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George Christy Talks About Spago, Lucky Wolfgang Puck, Irving “Swifty” Lazar, And More!

1982 Spago

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“You’re very lucky when you find good people, and they’ll pass your expectations after they’re hired.   But what matters is keeping them … that’s what counts,” acknowledges wunderkind chef/magnate Wolfgang Puck.

In 1982, Wolf created the iconic Spago.  His then-wife Barbara Lazaroff designed the fun-friendly dining room, with the windows facing nighttime Los Angeles on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood.  Manager Tom Kaplan, who remains with Wolf to this day and now oversees the Las Vegas empire, was as good as a manager gets.

Boy, oh boy, did they toil tirelessly, meeting and greeting everyone from Michael Jackson to Ava Gardner, Lillian Hellman, Richard Burton and luminaries by the hundreds.

We’re proud to have devoted our entire Hollywood Reporter column the week after Spago opened, with the cognoscenti flocking like swallows to Capistrano.

All heartily embraced Wolf’s welcomed and imaginative cuisine, prepared with the freshest and organic vegetables and fruits from Chino Farms.  And the sizzling club-like atmosphere proved irresistible.  Nothing like it.  A love match for our town, that later became a colossus the world over was birthed.

Composer Giorgio Moroder baptized it Spago, translating as “string” in Italian.   Who knows why remains a mystery.  Whatever, the name clicked.   We early bird regulars may never forget the swooning heat and the good times, month after month, after the original Spago unlocked those doors on Horn Avenue.

Revolutionary in its day, Wolf built an open kitchen where he and proteges roasted, steamed, sauteed and baked Spago’s sought-after dishes.

Also, putting their finishing touches on Wolf’s soon-to-be classic pizza creation.   Topped with Scottish smoked salmon over light swirls of sour cream and thinnest curls of purple onion on the crispiest crust, it was named the “Jewish Pizza” by none other than director Billy Wilder.  A frequent diner with wife Audrey, inviting pals the likes of Tonight Show producer Freddie de Cordova with wife Janet. Joanna and Johnny Carson, Alice and Peter Lassally.

In the open kitchen, pastry chef Nancy Silverton worked her sweet-tooth magic, and surely the world knows by now that Nancy founded her great La Brea Bakery, opened Campanile in Hollywood with chef Mark Peel, and, of late, launched the insanely successful Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza with partners Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali.

Now, for a “memory play” moment, as Tennessee Williams described his essays.  Before the original Spago on Horn Avenue (opposite Blockbuster Video along Sunset Boulevard) smart and adventurous diners were discovering Kavkaz, a folksy Armenian restaurant at the Spago location.  Yervand and Miriam Markarian were famous for chef Miriam’s rack of tender lamb marinated in pomegranate juice, and Yervand’s flavored vodkas, new to Los Angeles at the time.   Yervand added lemon peels or hot red peppers to the Stolichnaya, and chilled his flavored vodkas, of course.  Refreshing taste treats at the Kazkaz bar facing the flickering lights and landscape of the Sunset Strip.

Spago also made history with the heralded Oscar parties hosted by literary agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar, a ridiculously-rude party hustler represening major authors, and claiming he sold Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple with a five-sentence pitch.   A pain in the ass, Brooklyner Swifty was born to sell.  Never read a manuscript, but befriended writers who were impressed with his powers of negotiation for breakthrough contracts.

Truth to tell, we pushed for Swifty to take over the annual Oscar parties at Spago.   Wolf and manager Tom Kaplan initially invited us to host the event.  Writing as we were our thrice-weekly column for The Hollywood Reporter, we wondered about likely conflicts.    Not knowing Swifty, Wolf and Tom asked us to call.  We did.  “All expenses paid?” Swifty jumped.  Yes!  Done.

Wow, those were Oscar parties.  After Swifty’s loss, Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter commandeered his brilliantly lavish, million dollar nights at Morton’s and at the Sunset Tower, but the casts began  changing.

Gone were the Billy Wilders and Elizabeth Taylors and Audrey Hepburns.  Talented though they are, somehow Scarlett Johansson and Justin Timberlake and Anne Hathaway don’t quite cut the party mustard.   Let’s compare Billy, Elizabeth and Audrey to Dijon mustard, and these newcomers to the ballpark variety.

In 1997, Spago relocated on North Canon Drive in Beverly Hills to huge success.   Five years later, Wolf chose to remodel, and, as anticipated with Wolf, new ideas flourished.   An updated menu of trendy smaller plates, lower pricing, and a modern design from Waldo Fernandez.   Booming!

Wolf’s loyal personal assistant Maggie Boone informs that Wolf’s restaurant empire now numbers at 21 for fine dining, and 80 for casual dining.  Locally, we have Chinois, Cut, The Hotel Bel-Air Dining Room,  Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill, WP24, others.  Yes, he visits all, including his namesakes abroad in London, Hawaii, Singapore, etc.  Always greets the diners who are thrilled to be photographed with him.  Worldwide, Wolf employs more than 5,000 people.  He’s authored six cookbooks.

Long overdue is honoring the best troika staff in Beverly Hills.   Wolf, how lucky can you get?   Not easy to land a troika like this.   First, a bow from the waist to general manager Tracey Spillane, a native of Kent, England, interning as a journalist before traveling to the U.S.    Quickly joining restaurant Tatou in Aspen (“I’m a terrible and exasperated skier”), followed by Tatou and Pino Longo’s Coco Pazzo in Manhattan.  Summoned soon by Coco’s Joe Essa to come to Jesus and the holy land of Spago.   Fourteen years now, and going strong – welcoming, friendly, kind, approachable, and with those perfect Brit manners.   Wolf won the jackpot of hires with Tracey.

As Wolf has with Laurent Steunou, a 13-year veteran assistant manager, and a native of Brittany, France, where Le Bernadin’s Maguy Le Coze and the late brother chef Gilbert are natives, too.  If you missed a lunch or dinner at their Le Bernadin in New York, you flunked one great gourmet experience.  Leaving Brittany, Laurent arrived in Dublin, where he managed chef Patrick Guilbaud’s dining room that was awarded two Michelin stars, new to Ireland then.  We dined with Patrick when he manned the kitchen at Dublin’s posh Merion Hotel, and our menu remains memorable.  At Spago, Laurent charms new visitors and regulars, recommending specialties that we all return for.

Number Three in our Spago troika is the beautiful Ellen Farentino, a loyal member of six years, the senior manager and an enchanting maitresse d’hotel.  A joy to behold.  We were curious as to how the hell a sweetheart from Chanute, Kansas wends her way to Spago?   Well, she weds David Farentino, son of Michele Lee and the late actor James Farentino, in a hunting lodge in Kansas.  They arrive in New York, Ellen’s hired at the hot ticket David Burke and Donatella.  Husband David, who manufactures flavors for electronic cigarettes, yearns to come back to his hometown of L.A., and Ellen is swooped up by Spago.

Once more with feeling.  Big thanks to Tracey, Laurent and Ellen for being there.  Oh, Wolf, we’ll say it again: how lucky can you get?!

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