L.A.'s Best-Known Culinary Import Takes to the Airwaves

Under the blaze of tungsten studio lights, Wolfgang Puck is doing what he does best: cooking.

The Austrian chef who reinvented pizza and introduced a new style of cuisine to California nearly 20 years ago is melting chocolate over a stainless-steel saucepan, cracking eggs into a food mixer and joking with the audience gathered in a Burbank studio set that resembles an expensive kitchen with marble countertops and all the latest gadgets.

"If we don't screw up too often, we'll be out of here by noon," Puck cracked to the mostly middle-aged men and women looking on. The famous chef, however, does flub a few times, his European accent growing thicker as the morning progresses. But filming of the TV program is finished by nearly 1 p.m., and the audience is treated to a catered lunch prepared by Puck personnel.

If you thought the elfish chef couldn't be more omnipresent than he is now, think again. Puck has signed on to do a weekly cooking show that will be broadcast Friday evenings at 9 p.m. on the Food Network, the 8-year-old cable network that has revitalized the art of cooking.

"The Wolfgang Puck Show" will be wedged in between "Emeril Live," showcasing Emeril Lagasse, the dark-haired chef from New Orleans, and the "Iron Chef," with Japanese wonder Takeshi Kaga.

While Puck seems a natural in front of the camera, critics have wondered what has taken the 51-year-old chef, who owns 10 restaurants, 16 cafes, and 10 self-service eateries, so long to get his own national TV show. Is this just another way for the superstar chef, who never stops reinventing himself and his products, to get more publicity?

"I think he may be looking for more exposure to get people into his cafes and keep promoting what he has," said Selwyn H. Joffe, who was president of the Wolfgang Puck Food Co., responsible for Puck's packaged foods, from 1989 to 1996. "I think for many years he had an aversion to doing a program on a network that was unproven. But as time has gone on and the Food Network has gotten a lot more exposure and credibility, he has taken another look at it. And the more exposure he gets, the better it is for his brand."

Puck is no stranger to television. He's been a regular on ABC's "Good Morning, America" since 1986, popping in and out for five-minute cooking demonstrations.

And although he didn't have his own show, Puck has not exactly been idle. He finished promoting his fourth book, "Pasta, Pizza and More," in November, opened a restaurant recently at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas and is opening a Wolfgang Puck Cafe in Osaka, Japan, in April.

It makes you wonder where he finds the time to film 26 episodes for the New York-based food network that was launched in late 1992 with only two hours of programming.

Making arrangements

But Puck, sitting inside his small dressing room in between filming, notes that there have been some auspicious changes that have made this possible. First, he has learned to delegate more duties to trusted insiders, including his brother who runs the Spago Chicago restaurant.

And the Food Network hired Weller/Grossman Productions in Sherman Oaks to produce the show in Los Angeles instead of shooting in New York at the Food Network headquarters.

"I felt the timing was right," Puck said, sitting on a couch, sipping water from a plastic bottle. "I also thought that Los Angeles has always been on the forefront of cuisine and should be represented (on the Food Network) somehow."

Puck said he was first approached by the network five years ago to do a program, but with two small sons and a mountain of work, he couldn't fit it in.

"I think that everyone under the sun has wanted Wolfgang to do television for quite some time," said Eileen Opatut, the Food Network's senior vice president for programming and production. "I think you have to give Wolfgang some credit. I think he did his homework and recognized that the Food Network has definitely changed and expanded in the last year and a half. He was much more willing to sit down last year and have a creative conversation about the show."

Indeed, the Food Network, now on 24 hours and available on more than 1,100 cable systems, has changed dramatically in recent years. In July 1999 it did a major relaunch. Instead of filming its cooking shows exclusively in a TV studio, the network moved out into the field. On Puck's show, for example, you can follow the chef to Chino Farms in northern San Diego County where he buys much of his restaurant's fresh produce. Or you can learn about Scharffen Berger, the Berkeley company whose chocolates are used in Puck's chocolate truffle cake.

One motivation for Puck to appear on his own TV show may be more national exposure. The Austrian who came to this country in 1973 and opened Spago Hollywood, his first restaurant, in 1982, is well known throughout California and the West Coast. But he admits that he is more of an unknown quantity on the East Coast.

"He has been in every facet of the food industry, and this was the one thing he hasn't done yet," said Karen Berg, editor of the Zagat Survey Los Angeles, a book that ranks Southern California restaurants. "And it might be an ego thing."

It could be.

Puck readily acknowledges that he'd like to boost his national profile.

"It will help the overall image of the restaurants and myself," he said with a shrug. "It is a new extension of what I am doing."

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