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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.

Of herself Lazaroff says, "So OK, I'm pushy--but I'm usually right." And although much of the success of the two restaurants is clearly due to her, she rarely gets much credit. Her designs for both Spago and Chinois are California classics, and yet when the Design Industry Fund for AIDS, a New York foundation that has asked a group of major designers to each work on one room of a townhouse for a benefit in the fall, wanted a kitchen designed, Puck was the one that they asked. Miffed, Lazaroff refuses to have anything to do with the benefit. "I know," she says, "that everybody looks at me like I'm a publicity-hungry society climber, but the one thing I will not do is do all the work on something and have somebody stick their name on it--even if it is my husband."

Like her husband's, her life is played out on a public stage. At night she is in the restaurants, dressed to the nines in flamboyant fashions and wearing heels so high that her feet are constantly sore, smiling at the customers. "I feel so sorry for Barbara," says Puck. "When people complain to me, I can say, 'I just put something in the oven for you, and I better go make sure it doesn't burn.' But Barbara has to stand there and take it." And there is a lot to take. "It is unbelievable," says Lazaroff. "People think they have the right to ask anything. Why don't you have children? When do you spend time together? Why do you look so much better in your pictures? They ask things you would never think of asking them." One time, says Lazaroff, a woman turned to Puck and asked, "Why don't you come home with me?"--as his wife was standing next to him.

Even their wedding guests were demanding. About 130 people went to the medieval extravaganza that Lazaroff staged in the south of France in 1984; a lot of them complained about their accommodations. "I kept saying, 'I'm the bride, why do I have to deal with this?' " It would probably surprise most of the guests--and the millions who watched the wedding on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous"--to know that Puck and Lazaroff had been married at home, by a rabbi, a year earlier. (He is not Jewish but says, "Religion is not so important to me.") "I wanted," says Lazaroff, "one thing in my life that was completely private."

But perhaps not quite so private as their last anniversary. "Wolf was going to take me out for dinner. I went home to change. By the time Wolf got there it was 10 o'clock." The couple ended up at Katsu, the only people in a Japanese restaurant that stayed open just for them. "In all the years I've known Wolfgang Puck," sighs Lazaroff, "he has never been on time for anything."

TONIGHT IN Cleveland is no exception. He is to be at a cocktail party given in honor of the visiting chefs at 7 o'clock. At 8, he is still in the kitchen, helping Piero Selvaggio make lasagna. "Wolf," says Lazaroff, "they're going to be so disappointed." But Puck has had enough. "We didn't come to party," he says. "We came here to work!" He spreads another layer of noodles over the sauce and adds, "We went last year to the party." And then, under his breath he says, "It's like a nightmare. You have to go to these dinners. It drives you crazy."

In fact, he works steadily until almost 9. And then he goes on to dinner--with 17 of his closest friends (the visiting chefs). And then to a disco, where he dances until 4. The next day he is the first chef in the kitchen--at 8 a.m.

He moves at this pace for the next five days. With minutes to spare, he makes the plane to Phoenix, where his good friend Vincent Guerithault (a chef who once worked with him in France) is getting married. As he boards his flight, he murmurs, "It's a good thing I can sleep on planes, because sometimes that's the only sleep I get." He checks into the Biltmore, showers, changes, goes to the wedding and then decides he still has time to catch the last plane to Los Angeles. So he checks out again, making this plane with mere seconds to spare. A day later he will dash off to Denver to spend a day raising money for Share Our Strength, an organization of chefs dedicated to helping the hungry.

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