Wolfgang Puck Survived an Abusive Childhood Before Becoming a Celebrity Chef

·14 min read
Disney+
Disney+

There were pivotal times at the height of Wolfgang Puck’s success—and in the culinary world, that peak could dwarf Mount Everest—when he would find himself sitting at his flagship Los Angeles restaurant Spago, the establishment that fundamentally changed how we think about American cuisine, and stare out the window.

“Who am I?” he would ask himself in these existential moments. “Am I a chef? Am I a restaurant? Am I a character? Am I a guy who has never enough?”

Now the 71-year-old multihyphenate, the man credited as the first “celebrity chef,” is staring at the sunset of his life and storied career, wondering how many summers he has left, and pondering those questions again. This time, however, he has some answers.

The new documentary Wolfgang, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and debuts Friday on Disney+, looks back at Puck’s rise, forcing him to consider his legacy and, for the first time, speak candidly about his dark upbringing in Austria, where he grew up under the thumb of an abusive stepfather. Puck considered committing suicide as a teenager rather than return home to that man.

“I have to relive my youth, which I stored away for good reason for many years,” Puck tells The Daily Beast in a Zoom interview, explaining his initial reluctance to participate in a documentary like this. “But I think at the end I said, you know what, people should know. I should get over it. This is a good reason to talk about it.”

The grin, a half-moon like a sliced melon, suddenly flashes, along with the mischief that dances from his eyes, the traits that have become so familiar after thousands of TV appearances over the decades. “If I do enough interviews, I think I can be okay,” he smirks. “You know, instead of talking to a shrink.”

To some, it may seem like Puck cannon-blasted to his singular, stratospheric fame in the food world: the immediate success of Spago, the pioneering of “California cuisine,” and the appearances on Good Morning America and Late Night With David Letterman and then just about every talk show that has aired in the 40 years since. He played himself in TV shows like Frasier and CSI. He became the culinary face of the Academy Awards, a celebrity sighting there as exciting as a nominee. And, of course, he built a restaurant empire, from his Michelin Star-awarded ventures to his various airport eateries.

As restaurant recommendation website The Infatuation wrote, Puck is “the first (and maybe only) chef you and your grandma know by name.”

But as Wolfgang lays out, there were decades of hardship that required grit of the wunderkind chef before Spago became the food version of a 1980s Studio 54, where Sean Penn and Madonna jockeyed for prime tables with Prince around the restaurant’s revolutionary open kitchen—the thrilling stage for a rising culinary star’s gregarious presence.

When Puck speaks about his past, it’s with a bouncing yet gruff Austrian accent. It practically barks at you, as if coming from one of those friendly dogs in memes that always has a smile on its face. It’s a kind of sunniness that he’s used to cast away the shadows of what he endured, a self-sustaining solar charge driving him forward, with no rearview mirror to glance back at the past.

“I was brought up in a crazy way,” he says. “It could have gone the other way. It could have become that I had OD’d or become a drunk or whatever. I really think one never can find out what it is in our brain that makes us do certain things. Like why I was always looking over for new opportunities. Why I was always looking to move forward and not really look back a lot. I managed it in a way that I look at today and tomorrow and not too much in the past.”

Puck grew up on a rural Austrian farm, maybe even the exact kind of rural Austrian farm that pops into your head when you hear the phrase “rural Austrian farm.”

Wolfgang, which was directed by David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Chef’s Table), begins with Puck returning to Austria to visit his sister, Christina, who was born after Puck’s mother remarried his stepfather. He never knew his father.

They gush about memories of their mother’s cooking while growing up. “As a kid, the kitchen was the only place where I felt safe,” he says in the documentary.

They grew up poor, with no running water and no flushable toilet. Sunday afternoons, however, felt like a rich man’s banquet. Their mother would make wienerschnitzel with mashed potatoes. Puck spent countless hours in the kitchen with her and with his grandmother. It was where he found joy, and where he could escape his stepfather.

“He terrorized us,” Puck says. There was verbal abuse, the “you’re good for nothing” insults that implant on a young person’s psyche. When Puck was 8, his stepfather came home drunk and made him pick his own stick to be switched with. To evade him, Puck would wake up at 4 a.m. and run to a neighbor’s farm, where he would distract himself by helping to plow the fields and harvest.

