You know you’ve achieved “legend” status when the mouse wants to make a documentary about you. This is the case with Wolfgang Puck, a world-renowned chef whose Spago restaurant created the term “celebrity chef,” in which the real star of the place was the person making the food, welcoming you to their home. Directed by David Gelb, who helmed (what I think to be) the greatest food documentary of the last decade, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Wolfgang is a deeply moving and insightful portrayal of a resilient human being who, in the face of extreme pain and adversity, decided to push through and pursue his dreams no matter what.
I haven’t been particularly impressed with Disney+ original documentaries; most of them were fairly standard accounts and stayed in the realm of “Disney stuff,” with the exceptions of Taylor Swift’s Long Pond Studio Sessions and National Geographic’s The Real Right Stuff and Own the Room, both enjoyable films, but highly forgettable after watching it. Wolfgang feels like the first Disney+ documentary with real vision, not only on its aesthetic compositions but by dressing (no pun intended), a complete portrait of one individual who has changed the way America (and the world) eats.
Gelb shoots in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio for most of the film (minus archival footage, which is presented in their original format), which gives the documentary a polished but extremely intimate feel. Whenever a talking head appears on-screen, the film’s cinematic look makes us more susceptible to listen to their testimonials. Gelb’s portrait of Wolfgang Puck is surprisingly more personal than I’d ever dreamed possible. 2021 has been the year of pulling back the curtain on celebrities to showcase the human behind the “façade” with films such as Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, P!NK: All I Know So Far and, most recently, Mary J. Blige’s My Life, which all center on pop artists. Wolfgang takes the same approach as an “intimate artist doc” and slaps (for lack of a better word) on a chef. In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Gelb was more focused on capturing the mythic status of Sukiyabashi Jiro instead of Jiro himself, even though a chunk of the film is on Jiro’s relationship with his son, alongside a glimpse of his tireless work ethic.
Wolfgang seems more balanced at not only showcasing the [incredible, my God!] food Puck makes for his restaurants and how he came up with his “fusion” dishes that he popularized (a smoked salmon pizza, for example, which was never done before) and being unafraid at asking difficult questions to Wolfgang himself about his childhood in Austria. While it may feel terribly disjointed at times, particularly when the film shifts from one subject to another in a non-linear fashion, Gelb’s focus has always been on Puck and Puck only. Here’s this “star” that is known to cook for (every single) celebrity you can think of, presidents, Hollywood actors, filmmakers, producers, athletes, the whole nine yards, but had to go through decades of massive pain and failure before even starting to make an impression. Wolfgang Puck’s path to success is pretty harrowing, and he took lots of mistakes and self-reflection before he even got one opportunity that changed his life.
But success can either lead to quick failure if you don’t move with the times or, even more painful, neglect. Being wrapped in all of this rapid, almost sky-high success very fast created a rather neglectful relationship he had with his ex-wife, Barbara Lazaroff, and children whom he ignored. I would’ve wanted to see more of that part fleshed out and deepened through testimonials from his children. Only one of them, Byron, speaks about his relationship with his father, but it didn’t go deep enough. Running at 79 minutes, it’s tough for Gelb to draw a complete and exhaustive portrait of such an acclaimed figure in food. You have to make sacrifices for what goes in the film and what doesn’t, but it would’ve been nice to see that part feel more complete than having another laudatory comment on Spago and Wolfgang’s other restaurants.
By the time we see Puck at the Oscars red carpet, preparing the meals for the celebrities, we already know how successful he is. It was then time for the documentary to move on to something else and pull back the curtain farther than it initially wants to. But Puck himself has harrowing memories of his childhood and being wrapped in such fame and fortune made him sure he wasn’t going to be like his abusive stepfather, simply because he wasn’t around. But that creates another problem that I would’ve loved to see explore. Still, the film quasi-redeems itself by the end when it talks about the importance of family and his biggest regret.
It feels intimidating to make an impact and hold the audience’s attention at such a short runtime. However, by using a refined cinemascope format and delving into what made Wolfgang Puck such a revered figure, not only by food aficionados but by the masses as well, it proves for a quite interesting documentary on the subject and showcases, once again, how truly great of a filmmaker David Gelb is. Just be sure not to watch it on an empty stomach.
Wolfgang is now available to stream on Disney+