The Next Chef Boyardee

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The nine-inch spinach-and-mushroom pizza at Wolfgang Puck Express comes on a thin, crisp crust. Along with the mushroom slices, there's mozzarella, Gorgonzola and Parmesan cheese, a pesto sauce, a few tomato slices and fresh basil. Fresh spinach is sprinkled over the top of the pie like one of the herbs. It's one of the best fast-food pizzas in town. But what makes it a "Wolfgang Puck signature pizza"?

Wolfgang Puck, who invented designer pizza at Spago in Hollywood back in the 1980s, is known for putting outrageous ingredients like smoked salmon, caviar and duck sausage on his pizzas. So how come you don't find any of these exotic items on the pies at Wolfgang Puck Express in Houston?

There is barbecued chicken pizza, which is a concoction that was actually served at Spago. Unfortunately, barbecued chicken never did taste very good on a pizza. And what's with the little "WP" brand next to the four-cheese pizza on the menu? Is Puck claiming credit for the age-old "quattro formaggi"?


Wolfgang Puck Express

10001 Westheimer, 713-266-9739

Spinach-and-mushroom pizza: $7.50
Four-cheese pizza: $7.50
Pepperoni pizza: $7.50
Chinois chicken salad: $6.45
Crispy chicken: $7.50
Brownie: $2.25

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

The best dish on the menu at Wolfgang Puck Express, and the only one that reminds me of the cocky Austrian chef's cooking style, is the Chinois chicken salad. It's a huge stack of chopped Asian vegetables with crispy wonton noodles, shredded chicken breast and a honey-mustard dressing named after Puck's Asian fusion restaurant, Chinois.

While I sample the not-so-signature spinach pizza, my dining companion gets an item called "crispy chicken with dipping sauces," which consists of several bread crumb-crusted boneless chicken fingers served with dipping sauce and your choice of a side.

She chooses the Asian-style coleslaw, which is outstanding. The Japanese-style bread-crumb (panko) crust on the chicken breast pieces make them extra-crunchy, and their Japanese mustard dipping sauces, which come in little plastic dishes, are quite tasty. They're probably the best chicken fingers I've ever had. But I have to admit that the only chicken fingers I've eaten before were snatched off my children's plastic trays on the way to the trash can at McDonald's.

The kiddie-friendly chicken fingers point at the larger issue. Wolfgang Puck Express is peddling pepperoni pizza, Caesar salad, ham sandwiches and lots of other mundane foods that taste okay but have nothing to do with the famous chef. There's a crass commercialism at work here.

From the minute you walk in the door, Wolfie's gang starts panhandling you. The menu says the chicken fingers cost $7.50. But when you try to order them, the cashier pushes an upgraded version that sells for $9.50. They might just as well just come out and say, "Do you want to supersize it?" And it doesn't stop there. Would you like some fresh-baked bread? It's $1.50, half a loaf for 99 cents. Can you imagine the famous Wolfgang Puck nickle-and-diming his Hollywood celebrity friends for half a loaf of bread?

Outside the men's room, there's a display case with photos of Wolfgang Puck and an autographed chef's jacket commemorating the one and only time he ever set foot in the establishment. You can also read all about the famous chef's new cookbook, Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy, while you take a piss -- the cookbook is unappetizingly advertised on the wall above the urinal in the men's room. And if that's not obnoxious enough, try reading the advertisements on the tables.

There's one titled "How best to dine at Wolfgang Puck Express." (Wolfie must figure that anybody who would eat here needs remedial dining advice.) To "experience a range of intense flavors, textures and combinations," you need to order a lot of stuff, it explains. Another card is titled "What you need to add now." It lists such suggestions for your next purchase as "another glass of wine" and "a signature brownie." Then there's the continuous video of the celebrity chef playing above the front counter, so you can hear his Austrian accent in every corner of the restaurant.

There are more than three dozen Wolfgang Puck Express locations around the country, and many more franchises on the way. The concept seems to entail flashing pictures of Wolfgang Puck in your face in hopes of convincing you that he had something to do with the food they sell. It's hard to blame Puck for this cynical merchandising scheme. Once you sell your name, you've lost control of it.

Wolfgang Puck also has put his name on products you find at the grocery store. In 2001, he announced a "strategic alliance" with food giant ConAgra. His artisanal frozen pizza line would henceforth be manufactured by the same corporation that owns the Chef Boyardee brand.

Puck has become a mythical character, like Chef Boyardee. In fact, the parallels are spooky. The people who visit Wolfgang Puck Express and buy his brand-name pizzas have only the vaguest notion of who Puck is. And Puck's mass-market products and fast-food franchises bear little resemblance to the food and restaurants for which he's famous. But it's too late to do anything about it now. The myth created by advertising and marketing has overtaken the reality.

Which is exactly what happened to Hector Boiardi, the real Chef Boyardee. The Italian-born chef moved to New York and started working at the Plaza in 1915. Some years later, at his own restaurant, Il Giardino d'Italia, he Americanized his name to Boyardee and began selling his popular red sauce and pasta products to his restaurant customers. His Italian food products were a big hit, and eventually he sold the spaghetti sauce company that bore his name to a larger food concern, which is how he lost control of his identity. Through a series of mergers, the Chef Boyardee brand ended up in the hands of ConAgra. Although millions of people know the cartoon chef on the spaghetti can, nobody remembers the man. Chef Boyardee died in 1985 without fanfare.

Like Chef Boyardee, Wolfgang Puck is a ConAgra brand who will barely be remembered as a real chef in the future. Puck is hastening his own Chef Boyardee-ization by closing restaurants and entering more strategic alliances with multinational corporations.

Spago Hollywood, the restaurant that made Puck famous, closed in March 2001. His wife and business partner, Barbara Lazaroff, always claimed to be the brains of the outfit. But their egos could never fit in the same room, so she filed for divorce in 2002. In the beginning of this year, Wolfgang Puck announced a reorganization. Since then, all but four of the 12 Wolfgang Puck cafes, a more upscale restaurant chain than Wolfgang Puck Express, have been closed or sold.

You can still experience the kind of cooking that made Wolfgang Puck famous at Chinois, Postrio and some of the other fine dining restaurants he runs in Las Vegas and California. (See www.wolfgangpuck.com for locations.) But if you believe his press releases, Puck is putting his focus for the future on the Wolfgang Puck Express chain.

The Puck Express chain will concentrate on high-traffic locations, which certainly describes the Carillon shopping center near Beltway 8 and Westheimer. The center is occupied by quite a few restaurants, primarily of the national chain variety. The convention hotel complex next door supplies a steady stream of out-of-towners. Wolfgang Puck Express might do well in this Houston non-neighborhood.

In another strategic alliance announced last month, Puck entered a partnership with HMSHost, formerly known as Host Marriott Services. The corporation operates airport and travel concessions worldwide and boasts annual revenues of $1.6 billion. So from this point on, HMSHost will be concentrating on putting Wolfgang Puck Express outlets in airports. And I think this is exactly where they belong.

Wolfgang Puck Express cafes have better food than most of what's available at the airport, just as Wolfgang Puck's frozen pizzas are better than most of the other frozen pizzas at the grocery store. It's just surprising that one of America's most respected chefs has sacrificed his reputation to sell junk food. When HMSHost and ConAgra are done with Wolfgang Puck, he'll be a cartoon character, too. And evidently that's okay with him. As long as it pays well.

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