He didn’t know that his experience farming and in the kitchen with his mother would be so formative. But he knew he needed to get away.

That escape route seemed to appear when he was 14 and got a job at the Parkhotel in Villach, Austria, peeling potatoes and cleaning the kitchen. There was no cooking to be done, but that didn’t matter. It was his way out.

“When I left, I said I’m never going to go home,” Puck says. “I’m going to come home with a Mercedes and drive it through the front door. If not, I’m not going to come home.”

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Disney+

One day in the middle of lunch, the restaurant ran out of mashed potatoes. The chef stormed over and berated Puck, playing all of his stepfather’s own greatest hits: “You’re good for nothing.” “Why did we hire you?” He fired him on the spot and kicked him out of the restaurant.

Puck knew he couldn’t go home and face his stepfather. Running from the phrase “I told you so,” he found himself on the bridge over the Drava River, staring down at the dark water beneath it.

“The only thing I knew was that I didn’t wanna go back to my stepfather,” he says. “I said I’d kill myself before I do that. When I went to the bridge, I was thinking about jumping in the river. I wasn’t even thinking about my career then. I was thinking about my life and how it would end up. How would it end up when I’m dead? What would happen? Would I go to hell or to heaven? How is it after you’re dead?”

He spiraled. And then he had an epiphany, one that was both life-saving and life-changing. “I said, OK, I’m just gonna go back tomorrow and see what happens.” The next morning, he went back to the hotel and hid in the vegetable cellar doing his usual job, peeling onions and potatoes. The chef didn’t know for weeks that Puck had come back. When he found out, he exploded, this time physically assaulting Puck in addition to berating him.

But Puck dug in his heels. The restaurant owner was impressed, and transferred him to another restaurant at another hotel property.

Puck says that even now, nearly 60 years later, he’s not sure it’s cathartic to share these stories. He remembers the first time he sat in front of the documentary cameras and began talking about his memories. His wife, Gelila Assefa, had to calm him because he started shaking. “If I close my eyes or let my brain wander, it’s still really difficult,” he says.

The decision to choose to live. Standing his ground like that at such a young age. Most people never summon that kind of tenacity. Yet he did, at just 14.

“I think desperation makes you do things you don’t really think you have in yourself,” he says. “For me, going back home was not a possibility. I would kill myself before I go home. I think that’s what landed in my head. I said [the chef] can stop me or whatever he wants to do, but I’m not going home. That perseverance, in a way, changed my life.”

It’s tempting to assign a narrative that a desire to prove his stepfather wrong or to exact revenge in some way motivated many of Puck’s successes. That’s only partly true. The remarkable thing, considering his upbringing, was how quickly he was able to find his own self-worth. And he did it by doing what he does better than most: Cooking.

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Disney+

He went on to work at L’Oustau de Baumanière in Les Baux-de-Provence, at Hôtel de Paris in Monaco, and at Maxim’s Paris. At Maxim’s, he was just 24 years old when he took over the No. 3 position as head night chef, replacing a veteran with two decades more experience.

“I felt, all right, I can be as good as anybody, and that’s what made me feel really good,” he says. Then America came calling.

When Puck’s friends in Paris found out he was moving to New York in 1973, they mocked him. All Americans eat are hot dogs and hamburgers, they sneered. What could he possibly cook for them?

The truth is he hated New York, which he considered a pale imitation of his beloved Paris, the most beautiful city in the world. During his time in Monaco, where the Formula 1 Grand Prix is held, he became a fan of auto racing. He had heard that Indianapolis was a racing hub in America, and hopped on a Greyhound to move there. “Then I looked around and said, oh my god, Indianapolis is nothing like Monaco.”

He eventually found his way to Los Angeles, where he landed a job at the storied Ma Maison restaurant. Just how much credit Puck deserves for turning the institution into what Robin Leach called “Tinseltown’s hottest lunch spot” in an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” is the subject of an amusing, petty dispute that plays out briefly in Wolfgang.

Owner Patrick Terrail claims that he revitalized the restaurant himself, as it was his concept; he argues that Puck didn’t know how to cook for Americans when he started there. Just about everyone else—including and especially Puck—says it was Puck’s doing.

