Off the Menu
Editor’s note: “Off the Menu” is an online series dedicated to spin-off and companion stories to Life & Thyme Issue Five, The Nostalgia Issue. Today’s story takes you behind the scenes with Wolfgang Puck Catering. To read our full profile on Mr. Wolfgang Puck himself, order your copy of Issue Five from our online shop.
The audience bates its breath as presenters work to reveal a name from the origami folds of a golden envelope. The five Best Director nominees await their fate from their seats on the floor of the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, knowing that the next few moments will be critical ones in their lives and careers.
This also happens to be a critical moment in the nearby kitchen at the Hollywood & Highland facility, where Wolfgang Puck and his team in chef whites, submerged in an ocean of ovens and ranges and stainless prep tables—all spotlessly gleaming as if themselves dressed for the imminent ball—stand before a flat screen television broadcasting the moment currently taking place just downstairs. For the first time all day, the cooks stand slackened, taking a moment to lean and breathe, to have a slug of something hydrating, their hands on their chins and eyes on the awards show, as casually as if they were one of the millions of viewers watching from their couch.
Maybe the cooks are rooting for one nominee or another, maybe they have a dog in this fight as fans of the film industry; but more important to them right now is the fact that this moment signifies more than just the pinnacle for the Academy’s chosen director. The divulgence of Best Director is also their cue to begin counting down to service.
Shortly after, when the Best Picture award is bestowed sometime around nearly 9 p.m., this brief respite––the inert power saving phase of a group that’s been in constant motion since the very early morning––will be converted to a kinetic, high intensity, highly organized chaos.
It’s now a well-honed routine, with Wolfgang Puck Catering having put on Hollywood’s grandest annual gala a quarter of the times it’s taken place (catering 22 of the total 88 Academy Awards). And for the staff, many of whom have been with Puck under one umbrella or another for years, the role is a reprise.
They don’t flinch at the security teams, the sweeps by LAPD or the secret service, the mounted cameras coming in and out of the swinging doors and directed at their stations, threatening to interrupt their work at hand. They’re occurrences that in most professional kitchens would be unusual at best and menacingly disruptive at worst. But here, they’re taken in stride––with patience that comes with confidence, and professionalism that indicates experience.
But that’s not to say the execution is cavalier. It’s so well prepared and scripted, methodical and micromanaged in advance, that it nears the point of ritual. In fact, there’s an air of spiritual reverence in the evening—the sense of tribute and respect not only to the talented artists they intend to serve and the craft to which they’ve dedicated themselves to under Puck’s direction, but also to a leader recently lost.
Executive Chef and Partner of Wolfgang Puck Catering, Matt Bencivenga, who was claimed by pancreatic cancer in January, was by all accounts admired, respected and beloved. This marks the first awards without the esteemed leader, but he is present with his team as evidenced by the black WWMBD wristbands that accessorize each cooks’ Oscar attire (one even has the initials inked in a fresh tattoo). The question, “What Would Matt Bencivenga Do?” invites the chef’s posthumous guidance—the team’s efforts toward a well-executed service carried out in both his honor and his footsteps.
And a well-executed service will mean this: that over the next two hours, a waiting crowd of around 1,500 will emerge from the three-hour-plus awards show and find—among many, many other things—300 Jidori chickens, 3,500 pieces of housemade seeded lavosh, 300 pounds of Snake River Wagyu short rib, 400 housemade pizzas, over 5,000 handmade artichoke agnolotti pieces, 10 kilos of caviar, and 1,500 pounds of winter black truffles from Burgundy.
A raw bar—arranged on the front patio, propped and styled over backlit ice sculptures—will greet party-goers with 50 whole yellowtail snapper, 1,000 stone crab claws, 7,500 shrimp, and 300 Maine lobsters, alongside hand-rolled sushi rolls and accoutrements. The 1,300 farmed oysters are a classic complement for guests enjoying a flute-full of bubbles from one of the 2,400 bottles of champagne, but will go just as well if they opt instead for a few fingers worth of single malt scotch from one of the 130 bottles stashed beneath a half-dozen bar locations—all while they mingle with one another, enjoy the performance of Grammy-nominated musical act Trombone Shorty & Orleans, or stand in line at the engraving station––awaiting the moment their names will be forever etched into recently acquired and long-dreamed of statuettes.
You could say the spread certainly beats heat-lamped concession stand nachos and Super Pretzels.
