Chef Wolfgang Puck reflects on 25 years of catering Oscar night's official afterparty.
On Sunday, February 24, the red carpet will once again roll out along Hollywood Blvd. in front of the Dolby Theater to welcome famous faces and filmmakers to the 91st annual Academy Awards ceremony. This year, the show will go host-less for the first time in decades, which, if all goes smoothly, might allow the hours-long event to end on schedule so the stars won’t have to wait too long between arriving for the show and eating, a problem last year's host Jimmy Kimmel attempted to solve with snacks.
While the ceremony itself doesn’t have food on hand for the attendees, the biggest afterparty of the evening does. This year, the Governors Ball will once again welcome a who’s who of the film industry to drink, dine, and dance the night away after the statuettes have all been handed out. And once again, for his 25th year in a row, Wolfgang Puck is in charge of the 30-plus dish menu.
I spoke with Chef Puck and asked him to reflect on 25 years of devising the menu for the glamorous party and how the partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' began.
Prior to his recurring gig as the Governors Ball caterer, Puck was already cooking for the hottest afterparty in town. Since the mid-1980s, Hollywood agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar had hosted his own party at Puck’s Beverly Hills hotspot Spago. Puck says that with a lot of products being donated and a small-ish crowd of around 150 people, the evening was a relatively inexpensive and lively affair that, for many, was the place to be instead of the actual Oscars. “Everybody came to Spago," Puck said. "People would watch the show at the restaurant and then race downtown, because in those days the Oscars were downtown, go onstage to get their Oscar and then come right back.”
Lazar passed away in December of 1993, so Puck decided to forego hosting an Oscar party that spring to honor his late friend. But the Academy's board of directors came calling and asked Puck to liven up its own official Oscar afterparty. At the time, the Governors Ball really wasn’t the place to be, Puck recalled, and the event would cycle through caterers each year as different board members had differing views on what should be served. When Puck was brought on, that all changed: “I won’t interfere with how you make movies, and you cannot interfere with the way I cook,” the chef told them. The Academy agreed, and the result has become a quarter-century Oscar tradition.
A lot has changed since Puck’s first year catering the event. The Oscar ceremony and Governors Ball have moved from the Shrine Auditorium downtown to the more glitzy (if one can call it that) corner of Hollywood Blvd. and Highland Ave. in the Dolby (formerly Kodak) theater. Another change came when Dawn Hudson took over as the CEO of the Academy and decided the party should be more cocktail/small bites and less a sit-down dinner affair. As for the food, vegan options have grown, though Puck insists people who say they’re meat-free end up changing their dietary habits after fasting their way through the awards ceremony. “After getting ready with hair and makeup and the ceremony, everybody’s really hungry. A lot of people who say they are vegan and vegetarian aren’t vegan or vegetarian that night. They order a chicken pot pie and then end up having two,” Puck joked. And some things have remained the same. The chocolate Oscar statuettes covered in 24 karat gold and the matzo bread with dill cream, smoked salmon and caviar, have been on the menu since the beginning. Miyazaki wagyu beef, pea agnolotti, those chicken pot pies with black truffles, and macaroni and cheese with winter truffles are also perennial crowd favorites that have returned time and again.
This year, however, Puck is once again excited to introduce some new dishes to the menu. One is a take on the literally and figuratively hot dish of Nashville-style hot chicken, while another harkens back to a childhood dish once prepared by the chef’s mother in Austria. “This year, the most interesting thing we did at the tasting was a Nashville-style hot fried quail on a red velvet waffle. I just thought it would be fun. It’s like eating something you know but in a better way,” Puck said. “And we’re making some of my mother’s recipe for dumplings. I grew up on the border of Italy and my mother used to make these ricotta dumplings, like a naked ravioli with no dough around, with watercress pea pesto and brown butter. It’s really down-home cooking. Comfort food, but elevated.”
I asked Puck what makes an Oscar-worthy dish, however the chef said it’s not so much the dishes but the diversity that makes the night special. “It’s not one dish really, it’s the experience. You get this experience where you say ‘I just had a baked potato with caviar, now I’ll have naked ravioli, then maybe I have some Miyazaki beef’ and then if you’re still hungry you try the agnolotti. It’s really a great way to eat, and especially the younger people love it. It’s variety, really high-class variety.”
As for enjoying the ceremony himself, Puck doesn’t get to take a seat inside the theater. Instead, he may pop into the green room where the presenters and winners mingle and where his team puts out a buffet of bites. “Mainly I’m up in the kitchen making sure everything’s ready by nine o’clock when we start. I’m not nervous today, but I’m nervous at seven o’clock on Sunday night. I want everything to go well.”
Puck said he has no plans to step down from the Governors Ball catering gig anytime soon, but it’s not something a possibility he's ignoring. “Twenty-five more years and then my son can take over,” he said before reconsidering with a chuckle. “Maybe ten years.”
