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LA's Culinary Maestro

Wolfgang Puck, Amanda Marsalis

Chef Wolfgang Puck has been feeding international celebrities for years. Now he's one of them.

Photo by Amanda Marsalis.

Wolfgang Puck may be the most famous chef in the world. More than 30 years ago, as the Austrian émigré wowed patrons of West Hollywood’s Spago with duck and salmon pizzas and a fresh-food focused menu, his star began to rise, then skyrocketed. Today, Puck presides over an empire that includes more than 100 restaurants and airport concessions, an international catering company, a line of cooking and food products, cookbooks and newspaper columns, to name but a few.

He’s been showered with awards, the most recent being the James Beard Foundation’s lifetime achievement award last year. So would it be easy for Puck to sit back and rest on his laurels? Not a chance.

On February 24, the personable, energetic chef will again oversee the care and feeding of moviedom’s A-list for the Academy Awards—a job he’s been doing for nearly a third of Oscar’s 84-year history. From 1985 to 1993, Spago was the location for the stratospherically high-profile Oscar parties thrown by superagent Irving “Swifty” Lazar—parties where unknown faces were the rarity. For the past 18 years, Puck has presided over the design, creation and preparation of the food for the post-ceremony Governors Ball, a mandatory stop for many Oscar presenters, nominees and winners. In the past, those stops tended to be brief, given the ball’s rather stodgy reputation. However, Puck says, now that he’s been given control of the seating, things have changed.

In the past, he says, “they used to have one old guy from the [Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Science’s] Board of Governors, who would say, ‘OK, I’m coming with my family and we’re going to sit with Barbra Streisand. So Barbra Streisand sits down and says, ‘Who are these people? I’m going to eat and leave.’ There was no place to mingle or hang out.”

Puck’s secret? “I seat like I do at the restaurant. If you have a restaurant, you have reservations and you have walk-ins. So for the Governor’s Ball, out of reservations for 1,500 people, I know where 1,200 of them are going to sit. The other ones I play by ear.

“So if I see Clint Eastwood coming in with a group, and then I see Steven Spielberg is coming in, I just move the tables to seat them at the same table or next to each other.”

Being adept at the handling of celebrities is something Puck learned early on. In fact, he says, LA’s celebrity culture played a significant role in his success. “When I first came to LA, there were a lot fewer restaurants and nothing really interesting was going on, but all of a sudden it started to move. All the entertainment industry was here, and when you used to go to Spago in those days, you could see Elizabeth Taylor and Gregory Peck and the [then] younger people like Sean Penn and Michael Douglas. So it was really an exciting time. I think it helps a lot if you are in a city where you have access to media. It would have been a different story had I opened the restaurant in Sacramento or San Diego.”

At a time when many longtime LA dining institutions have closed, Puck says he’s kept his six restaurants healthy through constant evolution. “Just as in clothing design, there has to be change. Last summer, I closed Spago [now in Beverly Hills] for six weeks to redo it. I knew that if I kept it the way it was, in five years it would be boring and in 10 it would be closed.”

He keeps the Governors Ball menu evolving as well, although perennial favorites such as his tiny chicken pot pies remain on the menu. “I like to make everything on small plates, so people can get a lot of different tastes and not sit in one place. Our concept is to have a party, not a fancy black tie dinner.”

And despite his longtime affiliation with the Oscars, Puck confesses he’s never seen an entire show. “I’ve watched bits and pieces, but always the monologue. And if that’s good, I think to myself, ‘OK, now I know it’s going to be good . . . .’” //  

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

Kathleen Andolino
Your pots are the best
2/27/2013 1:14:24 PM

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