A breezy, low-key tribute to Wolfgang Puck, “Wolfgang” is most notable for the extent to which he can be thanked — or blamed — for the advent of the celebrity chef, as well as ripples that extended into everything from cooking styles to the way restaurants are designed. That might not merit full Disney+ documentary treatment, but for those even remotely interested in the topic, bon appétit.
“Wolfgang was without a doubt the first celebrity chef,” says chef/author Nancy Silverton, as director David Gelb proceeds to detail the Austrian-born Puck’s humble beginnings, the child of a single mother later raised by an abusive stepfather, who told him that boys hanging around the kitchen was somehow unmanly.
Coming to America, Puck worked his way up, eventually taking over the kitchen at Ma Maison before striking out on his own to open Spago, where the “California cuisine” “changed the way Americans eat,” says food writer Ruth Reichl, noting that Puck “changed the perception in the public for what a chef is,” as illustrated through clips of his ubiquitous media appearances.
Until then, the experts note, being a chef had been largely a blue-collar job, with the owners of high-end restaurants occasionally basking in the spotlight. “Wolfgang” underscores just how much that has changed with a montage of cooking shows and chefs that have become fodder for reality TV and prevalent enough to support a network dedicated to their exploits.
Puck explains that he was motivated by “fear of failure,” and in an age-old story, threw himself into his professional pursuits at the expense of his personal life. At those points “Wolfgang” becomes a trifle sappy, down to the musical cues, while documenting what is undeniably an American success story, punctuated by older footage of celebrities flocking to his restaurants.
As is so often the case, Puck’s influence over his chosen field tends to eclipse his personal qualities, and while those interviewed include one-time super-agent Michael Ovitz, there’s probably not enough said about Puck’s flair for showmanship in selling the fabulousness that he represented. Instead, we get anecdotes like Johnny Carson buying Spago pizzas and freezing them, supposedly giving the chef the idea for his expansion into the frozen-food business.
Still, “Wolfgang” nicely demonstrates how its namesake fundamentally impacted the world of cooking — and especially how high-end food is perceived — while carving out a pretty sweet life for himself in the process. For that alone it’s worth watching, even if, as documentaries go, it’s less a main course than an appetizer.
“Wolfgang” premieres June 25 on Disney+.