Wolfgang Puck Food Company
Wolfgang Puck spent nearly two decades developing and refining his uniquely prestigious culinary crafts in some of the most acclaimed kitchens in Europe. After emigrating to the United States in the mid-1970s, he brought not only his highly regarded talent to Indianapolis and later southern California, but his zestfully overriding drive to excel as well. Still under the age of 40, Puck became by the mid-1980s a celebrity chef who was known as much for his distinct culinary creations as for his cookbooks, videos, chain of Wolfgang Puck Cafes, highly touted restaurants, Wolfgang Puck Food Company, and for elevating and celebrating the California style of cooking.
Puck was born on January 8, 1949, in the Austrian town of St. Veit an der Glan. His mother, Maria, was a restaurant chef, while his father, Josef, was a coal miner. Problems arose at home when young Puck declared that he wanted to be a chef and follow in his mother's footsteps, rather than pursuing a career that his father approved of. Puck did try his hand at working on a construction site but quit because he hated it. When he was 14, he managed to get a job in a restaurant, as he related to Florence Fabricant of the New York Times, "I was so inept that after three days the chef was going to fire me. Here I was a good-for-nothing kid who had run away from home. I hid out in the cellar of the restaurant for two weeks. When the chef found me, he took pity on me and got me a job in another hotel." His subsequent restaurant experiences would prove much more favorable, however.
Puck's first marriage ended in divorce. He then married Barbara Lazaroff, who was also his business partner in many of his U.S. ventures. The couple have two children, Cameron and Byron.
For three years, Puck worked in various restaurant kitchens throughout Austria. He then left his homeland for France to hone his culinary skills after having sampled the savory delights prepared by a visiting chef from Dijon, France.
After moving to France, Puck found work in the kitchens of Ostau de Baumaniere in Les Baux-de-Provence. From there, he went to the Hotel de Paris, in Monte Carlo. Puck's next position was at the esteemed kitchens of Maxim's, in Paris.
By the mid-1970s, he was looking for a new challenge and America seemed to offer the earnest young chef the opportunity of a lifetime—to progress above and beyond his already esteemed reputation. Puck told Theresa Howard of Nation's Restaurant News that "the 70's and 80's were an amazing time. The food media were learning about new foods and writing about them and providing a lot of exposure to the industry, prompting people to eat out more. I was lucky to come to America at that time. People were really into discovering new foods."
Puck's first stop in America was at La Goulone, in New York City, where he worked as the chef. From there he traveled to Indianapolis and assumed a position as head chef at a local restaurant. In the late 1970s, Puck was persuaded by Patrick Terrail to move to Los Angeles to become head chef and part-owner at Ma Maison.
In 1980 Puck wrote his first cookbook, Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen. In 1982 he decided to leave Ma Maison and open his own restaurant. Failing to convince Terrail to be his partner, Puck went it alone on his bistro. The restaurant was called Spago and cost $500,000. The bistro, which was located on Hollywood's Sunset Strip, earned a reputation as a trendy place where many of the rich and famous dined in an open kitchen setting, a trend-setting idea at the time. The menu featured such unusual fare as caviar, lox, and duck sausage pizzas along with new and unusual pasta dishes.
The smashing success of Spago led Puck to open Chinios on Main, a Chinese restaurant, the following year. His new venture was considered so promising that Puck was bombarded with potential investors who wanted a piece of Chinios. He even had to turn some of them away.
Further seeking to expand his market and satisfy an ever hungry public, Puck wrote his second cookbook in 1986. It was entitled The Wolfgang Puck Cookbook: Recipes from Spago, Chinios and Points East and West. The following year saw the release of his instructional video, Cooking with Wolfgang Puck. By 1988, the two restaurants had grossed $9 million. The wildly popular reputation of Spago enabled Puck to open branches of Spago in Mexico City, Tokyo, Las Vegas, and Chicago.
The year 1989 saw the opening of Postrio in San Francisco's Prescott Hotel. Not long after this, Puck became a part owner of a brew pub called Eureka, which closed in the mid-1990s when the brewery operations failed. Granita, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant, was opened in a Malibu shopping center in 1991. It was soon followed by Puck's ObaChine, first in Beverly Hills and then in Seattle. He even managed to find time in 1991 to write another cookbook, Adventures in the Kitchen with Wolfgang Puck.
With the establishment of the Wolfgang Puck Food Company, Puck entered the retail food business. His most successful and well-known products were his exotic and gourmet pizzas, which were inspired by the food served at Spago. By the early 1990s, the retail food business earned him $4 million annually.
Not content to rest on his past achievements, Puck also became a restaurant chain owner and developer when he opened his first Wolfgang Puck Cafe. By 1997 the Wolfgang Puck Food Company oversaw the operations of nine cafes, three Puck Expresses and five fast food franchises totaling over a million dollars a year in sales.
Social and Economic Impact
Puck has been actively involved in charity and fundraising events for many years. He created the Wolfgang Puck Foundation, which donated $200,000 to Meals on Wheels in 1987. He also founded the American Food and Wine Festival, with his second wife, Barbara Lazaroff. The proceeds from the festival benefited Meals on Wheels as well.
Puck's promotion of California-style cuisine brought that style of cooking to the public's attention. It has, over time, even become standard American fare. Puck is also a champion of his employees. Ruth Reichl of the Los Angeles Times was quoted as saying, "he knows how to keep his staff loyal. Also, he's worked so hard that people in his field don't begrudge his success."
Chronology: Wolfgang Puck
1980: Wrote Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen.
1982: Opened Spago, his first restaurant.
1983: Opened Chinios.
1986: Wrote Wolfgang Puck Cookbook.
1987: Released video Cooking with Wolfgang Puck.
1989: Opened Postrio.
1991: Wrote Adventures in the Kitchen with Wolfgang Puck.
1991: Opened Granita.
1997: Named Nation's Restaurant News Innovator of the Year along with wife Barbara Lazaroff.
Puck said it was the excellent quality of the staff he trained, not his personal touch, that made his restaurants successful. Puck was credited with creating a direct bond between the chef and the diners when he designed Spago's kitchen to be fully visible to patrons. This cemented the bond between the chef and the diners as they could more fully appreciate the work of the chef.
Over the years Puck has earned numerous awards, including the James Beard Awards for Chef and Humanitarian of the Year, the Nation's Restaurant News 1997 Innovator of the Year Award, which he shared with his wife, Barbara Lazaroff. Spago, Chinios on Main, and Postrio have all been recognized in the Nation's Restaurant News Fine Dining Hall of Fame.
Puck, the chef who loved nothing more than to share his gifts with others, summarized for Theresa Howard of Nation's Restaurant News his professional vision: ". . . the most important thing is to show young people that this is a profession worth going into and getting people to understand that being a chef isn't second class citizenry."
Sources of Information
Contact at: Wolfgang Puck Food Company
1210 Tellem Dr.
Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
"Chefs Come and Chefs Go." New York Times, 17 July 1991.
"Chef's Signature." Supermarket Business, September 1996.
"Puck's Second Coming." Los Angeles Magazine, April 1997.
"NRN Names Puck, Lazaroff 1997 Innovators of the Year." Nation's Restaurant News, 2 June 1997.
"Wolfgang Puck." Nation's Restaurant News, February 1996.
"Wolfgang Puck." Newsmakers 90, Detroit: Gale Research, 1990.
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