Lifetime Achievement Award
The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to an individual whose lifetime body of work has had a positive and long-lasting impact on the way we eat, cook, and/or think about food in America.
In order to understand Wolfgang Puck’s achievements as a chef and restaurateur, one has only to recall the American culinary landscape and restaurant culture of the early 1980s, when Puck opened his iconic Hollywood restaurant, Spago. “Food was at a completely different level than it is today. Very few people really had the palate or were interested in great food,” Puck remembers. As for his beginnings as possibly the first celebrity chef, his initial attempt to get national TV publicity for a cookbook were rebuffed: “We already have Julia Child. We don’t need another cook,” he was told.
“America was food-blind when he showed up,” says Ruth Reichl, who has chronicled Puck’s career for decades.
Today, notes Colman Andrews, Puck’s “influence is so pervasive as to be invisible.” Enumerating the food trends that Puck pioneered, Colman adds, “Though it’s hard for people to imagine this today, pizza was simply not served, ever, in a ‘serious’ restaurant of any kind. Pasta was exclusively an Italian dish. There was no such category as ‘Mediterranean.’ I doubt that there was a restaurant in Southern California with a functioning wood-burning oven at the time.”
Not to mention Spago’s open kitchen, the emphasis on cooking with locally produced, in-season ingredients, and the notion that fine dining didn’t have to be a stuffy, formal experience but could instead be casual, relaxed, and fun. When Puck opened his second restaurant, Chinois on Main, in 1983, he introduced another major food innovation:
“Nobody else in America, certainly no classically trained French chef, was saying, ‘I love Chinese food, and I’m going to open a restaurant that does a play on Chinese food,’” Reichl says.
Given his Austrian roots and European training, how does Puck make sense of his role as a standard-bearer of Californian cuisine? For him, it’s only natural that his cooking exhibits a sense of place—a multicultural “playground” with an abundance of fresh, local ingredients. “America is a big melting pot,” he explains. “And I always said that our cooking should reflect the culture of where we are.”
Growing up in a small Austrian village, Puck first learned to cook from his mother and grandmother. At 14, he began a formal apprenticeship in his native country before moving to France, where he worked at several premier restaurants including L’Oustau de Baumanière. In 1973, at age 24, he moved to Indianapolis to cook at La Tour before making his way to Los Angeles in 1975, when he first came to the notice of Hollywood glitterati as chef and co-owner of Ma Maison. “It was seen as a squandering of talent,” Colman Andrews recalls, when “the very talented French chef” left Ma Maison to open the more casual Spago.
Today that leap marks the beginning of what would become a restaurant empire and a global brand. Puck was a trailblazer in Las Vegas, and today his 22 fine-dining restaurants, which include Spago, the steakhouse CUT, and modern Chinese restaurant WP24, span the U.S. from Maui to Washington, D.C., in addition to international outposts. The first chef to cook a guest dinner at the Beard House in 1987, Puck is now a multiple Beard Award winner—and the only chef in the Foundation’s history to have received two Outstanding Chef awards.
Though he says his “real passion” is upscale restaurants, Puck has also extended his brand to Wolfgang Puck Catering (which provided the food for the post-Oscars Governor’s Ball) and Wolfgang Puck Worldwide (WPW), which operates and franchises Wolfgang Puck Bistros, Wolfgang Puck Expresses, and Wolfgang Puck Cultural Center Cafés. WPW also licenses the brand for kitchenware, canned soup, and fresh and frozen pizzas—five million of which are sold yearly.
“All along he’s been very savvy. It wasn’t just about the money,” Reichl says. “It was about an understanding that that was how you got your name out there.” Building the Wolfgang Puck brand, she explains, contributed to his significant role in the “democratization of cooking” in America.
Beyond Puck’s innovations in the industry, Reichl emphasizes his broader historical significance, crediting him with elevating the status of chefs in America. “It’s hard today to remember what a different universe it was that he came into,” she points out. “Where the chef really was just the guy behind the stove, a blue-collar guy. There’s been such a huge shift in the world, and he really has been the one leading the charge to the recognition of a chef as someone who’s an important part of the culture.”
Reichl also describes Puck as a “huge recognizer of talent”—one of the many qualities that explain his wide-ranging success. “I once asked him why he opened so many restaurants, and he said, ‘At a certain point you have to promote people, and if you can’t promote them they’re going to leave you. I open restaurants so I can hang on to my talent.’”
Today Puck is proud of the longevity and reach of his career, but he wryly objects to the timing of his Lifetime Achievement award: “It’s certainly a great honor. Though I thought it’s a little early. You’re giving it to me at the beginning of my career! It should be at the end.”
Nicole Citron is a freelance writer and brand and communications consultant living in New York City.