Wolfgang Puck Looks Back On His Rise From Small Town Boy to Star Chef

Wolfgang Puck Looks Back On His Rise From Small Town Boy to Star Chef
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Wolfgang Puck Looks Back On His Rise From Small Town Boy to Star Chef

From his days growing up in a small town in Austria to hobnobbing with the stars at the Oscars and Studio 54, the original celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck, looks back at defining moments of his personal life and culinary career.

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Fresh from the Garden

"Now, you hear everyone talk about farm-to-table cooking. I grew up like that," reveals Wolfgang. "When my mother cooked at home, she went in the garden, she picked a couple leeks, maybe a few carrots and some cauliflower and made vegetable soup... Later on, she cut [the extras], blanched them, put them in plastic bags and froze them, so in the winter we could have vegetable soup also. We ate whatever we had."

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Childhood Dishes

"When we were young, we used to make fried chicken," Wolfgang shares, but "we ate very little meat." Instead, his family would supplement the chicken with foods like mashed potatoes, salad, vegetables and soup.

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Grandmother's Cooking

Wolfgang's new book includes a few of his grandmother's recipes, and he speaks fondly of her cooking. "[My grandmother] used to have a pressure cooker, and pressure cookers infuse the food with flavor. If you make chicken soup, it is better in a pressure cooker than anywhere [else]," Wolfgang insists.

He also recalls how his grandmother would use a pressure cooker to bring out the flavors of a dish even with very little meat. "She used onions, a little bit of garlic, a little bit of thyme and caraway seeds, and sautéed them. She had eight ounces of beef for four people," he says, and "it would be so good."

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His Mother's Influence

Wolfgang first discovered his love for cooking because of his mother. "I started cooking when I was really young," he tells us. "My mother was a chef also. So I used to go to the hotel she worked at every summer and spend the months with her, and that is where I got really interested in it."

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His Relationship with his Stepfather

"When I was 14, I left my house because my stepfather was really a nasty guy, so I couldn't wait to get out of the house," Wolfgang says. "I left and moved 50 miles away and [at] that time, we didn't have a telephone, we didn't have a car—nothing. I took the train and had an apprenticeship when I was 14," Wolfgang explains. "My father said, 'You are good for nothing.' He always told me I was good for nothing. That was one of the reasons I wanted to leave."

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Beginning his Career

"In Austria, it wasn't really exciting to cook in a hotel where I worked in a small town," Wolfgang says. "It was only when I went to France, when I went to Baumanière, and there, [chef] Raymond Thuilier opened up my eyes. He had the best ingredients."

Wolfgang says Thuilier would bring the most perfect carrots, green beans, sweet peas and apricots in from his garden, and in November, when there wasn't much business in the restaurant, they'd go shake the trees outside and use the olives to make olive oil. He thought, "I want to live that way. I grew up on a farm, so I was always attracted to that part."

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His Culinary Icon

Wolfgang names renowned French chef Raymond Thuilier as his greatest culinary influence. "When I was 19 and worked [in the South of France], he was the first one I said, 'I want to be like this guy.' It was like Michael Jordan and basketball. He had a restaurant, wrote books and was a painter, too. He did so many things. He became the mayor of a different state when he was 73 years old," Wolfgang enthuses.

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Signature Dish: Pizza

When Wolfgang was working in the South of France, he went to a restaurant that made great pizza. At the time, he didn't have the money to go to any other restaurant. Years later, when he moved to America, he couldn't find a pizza place that was as good. "Each time you went to a pizza joint, it was terrible... So I said, 'one day I'm going to open a restaurant—a fancy restaurant—and a pizza place next to it,'" Wolfgang says.

"So when I built [my] first restaurant, Spago, in 1981, I said, 'I'm going to build a wood-burning fire, not only to make pizza, but to roast salmon and to roast lamb in it.' So we started, and the pizza became the most famous thing," he says.

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The Celebrity who Left Him Star-Struck

For 20 years, Wolfgang has catered the Governor's Ball, one of the Oscar's biggest after-parties. "At the beginning, we used to have Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor, and I think probably my favorite was Paul Newman, because he was a race car driver," reveals Wolfgang. One time, Wolfgang ran into Paul Newman in London, and sat for a long time, thinking about how he could talk to him. "He was a race car driver and I was really into auto-racing too. I moved to Indianapolis because of the auto race. I talked with Paul Newman for an hour and a half about racing because I knew all the places. He used to race in some of the places even in Austria. Plus, I loved his movies."

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Love of Art

Wolfgang has been friends with many artists, including the late Andy Warhol. "He wanted to paint me and I said, 'No, no, no, just paint the wine label and the menu,' and he did it," Wolfgang says.

Other talented friends of the chef's over the years have included Robert Rauschenberg, Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari, and Wolfgang has featured their work in his restaurants. "We always have great artists at Spago and at Cut we have John Baldessari," he says.

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Andy Warhol

Wolfgang came to know Warhol at his Oscar party in 1985. "I saw him before that at Studio 54. He used to always be in the back hanging out with Bianca Jagger, and I was good friends with Liza Minelli and her sister Lorna Luft. When he came out to L.A., he was taking pictures of me in the kitchen. I said, 'I see you always when I am in New York at Studio,' and he said, 'Yea, yea, yea.'"

In Wolfgang's new book, Wolfgang Makes It Healthy, you can see a painting Warhol did for him hanging in his living room. "I have three of them," he adds.

Image Credit: Pictorial Parade


Chef and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck looks back at the most influential moments of his culinary career. From his days growing up in a small town in Austria to hobnobbing with the stars at the Oscars and Studio 54, the original celebrity chef dishes the details.

Check out the slideshow above to discover Wolfgang Puck's favorite memories from his personal life and culinary career.

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