Wolfgang Puck


Wolfgang Johannes Topfschnig (b. 8 July 1949)

Like another famous Austrian who also lives in California, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck was born in a small town in Austria and worked his way up from nowhere to become a wealthy bigshot in the United States. Although Puck is much better known as a chef and restaurateur, he is a part-time actor who has appeared on television and in some films – like his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Wolfgang Puck in 2012

Wolfgang Puck in 2012. PHOTO: Glenn Francis (PacificProDigital.com – Wikimedia Commons)

Many of the nouvelle California/fusion culinary innovations introduced by Wolfgang Puck are taken for granted today. Even the idea of a celebrity chef was a new concept in the American restaurant world when the Austrian chef arrived on the scene in the 1970s. Today Wolfgang Puck is one of the wealthiest celebrity chefs in the world, and casual fine dining, unknown three decades ago, is one of his hallmarks. Through his Wolfgang Puck entities – Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, Wolfgang Puck Catering, and Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, Inc. – the Austrian entrepreneur runs over 100 restaurants, offers catering services, and markets cookbooks and licensed cooking utensils and food products. (Have you tried Wolfgang Puck’s estate-grown coffee?)

After many years spent in the kitchen, Puck now considers himself more of a businessman than a chef. Having earned his Michelin stars and other awards, the famous chef now spends most of his time managing and personally supervising his extensive food and dining empire, a large enterprise that now grosses over $400 million per year, and includes Wolfgang Puck restaurants under various names located around the world, from Los Angeles to Dubai, and ranging from fine dining to more casual, economical fare. (Wolfgang Puck Worldwide is a privately held corporation and does not reveal its earnings. Puck’s estimated net worth is about $75 million.)

Wolfgang Puck was only 24 years old when he arrived in the New World to take a stab at the American dream in 1973. After a job in New York City fell through, the young Austrian found himself in the American heartland, in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he began working at the La Tour restaurant. His next stop was in southern California as a chef at Ma Maison in West Hollywood. Starting in 1975, he would remain there to become a partner and publish his first cookbook: Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen, based on his Ma Maison recipes.

In 1982 Wolfgang Puck opened his most famous restaurant, Spago, on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. His architect/designer partner, Bronx-born Barbara Lazaroff, later became his wife. Spago was originally envisioned as a haute cuisine pizza restaurant, but although the gourmet smoked salmon pizza is still there, it has evolved into something more complex and interesting. In 1997 the second LA-area Spago opened at a much more upscale location on North Cañon Drive in Beverly Hills. The original Spago remained in business until 2001 – after 18 years at that first location. Today one can dine at Spago Beverly Hills, Spago Las Vegas, Spago Maui, Spago Istanbul, and Spago Singapore. The landmark Spago in Beverly Hills reopened in fall 2012 following extensive remodeling, with a new dining room designed by Waldo Fernandez.
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TRIVIA: The name “Spago,” Italian slang for spaghetti, came from Wolfgang’s friend and regular customer, the composer and music producer Giorgio Moroder, once a prospective investor, who had planned to compose a musical named “Spago.” – spaghetti (1885-90) plural of spaghetto, dimin. of spago thin rope, cord, twine; Late Latin spacus twine.
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His experience at Ma Maison and particularly Spago taught him to be move away from being a picky, egotistical chef and towards the more personable, genial “mensch” he has become. He learned that repeat customers were more important than Michelin stars (which his restaurants still garner) and being a famous chef. As he put it for a March 2016 interview in The Straits Times: “It’s not about me. It’s about what’s on the plate and whether people feel good about it. Cut in Singapore is successful because we have a lot of regulars. It’s doing more business today than five years ago.” He was in Singapore to check up on his restaurants at Marina Bay Sands: the Cut steakhouse (opened in 2010) and a new Spago that opened in 2015. Puck is very hands-on when it comes to his epicurean empire.

Star chef Wolfgang Puck and Gelila Assefa attend the Diamond Soiree Gala, as part of the Diamond Soiree weekend, at the Spanish Riding School June 26, 2004 in Vienna, Austria.

