know. If I wanted raspberries, we only had them in this summer. I had to go into the forest and pick raspberries or strawberries and things like that. And maybe it got the pleasure was having a canned pineapple because we didn't have canned food at home. I didn't think we had an opener.

But chocolate was always one of my favorites. I remember when my mother used to come home in the summertime when she worked at a hotel, and when springtime when we were still in schools, she brought home some chocolate, and all of us would get to taste different kinds of chocolates. I always liked one flavor. I love dark chocolate. So I had our pastry chef make chocolate bon-bons that I really love because they're really strong. We have the strong chocolate — it's really dark chocolate.

EDGE: The restaurant industry took a giant punch last year. But here in Boston, restaurants are back and up and running. Wolfgang, this must be great for you as a restaurant owner but as a chef, just to see us get back to normal.

Wolfgang: One-hundred percent. You know it is really great to see in different places at different times. Like we were opened up in Maui before Thanksgiving, and you know, we had the best six months in 20 years in Maui because a lot of Americans couldn't travel abroad, and they went to Maui for vacation. In London, which just reopened now because a few months ago we had a new outbreak of COVID. All of a sudden, I had ten people in the kitchen who got it.

And in Behram... we are still closed because they have Ramadan and it was the worst thing... COVID spread like crazy throughout the country. So they had to shut down the whole country. But I must say, here in Los Angeles, in Las Vegas in New York, we're doing great, Washington is doing great now that we are up and running in Las Vegas, it's off the charts, it's busier than ever.

EDGE: David what's, what's next for you after this project?

David: I haven't announced it yet, but we're working on some new projects, both that have to do with food and some that don't.

But I have to say that it is such a thrill for this film to be on Disney+ because, for us, it's kind of a whole new audience. It's a different type of film to be on Disney+. It's a very inspiring kind of documentary. And other than nature documentaries, there haven't been many other things like this on Disney+. So I'm really excited to see the reaction, especially from young people who are going to be watching this and hopefully taking away from the kinds of lessons that Wolfgang teaches throughout the film about following your dreams, perseverance, and trying hard. And also teamwork.

EDGE: Wolfgang, How did you feel about having a movie made about you?

Wolfgang: You know I feel I am like an open book anyway, except about my childhood... This is what people don't know about me.... Everybody knows we have restaurants in Singapore and London or New York or Washington. But I think now people will know, well, it didn't happen overnight. Wolfgang started somewhere. He had adversity. He had a stepfather who was, you know, abusive, mentally and physically... I want people to see that adversity can make you stronger, you know, even if the glass is half empty. You can look at it from the other side and says, You know what, it also can be half full, so let's move forward and let's make the best out of it.

And I think that is really an important part: I want people in America and around the world, especially young people especially, who didn't grow up in privilege and have a lot. If you work hard, if you really put the time in, you get really good at it, and you can be successful. Did I think when I was 15- or 16-years-old, I want to be successful in cooking? Not at all. By 18, I thought I'm gonna become a truck driver because they make good money, so I said, okay, I'll do it. But then, at 19, I met this woman, and I found my mentor who really changed my life 100% about what cooking is all about. And I think it's like, if you are a house painter and all of a sudden, you're going to work for Picasso, and he teaches you how to paint.

"Wolfgang!' Is streaming on Disney+. Watch the trailer: