As a teenager in Austria, Wolfgang Puck harnessed his love of cooking to escape the harsh rule of his stepfather. A local apprenticeship forged his path to train at a revered French restaurant before landing in America at age 24. In ’70s Hollywood, Puck began working at Ma Maison, crafting an original menu around fresh ingredients, making the once-tacky eatery a popular, acclaimed darling. Still, the lack of acknowledgment from Ma Maison’s owner pushed Puck to take the biggest risk of his career and open his first restaurant, Spago, an instant hit where famous clientele dote equally on Puck’s new American cuisine and personality.
Almost by accident, Puck created the concept of a “celebrity chef” with his decades-spanning television appearances, building a staggering global empire of restaurants, cafes and products for home cooks. But at home, frenetic professional demands disrupted his family life. From director David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) and the creators of Chef’s Table, WOLFGANG is a candid, inspiring and emotional documentary that follows a legend as he reckons with the price of his dreams.
In celebration of the documentary now streaming on Disney+, we spoke to Wolfgang Puck and David Gelb about the importance of sharing Wolfgang’s story, why the word “retirement” isn’t in Wolfgang’s vocabulary, how David gave food the theatrical experience and more.
“When I was 10 years old, my father took me to Los Angeles for the first time on one of his work trips. We had dinner at Spago, and even at a young age, I realized the feeling of importance you get just from being at the restaurant. When Wolfgang Puck, himself, came out of the kitchen, I was starstruck. Wearing chef whites and a rag on his shoulder, he proceeded to visit every table in the restaurant, cracking jokes and introducing customers to new dishes. It was wonderful to watch,” said David.
“Finally, he came to our table and warmly greeted my dad like he was an old friend. Noting the wiener schnitzel on my plate, he said to me, ‘Hello there. You look like you are from Austria!’ I felt so special that the iconic chef took the time to form a personal connection with me. Had it not been for this moment with Wolfgang, I doubt that I would have gone on to make Jiro Dreams of Sushi” or Chef’s Table, David finished.
25 years after that first meeting, David would meet Wolfgang in Austria to shoot Wolfgang’s documentary where the two would share a passion of food that included fun nights spent in local restaurants. The chefs were so happy to see Wolfgang, the megastar and hometown hero living the good life. But like all heroes, Wolfgang’s story begins as a boy determined to have a better life in America, no matter what his stepfather thought.
“Part of the my job is inspiring people, inspiring young and telling young people adversity is there to be overcome. You just have to water the grass so that it gets green, you don’t jump over to get to the other side. David has done such a great job at telling stories about chefs, about food. The way he invented the genre of making a movie about chefs is really amazing. When David came to me and said to me he wants to tell my story, it’s really this first time I talked about my stepfather or the first chef or the hardships I had as a kid.” said Wolfgang.
During this meeting Wolfgang made himself readily available; both, physically and emotionally. Easily described as a serendipitous moment when David wanted to make this documentary, Wolfgang was in a place where he wanted to participate fully. His commitment to the film exceeded everyone’s expectations, making for a more immersive and honest moment on film.
“I’m very fortunate Wolfgang decided to trust us, he allowed us to probe those areas, not just those successes but also the very difficult times, like coming from a very difficult home when he was very little. It’s so important in the story. The reason is that you have to understand how the hardships need to be overcome and the success means so much more when you understand where you’re coming from. I think it’s about building a trust and building a relationship that allows us to go to these places,” said David.
This film is an origin story that almost feels like a traditional Disney film. Just like Remy’s dad in Ratatouille, Wolfgang’s stepfather discouraged him from becoming a chef. This tale follows a kid from Austria, how he makes it in Hollywood, and then completely changes the way we look at food and chefs. Hoping to not just touch the hearts of adults, the goal is for kids to also see you can follow a dream and succeed if you take risks guided by the compass of your passion. Even though Wolfgang thought he was running away from something, he was actually running towards what he loved.
For many kids (or even adults) WOLFGANG may be the first documentary they’ve ever seen. While Disney+ already features nature documentaries, this is among their first profiles of a single individual; focusing on the core of the emotional journey.
“I really think I want people to know [life] wasn’t always [glamorous], I wasn’t like I was serving Denzel Washington or Tom Cruise. There was a time in Austria that was really difficult. Where we had meat once a week. Where my stepfather was abusive both mentally and physically, not only to me but also to my sister who was his daughter. I would like to inspire young people who come from similar backgrounds, that it is possible to get out of there if you put in the work, if you stay on the right track and just continue watering the grass until it gets greener and the flowers bloom,” said Wolfgang.
“In the story you get to see how it starts out but through perseverance, through hard work, maybe a little talent and passion. If you can find your passion in life they say you’ll never work a day in your life and it’s true. A lot of people tell me, ‘Wolfgang when are you going to retire? When are you going to stop doing that?’ I say, ‘Why? I love what I do, this is what I want to do until the end of my life,'” Wolfgang finished.
As seen in the documentary, Wolfgang’s food is very biographical. Today, he has an assortment of Austrian items on his menus. Wiener schnitzel was conceived as Austrian peasant food—a way to make a small amount of veal go a very long way. It’s a powerful statement when Wolfgang takes that taste of his childhood and presents it to high-end tables. The lesson in his life, and in his cooking, is to remember where you came from.
WOLFGANG is an multiple generations watch, in hopes of starting conversations that share their different perspectives, or just enjoy a great documentary to watch together and then eat a great meal.
To learn more about WOLFGANG and all things food, check out the full interview in the video above.