Spago chef Wolfgang Puck says he doesn’t like thinking about his past because it takes time away from focusing on the future. It’s a nice sentiment, but it may be why “Wolfgang,” a new documentary about his life, now streaming on Disney+, is short on contemplation.
The light and breezy 78-minute doc begins with the usual kind of praise that gets lobbed at luminaries like Puck. He revolutionized the way Americans eat. He was the first celebrity chef. Etc. Etc. All mostly true, (Jeremiah Tower or Alice Waters may have some thoughts on both these points) but all ground covered later on in some depth.
Beyond the platitudes though, is a compelling portrait of a man driven by the trauma of childhood with an abusive step-father. Born into poverty in Austria, Puck was drawn to the kitchen, and loved spending time with his mother as she prepared modest Sunday dinners. “As a kid, the kitchen was the only place I felt safe,” he says.
A mashed potato incident at his first hotel kitchen job got him fired, but he showed up the next day anyway, asked for his job back and was on his way to cooking serious food, studying in France and shutting out his family for the next year-and-a-half.
It’s in these details, and not the flashily edited montages of a young Punk on “Good Morning America” or footage of him waving to the famous clientele from the open kitchen of his legendary Hollywood restaurant Spago, that we begin to understand what makes Wolfgang run.
His professional rise through the ranks, from France to Hollywood’s Ma Maison restaurant and beyond, is certainly worth essaying but it feels like much of the important stuff is swept along in a flurry of friendly talking heads and the glow of rave reviews. Better is the awkward look on Puck’s face as his sister scolds him for not being ion touch when their grandmother passed away. Those moments feel authentic, providing some soul in a documentary that more often than not relies on anecdotes about Joan Collins and Puck’s famous smoked salmon and goat cheese pizza (“You don’t want to make Joan Collins mad!”) or well-worn adages.
“Wolfgang” is a slickly made documentary but plays a like a greatest hits version of Puck’s life. When it peels back the layers of the onion to reveal how the chef’s need for his stepfather’s approval propelled his career, it resonates. When it goes for inspiration over introspection, however, it feels less flavorful.