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Wolfgang Puck brings the flavor of Maine to the Oscars

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Governors Ball Master Chef Wolfgang Puck, right, and pastry chef Tyler Atwell pour a raspberry liqueur on doughnuts during the 88th Academy Awards Governors Ball Press Preview, Feb. 18, 2016, in Hollywood, California.Puck and his chefs served more than 60 dishes at Sunday's 91st Academy Awards Governors Ball, including several Maine seafood dishes. Governors Ball Master Chef Wolfgang Puck, right, and pastry chef Tyler Atwell pour a raspberry liqueur on doughnuts during the 88th Academy Awards Governors Ball Press Preview, Feb. 18, 2016, in Hollywood, California.Puck and his chefs served more than 60 dishes at Sunday's 91st Academy Awards Governors Ball, including several Maine seafood dishes. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP Photo)

“This is a milestone for me,” celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck told me last week about Sunday’s 91st Academy Awards ceremony. “This will be the 25th year that we have cooked for the Governor’s Ball, and I always make sure to include Maine.”

The Governor’s Ball is the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ official post-Oscars celebration which immediately follows the awards ceremony and telecast.

Puck and his teams of chefs and caterers were charged with crafting more than 60 imaginative dishes for an expected 1,500 guests, including several Maine seafood dishes.

“We serve about 400 pounds of Maine lobster, scallops and some black sea bass,” Puck said. “Most of it comes from the Stonington area. I’ve been there and have personally met with our suppliers and the fisherman that bring it to us.”

Puck says he pays a personal visit to each of his food suppliers.

“I love to know the areas where we get our food from,” he said. “I get to know the people who grow the food and see how they treat the animals.”

Puck says the lobsters are “about one and a half pounders,” and are used in the appetizer stage and pasta dishes.

According to Puck, winners and nominees are met with a huge seafood raw bar upon their arrival.

“We have a sushi bar, scallop ceviche, sea urchin with eggless custard, albacore tuna tataki, oysters, king crab legs, lobster and shrimp,” Puck said. “Then we pass around hot plates with sunchoke and fennel soup, truffle gremolata, potato and caviar 2.0, and some comfort foods because like homey dishes.”

Among those comfort foods: Black truffle chicken pot pie, Puck’s signature pizzas and macaroni and cheese.

“Some of the other dishes include Miyazaki Wagyu Beef tartare, Nashville hot-fried quail with our own pickles and red velvet waffle,” added Puck. “Our black bass from Maine comes with Calcot onions, artichokes and Romesco salsa. I will also serve my mother’s recipe for Austrian ricotta dumpling, watercress pea pesto and lemon brown butter.”

How daunting a task is it to craft more than 60 different dishes for 1,500 guests? According to Puck, the operation must run smoothly.

“I have it down to a fine science after 25 years,” he said. “I have about 200 chefs working in two kitchens, so we organize that really well. For every five to seven chefs, they will work on two or three dishes. Altogether, we make well over 20,000 plates. We have to do a lot in a short time, so we have a kind of factory lineup. Everyone knows their job, knows exactly where to stand and what to do.”

Puck said he planned to visit his favorite farmer’s market last Thursday to place his vegetable orders.

“The most challenging part is to get all of the food in at the last moment,” said Puck. “You want everything to be super-fresh. “I’ll tell the farmers that I need carrots, leeks, turnips, sunchokes – everything delivered fresh on Friday. Early on Sunday morning, we start cooking.”

Puck says he has many “crazy stories” about previous Governor’s Balls, including one where a huge star paid a visit to the kitchen.

“It was one of the first Governor’s Balls that we did,” he recalled. “Julia Roberts was there, and I don’t know if she took a wrong exit, but she ended up in the kitchen with us. She went around and said hello to all of the chefs. Everyone took pictures with her and it was so sweet of her to do that.”

Every Governor’s Ball has been a huge success, but Puck recalls one that nearly ended in disaster.

On the evening of March 24, 2002, the temperature in Los Angeles was unseasonably cool, leading event producers to set up a series of portable heaters at the entrance to the venue.

Those heaters required so much electricity, both of Puck’s kitchens lost power midway through the cooking process.

“I was close to getting a heart attack,” Puck remembered. “I had to find the engineer which took about 15 minutes. We got him through security, but it was the longest 15 minutes of my life.”

Puck keeps busy with his signature Spago restaurant in Beverly Hills and hundreds of eateries around the globe that bear his name, but he says he is never too busy to learn.

“I’m going back to school next month,” he told me. “I will be taking classes at Harvard Business School. I’m a little scared but also excited. My kids say ‘Papa, you are still learning and going to school at your age.’ I tell them to never stop learning and never stop being curious.”

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