“I don’t like to think about the past too much,” Wolfgang Puck confesses early in the Disney+ documentary “Wolfgang,” a red flag that we’re not going to encounter much in the way of intense self-scrutiny in the scant 78 minutes that follow. A fairly vapid and shallow affair, even by the low standards of the celebrity bio-doc subgenre, “Wolfgang” provides copious archival montages of “the first celebrity chef” (Julia Child apparently didn’t count), but precious little understanding of what actually makes him tick.
Puck’s early years are skimmed, aside from an extended anecdote about losing his first kitchen job, told in great detail and illustrated with re-enactment footage, so we fully understand this as The Story That Defines Him. The real juice here is Chef Wolfgang’s rise to fame, and much of that material is fascinating: how the open kitchen design of his Spago restaurant elevated the chef from a “blue-collar job” to a celebrity, how his staff read Hollywood trade papers to best assess who got the premium tables, how instrumental he was to the development of fusion cooking.
Some much-needed tension is provided by Patrick Terrail, the owner of Ma Maison (Puck’s first kitchen of note), as he and his chef maintain conflicting accounts of how much credit Puck deserved for that restaurant’s success. But most of the picture hums along with the singularity of purpose of an infomercial, and even its coverage of Puck’s flaws — he spread himself too thin, he was an absentee father and husband — have the ring of a job applicant’s description of their biggest flaw: that they just work too hard, and care too much.
“Wolfgang” is directed by David Gelb, who all but defined the celebrity chef documentary with “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” He hits many of the same notes; the food photography is delectable, and Puck is full of bite-size wisdom like “We have to have focus in life” and “If you believe in something, you have to follow your dreams.” But “Wolfgang” ultimately plays like exactly what it is: “Jiro” Disney-fied, and thus drained of its nuance, complexity and interrogation.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 18 minutes. Watch on Disney+.
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