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Disney+ Review: Wolfgang

June 25, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Wolfgang Puck is credited as being the first “celebrity” chef, a title that he obtained by attracting a dedicated guest list of Hollywood stars to his restaurant Spago, before gaining a broader following through charming TV appearances, and building a food empire around frozen pizzas.

Puck’s story is told in the new documentary Wolfgang, which comes to us from Jiro Dreams of Sushi director David Gelb. The film focuses on the Austrian chef’s rise to become one of the most prominent food figures, packing a lot into a smoothly assembled and always engaging 78 minute running time.

Among Puck’s greatest accomplishments is how he helped to elevate the role of chef from being thought of as a blue-collar job to being a high profile position. The film takes us through many of the key points in Puck’s life, starting with his troubled childhood in Austria where his self-esteem was rattled by an abusive stepfather. Because of this, Puck took refuge in the kitchen with his mother and grandma, who helped him develop a love of cooking as they prepared wiener schnitzel together on Sundays.

Puck’s career path saw him move to France to work in a restaurant and hone his cooking skills, before his arrival in America, where he was dismayed at the lack of fresh produce. The young chef cut his teeth in Los Angeles working for restaurateur Patrick Terrail at Ma Maison, a poorly reviewed restaurant that he singlehandedly turned around with his menu, but received almost none of the credit for. From here, Puck bought his own restaurant space in West Hollywood with his business partner and eventual spouse Barbara Lazaroff, and Spago opened its doors in 1982.

Spago, of course, became the new “it” spot for Hollywood A-listers and changed the way restaurants were run in America, with an open kitchen that put the focus on the role of the chef. Puck cemented his legacy in homes when him and Lazaroff went into the business of packaging his dishes and selling them in grocery stores, starting with frozen pizzas, an idea that spawned from Spago regular Johnny Carson ordering ten pizzas to go. When Puck inquired why he needed so many, the late night host replied that he was bringing them home to put in his freezer, and thus a food empire was born.

That story is just one of the many fun anecdotes that are sprinkled throughout the film. Gelb doesn’t entirely shy away from the darker parts of Puck’s story, either. We get some candid moments when he talks about growing up with his stepdad, as well as the breakdown of his marriage to Lazaroff, and how his career ended up taking away time from his kids. But we also get the sense certain details have been left out, and Woflgang does feel at times like a glossed over portrait. To use an imperfect food analogy, the film overall feels a bit more like a frozen pizza than a three-course meal.

But it’s still a satisfying and enjoyable documentary that is, to make use of another food allegory, easily digestible. While it might seem like a bit of an odd choice of programming for Disney Plus, Wolfgang still finds a welcome home on the streaming service as an inspirational film that I can imagine will motivate a lot of younger audience members to take up cooking.

Wolfgang is now available to stream on Disney+.

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