It is a sun-dappled afternoon in this mecca of the overprivileged. Those who care about where and what they eat are lunching on the tree-shaded patio of Spago Beverly Hills.
This is a relatively new addition to the culinary empire of Wolfgang Puck, and one enters its rarefied atmosphere certain that the millionaire king of California cuisine will be nowhere in sight.But who's that over there? The round-faced fellow with the big smile in the spotless white jacket, apron and striped pants. Well, of course, it's Puck himself, flushed from the kitchen heat and stopping to schmooze with some of his well-known clientele.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is at one table while dealmaker Mike Ovitz negotiates at another. It is the height of lunch hour and Puck is doing what he has always done - cooking.
Does the celebrity chef really have time to stir the soup?
"I work for a living," he laughed. "This is what I do. I don't know anything else."
As he finally sits down to talk about the food revolution he inspired, a tornado blows in the door - his dynamo of a wife, Barbara Lazaroff, who bills herself as the brains of the Spago business empire. Without her, she hints, Puck would be just another guy who cooked some interesting food.
"I have a much busier day than Mr. Puck," she said, expressing impatience at an interview heavy on Puck's food philosophy. "I have many business engagements and documents to go over. I have an Architectural Digest photo shoot. I sit on the board of directors of food companies . . . I'm not the design chick."
For years Lazaroff was known as the innovative force behind the design of Puck's restaurants. The wildly colored tiles that decorate the Wolfgang Puck Cafes are her trademark, along with expensive art, fountains, chandeliers and exotic foliage.
"Wolf loves to cook. He loves to present food," she said. "He's like a mother. I don't get that gratification. I'm fighting with contractors and subcontractors, trying to get everyone to be harmonious."
Together for 19 years, they have built an empire with sales hovering above $126 million a year. Most famous are the fine dining restaurants - Spago locations in West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Las Vegas; Chinois in Santa Monica, Calif., and Las Vegas; Postrio in San Francisco; Granita in Malibu, Calif.; and ObaChine in Beverly Hills, Seattle and Phoenix.
The Spago name and concept are licensed to restaurants in Tokyo and Mexico City, and one is set to open in Kuwait.
"When I was l6 or 17 years old, I dreamed of opening a restaurant," Puck recalled of his Austrian boyhood. "I thought what I'd really like to do was have two restaurants."
Now, it's hard to count them all. The Wolfgang Puck Cafes, a casual, moderately priced take on the pizza-and-pasta formula, are proliferating across the nation. The latest of a dozen cafes is an 18,000-square-foot extravaganza at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
Wolfgang Puck Express is an even more scaled-down fast-food variation on the concept and is designed for travelers. There are two at Los Angeles International Airport and about a dozen elsewhere.
Then there's the frozen food business, reaching into American homes with pizza, lasagna and ravioli. And don't forget the Wolfgang Puck cookbooks, videos and signature cookware.
For Puck and Lazaroff, the byproduct of all this is an incredibly stressful life. They have two small sons, Cameron, 8, and Byron, 3, and a large menagerie of animals. But they admit they are rarely at home and rarely socialize.
Puck insists on keeping his hand in all the restaurants, cooking on-site and holding training sessions for the staff. He realizes that his philosophy of food is the heart of the entire enterprise.
He never forgets his start at Ma Maison, a tony West Hollywood restaurant where he first made his name as a chef for owner Patrick Terrail.
"We were part of a beginning which made a difference in how Americans ate," he said. "There was a time when everything imported was the thing to do. When we started at Spago and Ma Maison we said, `Let's use what's around us and look at the cultures around us.' Cooking is a reflection of the place where you live."
Thus was born California cuisine, a blending of Asian, American and European influences with an emphasis on fresh produce and meat.
"There was a certain magic here in the '70s and '80s," he said nostalgically. "There were less restaurants where people wanted to go. . . . Hollywood has changed."
Now, his clientele isn't as star-studded but is heavy with movie moguls and high-powered executives.
The future for Ms. Lazaroff and Puck appears to be more of the same. She's keeping her eye on the bottom line, developing a marketing Web site, planning for a time when the company goes public.
Puck, at 49, has finally become a U.S. citizen and said he dreams of less travel and more time with his kids. His goals for the future are simple: "Stay in business, stay healthy and make a good living."