Whether the industry is of film or of feeding people, be it actors memorizing lines or cooks working them, despite how disparate the worlds may seem, the common thread on both sides of the wall at the Governors Ball is a commitment to craft, and to entertaining through art––delivered on screen or on a spoon.
And sure, the stats are staggering on paper. To read them is to imagine a mechanized assembly line would be required to master this menu within a three-hour running time. But to be in the kitchen is to see the careful slicing of 6,000 freshly baked, quarter-sized brioche buns that are then buttered, toasted and stacked with appropriately scaled slices of heirloom tomatoes and slivers of cornichon for mini burgers—adorably poppable portions that will be casually snapped up by hundreds of celebrities in between conversations about acceptance speeches and compliments on evening wear. These cooks aren’t turning out average catered fare. There are no culinary corners left on the cutting room floor. Many of them have formal and fine dining restaurant backgrounds, and are committed to turning a performance they can be proud of—no part (or pickle) too small.
As the opulence and elegance carries on inside the ballroom (which, with accents of blush and gold, gives the illusion of swimming inside a bottle of sparkling rosé—no complaints there), the choreographed culinary scene continues out on the other side of the wall. At some point, a senior chef calls for quiet in the room. Every cook, chef, expeditor and server falls mute, assuring their full focus on their work at hand. Commanding that hush is almost unheard of in a commercial kitchen, which are rarely quiet places—inherently abuzz with sounds of equipment and execution, communication between cooks at high volumes to compete with the clicking of a range, the roar of a flame, the clatter of dishes—scenes of sensory overload. But like audience members in a movie theater, these chefs observe the silence—it’s all part of putting on a good show.
Plates are furiously fired and assembled, servers line up to collect trays provided by expediters on either end of the room, their tailored costumes designed to look the part.
As they leave the room, the platters are weighted down by baked potatoes wrapped in gold foil and dolloped with sour cream and salty caviar, bowls of crispy Korean bibim bap, two-bite taro root tacos with wild mushrooms, chicken pot pies standing five inches tall and reaching into the air with coils of steam from a recent bake—along with trays of lighter fare like a salad of baby beets and Cara Cara oranges, a chilled gazpacho of white grape and almond. All are expediently and silently collected from the kitchen equivalent of a production assistant, before being delivered to the Hollywood’s movers and shakers.
In the ballroom is a crowd that includes everyone from Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams to the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden. They’re smiling. They’re shaking hands. They’re enjoying cocktails inspired by tonight’s nominated pictures along with the passed hot and cold dishes. And every detail of their experience has been curated by the evening’s other set of hard-working stars—catering chefs including Jacqueline Kelly, Ben Hong, Michael Pennick, Alan Latourelle and Connor Shanahan, with supporting cameos by the leads of several of Puck’s other productions––Lee Hefter (Managing Partner & Executive Corporate Chef), Hiroyuki “Fuji” Fujino (of Five Sixty) and Hugo Bolanos (of Hotel Bel Air).
Just outside the main ballroom, a stretch of skirted tables have been imagined as a chocolate wonderland, landscaped to varying degrees of sugar shock by the pastry team—chefs Kamel Guechida, Tyler Atwell, Della Gossett and Jason Lemonnier. The iconic golden chocolate Oscars stand at attention, omnisciently overseeing expanses on either side, multi-leveled peaks and valleys lined with mignardise—truffles and French macarons and pate de fruit. And while caviar may kickstart the affair with anticipated sophistication, it’s dessert that brings the party back to earth. Sequined gowns and bow-tied tuxedos make delightfully incongruous uniforms for the enjoyment of playful throwbacks and takes on old school favorites like house made passion fruit “Mallomars,” tiny tiramisu “Push Pops” that have scarcely more girth than a garden variety drinking straw, and peanut butter “Ring Dings.”
And if they hadn’t received the real deal Oscar, attendees can take one of 7,000 miniature chocolate versions home with them.
The culinary cast, all-told, will roll credits to some 350 individuals acting their roles in a scene so well-blocked that it could very well have been storyboarded to the second; cooks moving swiftly around one another to accomplish one of the hundreds of a critical tasks they have rehearsed and committed to memory. For a moment, it feels a little like watching a silent film.
The Academy Award for Best Director, if you’re wondering, went to Alejandro González Iñárritu in 2016. But among the crush of the quiet kitchen is Wolfgang Puck himself––sleeves rolled, side by side with his cooks––plating, pointing, passing and directing his own cast and crew to a singular culinary vision.