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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.

The brewery is another matter. Puck owns only 10% (state liquor laws prevent him from owning a greater percentage), but he owns 10% of everything--and the Los Angeles Brewing Co. hopes to sell beer all over Southern California. "He wouldn't be interested in only 10% if it were just a restaurant," says one partner, Jerry Goldstein, "but there's a potential for the beer to really take off once he got involved."

"They wanted me mostly for the name to raise money," Puck readily admits. But Lazaroff will design the restaurant inside the brewery, and Puck is intrigued by the problem of making food to go with beer. "Have you tasted the homemade salami sandwiches he's been making?" Goldstein asks. "They're fabulous."

Says Puck: "I'd love to have a business where I made a lot of money without working too hard. That's what the brewery and the frozen food are about."

As for Wolfgang Puck Food Co.--the frozen-food business turned out to be more complicated than Puck expected. "I know how a restaurant works, but in the supermarket business there are so many people between you and the consumer, you really have to fight to get space. You have to invest $15,000 to $20,000 in New York to put your product on the shelf, and then if it doesn't sell, the Sara Lee people come and put their stuff on top of yours. I told Paul Prudhomme (the famous New Orleans chef) how expensive it was to get into the business, and he said, 'You're telling me--it ran me almost into the ground.' "

Puck admits that he may have to rethink the frozen desserts, which are not selling as well as they might, but the newly introduced pizzas have taken off. Puck's first fame came when he made designer pizzas topped with everything from homemade duck sausage to lox and cream cheese. But when the Food and Drug Administration saw that Puck's pizzas contained no tomatoes (which they must to meet its official product guidelines), the agency refused to approve them. Puck was undaunted. "I asked how much tomato I had to put in," he says slyly. "They said it didn't matter. So I put an espresso spoonful of tomatoes on every pizza! Actually, the controversy was such good luck for us--it got us so much publicity!" So much that the pies are selling at the rate of almost $4 million a year.

JUST NOW HE is not interested in any of that. It is 5 o'clock and he is back preparing food for the benefit in the kitchen at Sammy's, which is going full tilt. He sticks his nose into all the pots, sticks his finger into the ice cream, inspects the vegetables. Then he picks up a knife and starts helping Mark Peel bone the veal. Meanwhile, Puck's wife is following him around the kitchen, trying to get him to think about business. Lazaroff designed their two glitteringly trendy restaurants, and now she has promised to draw up the plans for the Malibu site in the next few days. He could hardly be less interested. "Listen to me!" she shouts over the roar of the room. "This time is not going to be like Spago and Chinois. I don't want to draw the plans and then you tell me you hate it and I do them again and again."

Avenue Magazine, the upscale Manhattan publication, may have called her one of the most powerful women in Los Angeles, but her husband seems unmoved. "I promised to fax the plans to the developers," she wails. "Let them wait," he replies. Before long she is shouting at him, "You have such a hard head," and he is saying, "But I haven't been wrong yet. " "Yeah," she says. "You were the one who wanted red-and-white check tablecloths at Spago." "And we should have had them," he shouts back, just before they both begin to laugh.

Despite the numerous shouting matches, it is clear that these two have an enormous affection for each other. Puck calls his wife "Barbarella," and, while he says that they are "exactly opposite," he seems more relaxed when she's around. Says Puck: "Barbara watches over me. She's better than a lawyer; she has really good perceptions of people."

He trusts her implicitly. The next week Pam Slate will hand Puck a letter offering a cameo role in Shelley Long's new movie, "Be Prepared." "Do you want to do it?" Slate will ask. Without even looking at the letter Puck will get up and go looking for his wife. "Should I do it?" he will ask, handing her the letter. She will peruse it and reply, "Yeah, this is cute, but tell them we can write a funnier line." When he was asked to wear a suit for the cover photo of this magazine, Puck refused until he could get Lazaroff's approval.

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