Barbara Lazaroff & Wolfgang Puck

Merrill Shindler - December 1995

Food Arts presents the December 1995 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to restaurateur/chef Wolfgang Puck and his wife, restaurateur/designer Barbara Lazaroff, for almost single-handedly creating the southern California wing of California cuisine and for their key role in making Los Angeles one of the most creative culinary cities in America.

Beginning with California cuisine at Spago, high on a knoll in West Hollywood, Puck and Lazaroff expanded into Asian-inspired cooking at Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, a seafood-intensive Mediterranean menu at Granita in Malibu, and a northern California reinterpretation at Postrio in San Francisco, followed by Spagos in Las Vegas, Mexico City, and Tokyo. (A Spago is also in the works for Chicago.)

At the same time, they've downscaled their cooking at Wolfgang Puck Cafe, and even more casual Wolfgang Puck Expresses are popping up all over California. Puck's pizza are available in frozen-food sections from coast to coast. His books and videos are selling briskly. And his annual fundraiser for Meals on Wheels is one of the most prestigious—and fun—culinary benefits in America.

Not bad for a guy from a small village in Austria. When Puck was 14, he left home to begin a culinary apprenticeship at the Park Hotel in nearby Villach. His coal miner stepfather counseled him against it, telling the lad he'd never amount to anything as a chef. The chef at the hotel agreed, telling Puck he was "good for nothing" after he accidentally stepped on some cakes cooling on the floor. But the determined teenager hid in the cellar where he peeled onions and carrots, and when the chef found him, he was allowed to stay on and work.

In a few short years he worked his way to L'Oustaù de Baumanière in Les Baux de Provence. He honed his skills at the other stellar French restaurants, including the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo and Maxim's in Paris before heading for America in 1973. He cooked classic French at La Tour in Indianapolis until he went to work for Patrick Terrail at Ma Madison in Los Angeles in 1975. There he made the Hollywood connections that would prove invaluable. In January 1982, he opened Spago, the first step on the road to making Puck arguably the most famous foreign-born chef in America.

Likewise, he is the most famous chef in the city most densely populated by celebrities. When tourists want to see stars, it's Spago they head for, where a night does not go by when there isn't a Tom Cruise, Barbara Streisand, Demi Moore, Steven Spielberg, or Michael Jackson nibbling on pizza topped with smoke salmon and crème fraîche, grilled seafood, or understated pasta dishes. It was Spago that was home to the best known Oscar party in town, thrown every year until the recent death of its host, superagent Swifty Lazar.

It was in 1979, while he was cooking at Ma Maison, that Puck met Bronx-born-and-raised Barbara Lazaroff, at a Los Angeles disco. The energetic, determined Lazaroff, who had studied theatre arts as well as set design and lighting, biochemistry, and experimental psychology in college, was in Los Angeles working in biomedicine before she decided to switch to a career in architectural and interior design. A few years later Lazaroff and the mildly shy, self-effacing chef were married.

Though often shadowed by the cooking of her husband, Lazaroff's achievements are considerable: she's the award-winning designer of Spago, where she was instrumental in introducing the exhibition kitchen, Chinois on Main, Granita, and their brief-lived brewery-restaurant, Eureka, along with other projects created through her own company, Imaginings Interior Design. Together, they have two children, Cameron, seven, and Byron, one. But most notably, Lazaroff is the spark plug that catapulted Puck from highly successful chef to national culinary icon. It's generally agreed that without Lazaroff's marshaling, Puck would probably be a nice guy with one restaurant famous for its pizza in the Hollywood Hills. In this case, opposites have attracted. And their restaurant empire is significant and growing swiftly. Along the way, they've taught us that dining well can be fun, lots of fun.