The Austrian restaurateur is continually reinventing himself and his dining establishments. That can be seen in the way Spago has changed over the years. “I don’t want to be stuck with one thing for the rest of my life,” Puck says. That is also the reason he keeps creating new brands and new menus: CUT (steakhouses), Chinois (Asian fusion), Postrio (nouvelle Italian), WP24, and more. But the one thing that Puck doesn’t want to change is the quality and appeal of his cuisine. To accomplish that, he hires and trains good people, most of whom have been with his group for years. As he did in Singapore, he also personally visits his restaurants. Greg Bass, now the chef de cuisine at Spago Singapore, has been with Puck in various capacities since 2004. He says, “Growing up in Wolfgang’s restaurants, you see that the culture is, you never say ‘no.’ There’s always something that you can do. Everyone can feel comfortable here.”

Wolf, as some of his friends call him, also knows how to change with the times. Since his early Ma Maison days, he has taught cooking and published half a dozen cook books. Now he is moving away from print to online video lessons at wolfgangpuckcookingschool.com.

The restaurant business is tough. Even Wolfgang Puck has had a few misses among his many hits. The short-lived Eureka restaurant and brewery closed in the early 1990s after problems with the unpasteurized beer. The Spago in Vail, Colorado at the Ritz-Carlton, Batchelor Gulch closed in early 2016. It had been the only Spago in Colorado since 2007. But for the most part, Puck has been good at picking winners and running them well. Some closing are the result of plain, hard economics. In Las Vegas, the Postrio restaurant at the Venetian shut down in April 2015 after 16 years, only because the rent at the Grand Canal Shops of the Venetian had risen to $100,000 a month. Puck has threatened to close down Spago Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace for the same reason – high rent. The lease there expires in 2017.
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OTHER AUSTRIAN CHEFS IN AMERICA: Eduard (Edi) Frauneder is another celebrity chef from Austria. Edi and his partner Wolfgang (Wolf) Ban currently run three dining establishments in Manhattan: Edi and the Wolf, an American version of an Austrian “Heuriger,” and The Third Man bistro/bar in the East Village, plus the new Freud (opened Feb. 2016) in Greenwich Village, a restaurant modeled after brasseries in turn-of-the-century Vienna. – Wolf Ban comes from the Austrian province of Burgenland, near Hungary, while Edi Frauneder is from Vienna.
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Personal Life
Wolfgang Puck left Austria and Europe for America in 1973. With his busy work schedule, Puck does not often return to his homeland, but he did visit Austria in summer 2004 with his companion (now his wife) Gelila Assefa for the Diamond Soiree Gala held at Vienna’s famous Spanish Riding School. Puck was one of 600 distinguished guests for the International Red Cross fundraiser, a series of art, music, and food events in the Austrian capital city, at which singer Gloria Gaynor performed. (See photo above.)

Three years later, in 2007, the couple returned to Europe, this time to Italy, for their gala wedding. Held on the island of Capri, the celebration and partying lasted three days. Coinciding with Puck’s 58th birthday, the wedding took place on July 8. The 250 wedding guests enjoyed food and drink catered by… Wolfgang Puck Catering. Among the wedding guests were the couple’s two young children, Oliver Wolfgang (b. July 2005) and Alexander Wolfgang (b. Dec. 2006).

From his second wife and business partner, Barbara Lazaroff, Puck also has two older sons: Cameron and Byron. 21-year-old Byron is a student at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, and has worked with his father. Wolfgang hopes to see Byron later take over the Wolfgang Puck enterprises. Byron, Alexander, and Oliver helped their dad with the 2016 Oscars Governors Ball catering, for which Puck has served some 1500 attendees annually for over two decades.

