Trend Compression

Wolfgang Puck (left) was perhaps the first superstar restaurant chef to bridge the gulf to processed foods. Food Creation editor David Feder, R.D., reflects.

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From chef to celebrity to frozen food mogul:
Wolfgang Puck (left) pioneered chef's-signature meals
in "your grocer's freezer" across the nation.





By David Feder, R.D., Editor
dfeder@putman.net

About 20 years ago, when I was at the height of my career as a professional restaurant chef, a wide gulf gaped between those of us fighting for a few stars in the press and those chefs fighting to get the formula just right for a twin-screw extruder snack product. Inside that gulf lay everything from background to impetus to trend time/trend awareness and, I am ashamed to say, to perceived status.

Only rarely would we restaurant chefs, trying so desperately to create (at best) or stay ahead of (at least) the latest trends in food, even hear of a research chef, much less meet one. Those rare occasions usually involved hearing that some chef — either fading in glory or opting out of the thick of the ratatouille race to be the hottest new superstar — went over to MegaFoodCraft Inc. to be a research chef. We’d scoff; pause a little when we learned the humongous salary our “fallen” comrade was receiving; secretly envy his (it was so rarely “her” in those days) 9:00 to 5:00-and-weekends-off life; then move on with our elbowing the other chefs off the culinary astrological map.

In 1986, I was working for the Rosewood Hotel Corporation. At the time, Wolfgang Puck was completing his contract there as corporate chef. He’d recently skyrocketed to the top of the celebrity chef heap, so his visits to our hotel were at once rare and giddy. (Any jealousy, once you met the man, fled instantly: He was one of the most fun, decent, and easygoing chefs I ever worked with.) Shortly after this time, Wolfgang began marketing his signature pizzas (frozen and brightly packaged) to supermarkets. Yes, I mean the very pizzas which inspired the Hollywood glitterati to hosannas and showered Mr. Puck with riches.

Such a run up and down the ladder of emotion! Some of us praised Chef Puck, some condemned him as a god with feet of clay, most of us were confused. This simply was not done! At least not since chef Hector Boiardi became Chef Boyardee a couple generations before. What none of us saw was that Wolfgang Puck was one of the first to choose to bridge the gulf, rather than merely leap across.

In the 1980s, “spa” cuisine was the rage, and for a very good reason: The first Boomers were turning 40 and not ready to go quietly into that good night. Food retailers at the time were usually well behind any cuisine trend — often by years. For example, in the beginning of this landmark food decade, high-end restaurant chefs were well into the spa trend while the fast-food and packaged-food guys were still ragin’ with Cajun and blackening everything in sight.

But around the time Wolfgang flung his first pizza into the freezer instead of the oven, some very astute food manufacturers turned the tables on trend-setting star chefs. Healthy foods were discovered to be surprisingly — no, make that seriously — marketable (remember, this was also the time of the low-cholesterol craze). The face of food and food marketing completely changed. And like Douglas Fairbanks, when Wolfgang swung over to the other side he took his end of the rope bridge with him and soon the gulf had numerous bridges shoot across its span. Differences in background? More companies hired culinary school grads. Impetus? Chefs were able to fearlessly follow the pioneers like Puck once they saw there was nothing to fear in the world of processed foods. Trend time and trend-awareness lag? Just look at how little time it took to fill the shelves with low-carb foods after Atkins’ book hit #1 on the best-seller lists.

As for status, well, from Wolfgang Puck in the ’80s to Rick Bayless in the ’90s to Emeril Lagasse today, try to find a contemporary chef who doesn’t yearn to have his own line of product in stores near you.

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