It borders on outlandish to imagine now, but Puck was the first chef at a restaurant of that caliber to source fresh ingredients for the day’s meals. He would wake up at dawn and drive to Chino Farm in Rancho Santa Fe, nearly two hours south of Los Angeles, and gather their produce. He made daily trips to the fish markets. The simple, abundantly flavorful recipes he developed from the fresh ingredients left patrons gobsmacked.

Dubbed “California on a plate,” it eventually became known as “California cuisine,” which Puck is credited with bringing to the masses. In the meantime, it helped turn Ma Maison, as well as Puck, into a sensation.

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Disney+

“When I arrived, it was a total failure,” Puck says. “Even my first paycheck bounced. Little by little we started to go up because I made good food.”

Good food became the cornerstone of Spago when Puck left Ma Maison. He joined forces with then-wife Barbara Lazaroff to open the restaurant in the shell of a former dive on the Sunset Strip in 1982. They had grand, revolutionary ideas. The tables would be white tablecloth, befitting the quality of the food being served. But they would have a giant, wood-burning stove at the center of an open kitchen, turning the cooking into part of the spectacle itself.

Puck didn’t want to play sleepy elevator music. He opted for rock ’n’ roll. “People were used to French or Italian restaurants with white tablecloths with waiters in a black tuxedo coming over and looking down on you,” he says. “This was totally the opposite. I said, the only thing that is serious should be on the plate. The rest should be fun.”

Celebrities flocked there, craving the ambience but also the whimsical food atypical of an establishment like Spago. Pizzas joined a menu of more classic dishes. There was raw tuna in the niçoise salad, where typically back then it had been canned. Smoked salmon over dill cream on a brioche bun was a popular early menu item, until one day the restaurant ran out of buns.

Joan Collins, a regular, was on her way to the restaurant and always ordered the dish. On the fly, Puck took some pizza dough and built the ingredients on that. He fired it up—a pizza with no sauce and no cheese, a novel idea then—piled caviar on top and served it to her.

“She says, oh my god, this is the best thing,” he remembers. "When she came back to the restaurant the next time, she said, ‘I want the Joan Collins pizza.’ She told her friends, ‘You have to have my pizza when you go to Spago.’”

The restaurant’s success led to the openings of more restaurants. Chinois on Main in Santa Monica often boasts it had one of the country’s first Asian fusion menus. After Puck’s influence sprouted in New York, The Los Angeles Times coined the phenomenon “The Spagoization of Manhattan.” As his culinary touch spread across the country, Puck also began writing cookbooks.

The origin story for Puck’s distinction as the country’s first true celebrity chef stems from a meeting with Michael Ovitz, who co-founded the talent agency CAA. Ovitz was a regular at Spago at the time Puck released his second cookbook, The Wolfgang Puck Cookbook in 1986.

Ovitz was confused at how Puck could have released a cookbook without him knowing about it, and scoffed when he learned that Puck had only done local publicity for it. Insisting that Puck should be on national television, he made a call to Good Morning America himself. “I made them a great dinner and he signed the deal on a napkin on the back of the menu,” Puck says.

Soon, he was flying back and forth to New York, his whirling-dervish energy and ability to laugh at himself instantly making him an in-demand on-camera personality. The rest is history, from the Oscars to the frozen food brand you pick up at your local grocery store.

But for a man still carrying scars from his relationship with his stepfather, an exploding career was starting to expose flaws in his own personal life. His young children would have to make a point to eat dinner at Spago if they were going to spend time with him. Lazaroff, who co-founded his empire, filed for divorce in 2003.

“My kids were growing up without me,” he says. “When my marriage disappeared, I said, who am I? What am I really doing here? My passion was always the cooking part, to be in the kitchen, to be in the restaurant. But who am I without that? I was always asking myself the question: if somebody would take that away from me, Who would I really be?”

When he met Gelila Assefa years later, she warned him that if they were going to make a relationship work, there had to be a life outside the kitchen. A partnership would have to include responsibilities with the family and with the business. Like any great dish, finding the right balance of ingredients is key. But like a master chef always yearning to grow, it seems that Puck, finally ready to consider his past and actually savor the present, may have found it.

“When you’re young, you always think you’re never going to die, that you’re going to live forever,” he says. “When you get older, you start asking how many summers do I have left? It’s all coming together now, and it seems to work… so far.”

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