WOLFGANG PUCK TIMELINE

  • 1949 | July 8 – Wolfgang Johannes Topfschnig is born in Sankt Veit an der Glan, Carinthia (Kärnten), Austria, a small town near Klagenfurt. He will later take the name of his adoptive stepfather, Josef Puck.
  • 1950s | His mother is a part-time pastry chef who encourages her son to learn how to cook and bake.
  • 1963 | Puck, now 14, leaves home to escape his abusive stepfather. He is the oldest child, with two sisters. A half-brother will come later. Wolfgang has been working occasionally with his mother in the kitchen of a local resort hotel. He decides that cooking is his best escape option.
  • 1964 | After being fired for a mistake that caused a shortage of potatoes for the day’s lunch menu, Puck had a crisis that led him to try harder and get a job at another, smaller hotel. He begins to show real talent in the culinary arts during his vocational training.
  • 1960s | After training as an apprentice in Austria, Puck, insired by a local French cooking display, takes a few French lessons and sets off for France. Under chef Raymond Thuilier at L’Oustau de Baumanière in Les Baux-de-Provence, Puck learns from a master. Today he names Thuilier as his mentor, and the man who taught him that a chef also could be an original craftsman. It is his springboard to more experience at Hotel de Paris in Monaco, and at Maxim’s Paris.
  • 1973 | On the advice of a friend, Puck leaves Europe for better opportunities in the United States. He is 24 years old. He becomes a chef at La Tour in Indianapolis, his first job in the US.
  • 1975 | Puck arrives in Los Angeles to become a chef at Ma Maison in West Hollywood. At first the restaurant struggles to survive, but then gourmand and film director Orson Welles finds the restaurant and becomes a fan of the Austrian chef’s cuisine. Later Puck becomes a part owner and a rising culinary star whose blend of European and California cuisine combined and warm personality attracts the rich and famous to Ma Maison. – Marries Marie France Trouillot. They will divorce in 1980.
  • 1981 | Publishes his first cookbook: Modern French Cooking for the American Kitchen, based on his Ma Maison recipes.
  • 1982 | Puck and architect Barbara Lazaroff open Spago, originally envisioned as a high-class pizza restaurant, on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. The new restaurant becomes an instant hit with its haute cuisine pizzas topped with smoked salmon and caviar, and other non-pizza dishes.
  • 1982 | The Puck-Lazaroff Charitable Foundation is established to support the annual American Wine & Food Festival which bebfits the Meals-on-Wheels program. The foundationa has raised over $14 million since its inception.
  • 1983 | Chinois on Main opens in Santa Monica with Puck’s inspired “Asian-fusion” (Asian and California) cuisine. The Wolfgang Puck Food Company is incorporated.
  • 1983 | Wolfgang marries his Spago co-founder Barbara Lazaroff. They will have two children, sons Cameron and Byron.
  • 1986 | The second book is published: The Wolfgang Puck Cookbook.
  • 1989 | Puck’s third restaurant, Postrio, opens in the Prescott Hotel near San Francisco’s Union Square.
  • 1991 | Adventures in the Kitchen with Wolfgang Puck, the third cookbook appears.
  • 1992 | The Spago restaurant in Las Vegas opens.
  • 1998 | Wolfgang Puck Catering (WPC) is formed with partner Carl Schuster. WPC has long catered high profile events including the annual Governors Ball, with Puck as official chef for the post-Academy Awards® celebrity banquet, as well as the GRAMMY awards celebration, the ESPY awards, and the American Music Awards.
  • 1999 | Wolfgang Puck becomes a naturalized US citizen. He is the only chef listed in the new Forbes Celebrity 100 List. He will appear on the list every year until 2015, when the list’s criteria changed.
  • 2000 | Puck’s fourth cookbook, Pizza, Pasta & More, is published. Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, Inc. is established.
  • 2001 | Spago opens in Hawaii at The Four Seasons Resort Maui. Wolfgang Puck Worldwide, Inc. is founded; the Wolfgang Puck television show debuts on the Food Network. The original Spago on the Sunset Strip closes, making the Spago Beverly Hills Puck’s flagship restaurant in Los Angeles.
  • 2002 | Daytime Emmy for “Outstanding Service Show” for Puck’s Food Network TV show. Puck’s fifth cookbook, Live, Love, Eat, is published.
  • 2003 | Puck and Lazaroff divorce, but they remain business partners.
  • 2004 | Puck appears on “Iron Chef America” on the Food Network. Wolfgang Puck Makes it Easy, Puck’s sixth cookbook, aims to make it incredibly easy for its readers to create great food of the highest quality. (Also as a Kindle ebook)
  • 2004 | June 26 – Wolfgang Puck and his future wife Gelila Assefa attend the Diamond Soiree Gala, as part of the Diamond Soiree weekend, at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. (See photo above.)
  • 2007 | July 8 – Puck and Ethiopian-born Gelila Assefa marry in Italy on Wolf’s 58th birthday. The wedding celebration lasts three days. See: Wedding Photos – People.com
  • 2008 | “Chef of the Year” award from the Culinary Institute of America.
  • 2010 | Puck hosts a surprise 70th birthday party at his Spago restaurant for his friend Giorgio Moroder. The party is attended by many celebrities, including Donna Summer and German entertainer Thomas Gottschalk.
  • 2016 | January: The Spago in Vail, Colorado at the Ritz-Carlton, Batchelor Gulch closes. It had been the only Spago in Colorado since 2007.

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