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Breaking the Cooking-Show Mold

Television * Wolfgang Puck mixes kitchen know-how with entertainment on his Food Network program.

February 13, 2001|T.L. STANLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The reality of this reality show is that it takes more than a half-hour to get a duck cooked to perfection, chat a little about the best red wines to accompany it, and serve it all up to some happy-to-oblige taste testers.

So, there were actually six ducks in various stages of preparedness, ready for their close-ups, during a taping of Wolfgang Puck's new self-titled series on the Food Network. And, as for the wine, well, color was examined, aroma was sniffed, glasses were drained.

And that was in the first few minutes.

The affable Puck couldn't resist ribbing a tester named Rochelle whose glass was empty. "Look at this, she's already finished her wine, and we haven't even gotten to the food yet," said Puck, the animated Austrian chef who's become his own food franchise, with tentacles that reach from his numerous restaurants into grocery stores and now television. "Oh well, we'll just open some more."

Thus sets the tone of Puck's show, which, like his cooking, isn't meant to follow a set-in-stone path. It aims to be adaptable. A little of this, a little of that. An eclectic combination of segments from the field--everything from Puck's catering job at the "Lion King" premiere at the Pantages to a ride on a shrimp boat--and the more traditional behind-the-stove cooking instruction. Roughly equal parts entertainment and information. The zest-filled tag line, delivered by the host at least once in each installment: "Live, Love, Eat!"

"This is not an ingredients show, it's a style show," said Robb Weller, who, with his partner Gary Grossman, executive produces the series. "It's a day in the life, a little 'Candid Camera.' "

Each show has a taped four- to six-minute segment that shows Puck shopping, catering or schmoozing, with an emphasis on his shoulder-rubbing with Hollywood's glitterati. The rest of the time is spent in the working kitchen of the show's Burbank set, with about 40 audience members.

Among the audience members were rabid Puck fans Jordana Bartlett, 18, and Julie Paris, 15, who both want to be professional chefs. They were attending one of Puck's cooking demonstrations in Westlake Village recently when he mentioned he could use some extra testers for his show tapings. The two immediately volunteered.

"I try to soak up everything--the way he cooks, the ingredients he uses," said Bartlett.

Beyond the set viewers see, there's an offstage kitchen where several Food Network and Puck workers help prep the dishes and, in some cases, cook backups to meet the show's time constraints.

"As much as possible, Wolfgang cooks in real time," said Susan Stockton, vice president of Food Net's culinary productions department, who often oversees the "food script," the bible of how the food moves from act to act in the show. "Today, the duck has to be finished in time for him to talk about the wine. But we needed it to be fresh for people to taste."

A Pioneer of the Open Kitchen

On another recent show, while Puck was baking "melted" chocolate cakes in front of the camera, workers were backstage baking replicas. The bone-chilling temperature on the set made the cakes harden quickly, which wasn't the ideal shot. A plate of just out-of-the-oven cakes was substituted for filming. (They were all scarfed down, regardless of their temperature).

Puck, a natural showman who was an early pioneer of the open kitchen at his Hollywood restaurant Spago (the Hollywood site is scheduled to close its doors March 31, with the more popular and newer Spago Beverly Hills continuing), said he likes tossing the camera and its particular needs into the mix.

"I wanted to try something new," he said. "It's always been about food, wine, service and entertainment to me. It's the same here, with a few more considerations." Puck had been approached numerous times over the years to do a cooking show, but had been focused then on expanding his restaurant offerings, writing cookbooks and teaching classes. This year, there's time for a new venture, he said, with the only new restaurants launching in his Southern California backyard, two casual spots in Downtown Disney in Anaheim and more important, Avalon Cove, for more formal dining, at Disney's California Adventure. Well-known for his California boosterism, Puck said the West Coast needed to be represented in the East Coast-centric cable cooking world.

"It's only fitting that we have an embassy out here," he said. "More innovation has come from here in the last 20 years than any place else."

For the Food Network, Puck was an obvious choice in the personality-driven cooking genre. Executives ordered 26 episodes of the show, from Weller/Grossman Productions. It was vital, after he agreed to do the show, to let him be himself.

"The network was impressed with what a good teacher he is," Weller said. "And this is reality in the true sense. He's a real guy making real food. This is his real job."

His particular West Coast sensibility, with food and ingredient suppliers from Latin America and Alaska, and influences from Europe and Asia, add another dimension to the network, executives said.

"We wouldn't want him to cook meatloaf," Stockton said. "We let him do what he's passionate about. He has a different blend of information and a different take on food. His perspective is unique."

*

* "Wolfgang Puck" airs Fridays at 9 p.m. on the Food Network.

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