Here’s what Hollywood’s biggest stars and the casts and crews of the Oscar-nominated films will be eating on Oscar night:
Crostini of Compressed Watermelon with Citrus Feta Cheese; Crab Deviled Eggs; Avocado Tostadas with Crunch Cabbage and Chipotle Glaze; Crostini with New York Steak, Classic Chimichurri; Spicy Ranch Popcorn; Housemade Potato Chips
Wild Mushroom Potsticker, Black Truffle Ponzu; Miyazaki Wagyu Beef Tartare on Tapioca Crisp, Togarashi; Mini Taro Root Taco with Miso Glazed Eggplant and Smoked Soy Mushrooms; Heirloom Carrot “Tartare”, Pickled Mustard Seed, Horseradish, Sunchoke Bark; Smoked Salmon Oscars Matzo; Miniature Miyazaki Wagyu Burger, Sharp Cheddar, Remoulade; Wolfgang Puck Signature Pizzas; Spicy Tuna Tartare In Sesame Miso Cones; Alaskan King Crab, Crispy Rice Cake, Avocado, Aji Amario-Yuzu Ponzu; Opal Apple “Summer Roll”, Cucumber, Shiso, Pomegranate Pearl
Spicy Tuna Rolls; California Rolls; Vegetable Rolls; Made To Order Nigiri; Scallop Ceviche, Black Garlic, Satsuma Tangerine Miso, Micro Herbs; Sea Urchin with Eggless Custard, Dashi, Unagi Glaze, Finger Lime; Albacore Tataki, Sweet Onions, Ginger, Momiji Chili, Ponzu; Oysters; Snow Crab Claws; King Crab Legs; Lobster; Shrimp
Cold: Caramelized Cauliflower, Golden Raisin, Lime, Labneh, Pinenut, Shiso-Za’atar; Frozen Golden Beets, Almond Custard, Meyer Lemon, Ice Lettuce; Snap Peas, Asian Pear, Pomelo Salad, Cacik Cheese, Mint, Walnut; Compressed Persimmon, Cinco Jotas Jamón Ibérico, Burrata, Wild Arugula
Hot: Sunchoke and Fennel Soup, Chips, Truffle Gremolata; Potato and Caviar 2.0; Black Truffle Chicken Pot Pie; Winter Truffle Baked Cavatappi and Cheese; Pea Agnolotti, Black Truffle, Peas Shoot, Parmesan Reggiano Brittle; Miyazaki Wagyu Beef Ny, Carrot Vichy, Spigarello, Yuzu Kotcho Ponzu; Loup De Mer, Calçot Onions, Artichokes, Fennel, Romesco Salsa, Espelette; Nashville Hot Fried Quail, House Made Pickles, Red Velvet Waffle; Torchio Pasta, Arugula, Tomato, Caper Berries, Aleppo Pepper, Black Olive Oil, Basil Flower; Austrian Ricotta Dumpling, Watercress-Pea Pesto, Lemon Brown Butter
Individual & Plated Sweets
24 Karat Dusted Valrhona Illanka Chocolate Oscars; Ombre Chocolate Dipped Strawberries; Pillow Cake with Coconut Mango and Passion Fruit; Coconut - Chocolate Bar; Yuzu Religieuse; Passion Fruit Cookie with Chocolate Chunks; Chocolate Chip Cookies; Triple Chocolate Chip Cookies; Milk Chocolate and Caramelized Pecan Cookies; Strawberry Cookies; Hazelnut and Almond Brownies; Espresso Macaron; Matcha Cherry Macaron; Hibiscus Orange Pate De Fruit; Piper Heidsieck Golden Champagne Strawberry Push Pop; Mini Wolfgang Puck Dark Chocolate Bars
Black Forest “Cherry”; Butterscotch Verrine with Dark Chocolate Nest; Tropical Pavlova with Macerated Jackfruit and Dragon Fruit; Strawberry Ginger Cheesecake with Jasmine Gelee
Passion Fruit Cheesecake; Praline Almond Chocolate; Chocolate Oscars with Strawberry Valrhona Chocolate
Chai Latte; Thai Tea with Young Coconut; Honey Jasmine; Earl Grey Tea Biscuit; Espresso Triple Shot; Praline Roasted Coffee Bean
Dessert Action Stations
Air Bread “Sea Urchin” with Passion Fruit Caviar; Affogato with Housemade Ice Creams and Stumptown Nitro Cold-Brew
Vegan Sweets (without gluten)
Hawaiian Superfood Spheres; Red Velvet Whoopie Pies; Cashew Vanilla Tiramisu; Tropical Halo-Halo; Sunflower Raspberry Macaron; Chocolate and Sea Salt Cookies
As for beverages, Don Julio is supplying the following official Oscar cocktails created by mixologist Charles Jolly:
Rosella: Tequila Don Julio Blanco, white vermouth, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, Scrappy’s Lavender Bitters, Fever Tree Ginger Beer, hibiscus flower, and orange oils.
Ancho Old Fashioned: Tequila Don Julio Reposado, Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur, Bittered Sling Arabica Coffee Bitters, rich demerara syrup, orange oil mist, orange twist garnish.
The 91st Academy Awards air Sunday, February 24 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on ABC.