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PUCK'S PROGRESS : On the Run With Super Chef Wolfgang Puck, Who Built a Food Empire From Designer Pizzas

June 12, 1988|RUTH REICHL | Ruth Reichl is The Times' restaurant editor.

HE WENT TO work at age 13, in a restaurant 50 miles from his home in southern Austria. As his father waved goodby at the railroad station, he said, "You're good for nothing, and you'll never amount to any thing." Two weeks later the young man made a mistake in the kitchen--he doesn't recall what--and the chef told him to go back home. "I went down to the basement and peeled potatoes for two weeks, hoping that nobody would notice that I was still there. And I thought, my father was right."

Not quite. Twenty-five years later the man is recognized everywhere he goes. People stop him on the street to ask for an autograph. He is a celebrity known by a single name (in his case, either the first or the second will do), and in the words of one fund-raiser, that name is magic when it comes to raising money. Another chef puts it this way: "The French have Paul Bocuse. We have Wolfgang Puck."

Americans didn't pay much attention to food until recently. Then a group of hotshot chefs came along and changed the way we eat. They created a veritable restaurant revolution, making American food internationally known. Wolfgang Puck led the pack; in a world populated by culinary stars he is probably America's most famous chef. He is the John Lennon of the stove--a working-class hero with a restless mind who not only has talent, wit and business acumen but also a much-discussed wife, Barbara Lazaroff, who is his partner.

Until he opened Spago, Puck was just another talented chef who made good food. Then he took the pretension out of big-deal dining and made pizza the food of the stars. Now his two restaurants--Spago and Chinois on Main--gross about $9 million a year. And that is only the beginning. He has two more restaurants and a brewery in the works. He has his own frozen-food company. He is a consultant to one of the fanciest hotel chains in the country (Rosewood Hotels, owners of, among others, the Bel-Air). He is the author of two cookbooks and a videotape and has a regular slot on "Good Morning America." He has his own charitable foundation, the Wolfgang Puck Foundation, which raised almost $200,000 last year for Meals on Wheels, and he regularly jets around the country for charity events. He's even designing a showcase kitchen as part of an AIDS fund-raiser (for which he may design his own line of cooking equipment). In between all these activities, he occasionally finds time to cook.

I persuaded Puck to let me follow him around for a week in May to try to discover the secret of his success. Surely he didn't get this far on his food. What I found is that, in addition to being a good cook, he is extremely bright, charming and almost unbelievably energetic. As one of his young pastry chefs said, "Wolf doesn't understand that the rest of us need to sleep." We were constantly running for airplanes and checking in and out of hotels as he made charity appearances and business deals. I discovered that his empire is vast, as is his enthusiasm. Fueled primarily by coffee (he prefers triple espresso) and Coca-Cola, he hit Cleveland, Phoenix and Denver, with a stop at home in between. He hardly ever slept, he never lost his sense of humor, and everywhere he went he seemed to be having a wonderful time. But watching carefully, I noticed that occasionally there's what appears to be a flash of fear, as if he is worried that he will wake up and find himself still in the basement, peeling potatoes.

THE WOMAN at the airport Avis counter is young and very pretty. She looks at Puck's credit card. She looks at Puck's license. She looks at Puck. "Aren't you the famous chef?" she asks. "From the famous restaurant?" She giggles. "Famous people don't ride in station wagons," she says, disappointment in her voice.

"I'd rather have a Porsche," he replies, "but then where would we put the food?" She looks relieved and picks up the phone to order "the largest wagon on the lot."

Puck has come to Cleveland to cook a benefit dinner for the Ireland Cancer Center of the University Hospitals of Cleveland. Asked why, he says all the right stuff about how fortunate he's been and wanting to give something back to the country. "Kennedy said it best," is how he puts it.

"I didn't even know him," says Lee Edwards, the woman who organized the first benefit last year. "But I called him anyway. And he agreed to come and cook. And then he got all the other chefs involved. Really, he put the whole thing together."

Says Puck: "She told me she was going to use my name to attract other chefs, and I figured it might as well be good chefs."

"Anyone," says Susan Feniger of City Restaurant in Los Angeles, one of the good chefs, "would come when Wolf asked them to. It's good to be associated with him."

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