The Makings of a Culinary Master: The Early Years of Wolfgang Puck

Wolfgang Puck’s signature catch phrase is: “Live, love, eat!” For the past 25 years, Puck has been experiencing the sweet taste of success by doing just that. He was ranked 89th on Forbes’ Top 100 Celebrities in 2006 and has created an empire worth almost $500 million, which includes everything from restaurants to catering to frozen foods to kitchenware. If this weren’t enough to establish Puck as an icon in the culinary world, he is also the host of his own weekly cooking show and has released several cookbooks.

Wolfgang Johann Topfschnig’s rise to the top began on January 8, 1949 in St. Veit, Austria, where he was born to a hotel chef mother and a butcher father; the art and love of preparing food was in his blood. Puck’s father abandoned his mother just before his birth, leaving Maria Topfschnig as a single mother. In 1956, she remarried to coal-miner Josef Puck, who then adopted Wolfgang, making him Wolfgang Johann Puck. This marriage would result in two younger sisters and a little brother for the young Puck.

Under the guidance of his mother, who had been dabbling in the professional culinary arts for some time, Puck began cooking pastries. He had made up his mind at an early age that he wanted to follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a professional chef. Instead of following the traditional route of first attending culinary school, however, Puck chose to instead train under an apprenticeship from the age of 14 on. He was sent on a train to southern Austria to work in a hotel kitchen, but did not find the success he had hoped for. After stepping onto cakes on a bakery floor, he recalls that, “everyone told me I’m good for nothing.” A few days later, the head chef told Puck, “You’d better go home to your mother so she can breastfeed you for another year.” After pondering suicide, Puck chose instead to apprentice at another hotel. It proved to be a wise decision.

Five years later, Puck went on to apprentice at L’Oustau de Baumaiere in Provence and slowly began picking up the skills he would need to become a top chef. He continued to take up work at top Parisian restaurants, including Maxim’s and the Hotel de Paris in Monaco all the while flaming the entrepreneurial fire within him and inspiring his dreams of starting his own restaurant. Although he was acquiring the top techniques for French cuisine, he wanted to expand his skill set.

In 1973, Puck decided to move to the U.S., first working in New York City and later, La Tour in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he remained for two years. In 1975, Puck picked up and moved to Los Angeles, California with his roommate, Guy LeRoy, who was also an aspiring chef. Initially, Puck’s plan was simply to save up enough money to be able to open his own restaurant back home, but that quickly changed. He got a job as a chef at Ma Maison, a Hollywood restaurant that was failing and was not expected to last too much longer. In just a year and a half, Puck had not only become co-owner and head chef of Ma Maison, but he had established it once again as a respected restaurant, popular among celebrities.

It was at Ma Maison where Puck first began experimenting with fusing different cooking styles and ingredients, eventually creating a new cuisine that would later become known as California cuisine. Using the techniques of French cuisine that he had spent years perfecting, Puck started working with local, fresh ingredients to create this new gourmet type of cooking. It wouldn’t be long before his entrepreneurial fire again began to burn bright, too bright to be ignored.

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