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Tribeca 2021: “Wolfgang” (Review)

The launch of Spago in 1982 put Wolfgang Puck on the map and, next to perhaps only Julia Child a few decades prior, he became one of the first celebrity chefs to fully integrate into popular culture.

His life from growing up in an abusive household in Austria to the commercialization of “California Cuisine” is the subject of this new documentary from David Gelb (“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”).

Still hard at work at the age of 71, Puck’s story is inspirational and aspirational. This may explain how the movie was picked up by Disney. It really tells the story of a person who fought against the odds and was consistently told they couldn’t make it, but kept fighting for something he was passionate about.

It paid off in spades. The man has two Michelin stars, over 20 fine dining restaurants, multiple product lines, and runs one of the most sought-after catering companies in the world.

In his youth, there wasn’t a clear path to success. His stepfather was wildly abusive, both emotionally and physically. Food became an escape as a teenager when he began working as an apprentice in a local restaurant. Fired for not peeling potatoes fast enough, he admits in the movie that he contemplated suicide because he couldn’t see things getting better.

But, as the story goes, things did get better. A whole lot better. Spago became the place to be and be seen (and it remains so decades later) and accidentally made pizzas an acceptable fine dining menu option.

Through his own films and work on the Netflix series “Chef’s Table,” Gelb has become a true master of capturing the magic of cooking. He knows who to talk to and how to perfectly shoot food. It helps when you have an engaging subject who is ready to tell his story, cement his legacy, and pass things on to the next generation.

Clocking in at a mere 78 minutes, “Wolfgang” doesn’t purport to tell the whole story, but it still gives us an entertaining one.

“Wolfgang” is available now on Disney+.

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