George Christy Talks About Wolfgang Puck, Hollywood Walk of Fame, Spago, Family and more
Wolfgang, O Wolfgang, you are the Pied Piper who introduced Los Angeles to fine and adventurous dining when you and your innovative designer wife, Barbara Lazaroff, opened Spago above the Sunset Strip in 1982. Arrivederci (so long in Italian!) to that tiresome Los Angeles standby of ”surf and turf” (lobster tail and steak).
Just as the Grand Seigneur Henri Soule led presidents and world travellers Marlene Dietrich and Cole Porter decades ago to his French tables at Le Pavilon on East 57th Street in Manhattan.
Like Soule, dear Wolfgang Puck, yours is an uncomprimising passion for quality and consistency.
Invited we were by Soule to join him in a caviar tasting during our Town & Country years, and, wow, no fooling around with his insistence on quality.
“Don’t ever bring me cheap caviar and say this is the best you have.” He tossed the caviar into the man’s face. Shocked we were, and kindly offered our handkerchief before Soule bounced the vendor out the door.
Soule knew his people, as do you, Wolfgang. He owned La Cote Basque, as well. One afternoon with Gloria Vanderbilt gossiping there with Carol Matthau and Truman Capote, no other tables were available. Suddenly a handsomely dressed foursome walked through the revolving doors. Obviously from Italy (anyone more chic than the elite Italians?) apologized for not reserving, he welcomed them grandly and magically a table setting appeared.
“You can tell people by their behavior,” Soule explained.
A week ago, Wolfgang was honored with a Star (number 2,607) on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in a choice spot facing the Dolby Theatre.
Wolfgang’s history is compelling. Luck and charm and talent to spare.
As a teenager, he knew there was “more out there,” and bid adieu to his native Austria, where mom Maria was a pastry chef. He headed to France, apprenticed with the fabled Raymond Thulier at L’Oustauou de Baumaniere in Provence, at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco. On then to the fabulous Maxim’s in Paris, where we’d had a messy encounter with a headwaiter who was bilking us on wine charges.
Arriving in the United States at age 24 in 1973, he cooked at La Toque in Indianapolis, before finding his way West to Los Angeles.
Joining Patrick Terrail as chef and partner at Ma Maison with its Astroturf patio on Melrose Avenue. Where he prepared daily meals for the rotund Orson Welles. Who confessed over drinks to us, “George, my doctor reminds me that when I order dinner for four, there should be three other people.”
When Spago opened it was named by the Oscar-winning composer Giorgio Morodor. Spago translating as “string” in Italian and for whatever undecipherable reason Wolfgang and Barbara Lazaroff were enthusiastic.
A crazy name now renowned on continents around the world.
With Wolfgang cooking in its then-unique open kitchen and Nancy Silverton preparing her alluring desserts, Spago ascended into the gourmet stratosphere as the hottest dining room in town. Which we predicted the first week it opened, after publishing our rave review and the phone number in our The Great Life column in The Hollywood Reporter. Wolfgang was in disbelief, wishing he had more chairs to take care of the crowd.
Wolfgang christened us “the godfather of Spago,” which Liz Smith reported in a Vanity Fair feature about us.
Wolfgang’s smoked salmon pizza became a sensation (director Stanley Donen branded it as the world’s “best Jewish pizza”).
Fifteen years later, Wolfgang and Barbara relocated to Beverly Hills, where it is now on North Canon Drive. And where, as before, they were there day in and night out. Always welcoming and befriending their guests, from presidents to regulars. If we may address this in the vernacular, they worked their butts off, becoming philanthropists extraordinaire.
To this day, Wolfgang, in his chef’s uniform, cruises the dining rooms, meeting guests. His patience is sublimely generous, and his personality borders on the royal. He visits his other restaurants in the area. From the Hotel Bel-Air Dining Room to Cut in The Beverly Wilshire and WP at the downtown Ritz Carlton.
His is a loyal team. Major domo Tom Kaplan; comrade in culinary arts Lee Hefter; catering director Karl Schuster; dining supervisor Tracey Spillane, Wolfgang’s assistant Maggie Boone, are there, masterminding the mystique of Spago.
As do Spago’s beautiful hostesses: Amanda Brown, Lisa Marie McGilvery, Melissa Myers, Maria de la Vega, Kyla Leon, Elienea Hagerstrom, who are loves.
On occasion, we’ve complimented Wolfgang on his team, and he’s smiled, “George, I’m lucky, and, as any businessman knows, what matters is keeping them.”
As of this year, Wolfgang operates 100 restaurants and cafes. From London and Bahrain and beyond. Yet he remains as down to earth as when we first shook hands in the long ago.
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