By Beth Deitchman
Stream the Disney+ Original documentary Wolfgang, which arrives on the service this Friday, June 25, and you’ll likely come away both hungry and inspired. The documentary looks at the life of culinary legend Wolfgang Puck, who quite literally changed the way we look at dining out, as well as the way we eat. Wolfgang looks back on Puck’s Austrian childhood and tumultuous relationship with his stepfather; his culinary education in Paris and move to the U.S., where he found success cooking in iconic restaurants such as Ma Maison; and his rise to fame as the mastermind behind the famed Hollywood restaurant Spago and a new kind of cuisine based on fresh ingredients, and as the driving force behind a movement that put chefs in the spotlight for the very first time.
Puck’s real-life story could stand alongside some of our favorite Disney movies. Director David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) approached Wolfgang as an origin story and draws parallels to Ratatouille, whose protagonist also was discouraged by his father from pursuing his culinary dreams. Gelb notes that “even though Wolfgang thought he was running away from something, he was actually running towards what he loved,” and he hopes young viewers are inspired by Puck’s story to similarly follow their own dreams.
When Spago opened, it wasn’t noteworthy just for its celebrity clientele, which included the biggest stars and the most powerful behind-the-scenes entertainment industry insiders. For the first time ever, the restaurant put the chef in the spotlight through an open kitchen that invited guests to peek behind the curtain and see the effort and artistry that goes into every plate. Before that, Puck tells D23, the focus was on “the front guys,” as the chef refers to the restaurant owners who were previously the draw for the most popular fine-dining establishments. “By seeing the open kitchen, by having the customer come up to the kitchen, the chef has become important,” Puck shares, and he’s proud to have played a role in raising the profile and level of respect for his fellow chefs and those who have followed. He says, “It is really a good feeling to see that our profession has come of age in America and now we have a really respected profession, where young people—instead of going to become doctors or engineers—they go in the cooking profession, and they find the passion and can do what they want to.”
Many chefs have followed in Puck’s footsteps, inspired by his unique take on American cuisine that put a new spin on pizza—beginning with the smoked salmon pizza that became a must-order at Spago—and introduced the Chinois chicken salad, which has been reinterpreted and become a staple at restaurants (and even supermarkets) the world over. Puck has opened establishments across the globe—from London, Singapore, and Shanghai, to even Walt Disney World Resort, where the Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill can be found in Disney Springs. Puck reveals that while he calls California home, when he’s in the mood for Disney Parks food and fun, he travels more often to Florida for the fare he enjoys at the Disney Springs location. Wolfgang illustrates the profound impact Puck has made on the restaurant industry, calling to mind another incredible innovator who transformed the entertainment industry back in his day. With tremendous admiration, Puck shares, “I think we could have done a restaurant together. ‘Walt and Wolf’ would sound good to me!”
Gelb tells D23 that as he really got to know Puck, through his research and interviews he conducted for the film—with Puck, as well as the chef’s family members, colleagues, and culinary experts—he was surprised to discover just how difficult Puck’s upbringing was. Gelb shares, “I think I was surprised just by how intense that origin really was, so it makes the lessons of how he managed to overcome that by following his passion and pursuing his dreams all that much more powerful.”
By sharing his story and the adversity he faced as a young boy struggling with real poverty and abuse, Puck hopes viewers will be struck by his perseverance, which he credits for his success above and beyond his genius in the kitchen. “I want people to know that I wasn’t born when I opened Spago, or a year before. I had to work very hard to get where I am. Maybe I have a little talent, but talent alone doesn’t get you anywhere,” he said, underscoring the importance of hard work and determination. “I said, ‘You know what? I had hardship—I am going to overcome it. And that, I think, is really my mantra and that’s what I think all the time. ‘How can I overcome it? How can I make it better?’”