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Drinks with Whitewall: Gelila Puck

By Maxwell Williams

March 18, 2013

The sun hits North Camden Drive in Beverly Hills with a particular warmth, toasting the pavement in the middle of February as an added bonus for the gilded residents of Los Angeles’ most affluent neighborhood. The sun is fortunate for the dawdling journalist, because we’re moseying to meet with Gelila Puck for drinks in her lair, Spago, the populist benchmark for prosperous dining, which she owns with her husband Wolfgang. Drinks with Ms. Puck on any given day would be one thing, but during Oscar Week, when the Pucks are in high demand, it’s like catching a leprechaun.

Puck, mercifully only a few short minutes behind – slips in the back door so she doesn’t cause a fuss with the staff – slides into the booth next to me, and removes her sunglasses. “I have all my sponsors in town,” says Puck, acknowledging that the Academy Awards create a full plate for her and her husband, who all the while have to balance two young children. On top of the parties and functions, she’s entertaining her supporters for the vocational program she set up in her home country of Ethiopia. “Everybody’s here,” she says, somehow without a trace of fatigue. Puck orders a flight of drinks from an attentive staff.

Spago and Cut, the Pucks’ other Beverly Hills eatery, both have art curated into them by Gelila Puck—Spago featuring a Los Angeles-only group of artworks (Doug Aitken and John Baldessari amongst the works prominently displayed—“You would have loved the reception dinner,” she says), which is paired with Wolfgang’s current locavorist menu. The first cocktail is a mix of reposado tequila, orange juice, peach puree, Cointreau, and chili syrup—a zesty drink with an autumnal orange hue. “I grew up with spicy in Ethiopia,” Puck says, dabbing at her lips on a napkin. “I love spicy and sweet.”

Puck moved to Los Angeles when she was 16, her family leaving behind the Communist regime of Ethiopia, which felt her father, who owned a boutique hotel in Addis Ababa, was a threat. She studied fashion design and business, which led to a small boutique in Beverly Hills. “I’m doing design on a smaller scale,” says Puck, who now has a light green drink in her hand called “Pepino’s Revenge,” made of silver tequila, lime juice, basil, and garnished with a Japanese cucumber. “I have a home studio. I’ve had clients for many years. I used to have a shop here. When I closed that, I kept a handful of my clients. I take four clients a year, but each client has to order six and eight pieces. This keeps my creativity going. I have weavers in Africa, and I combine that with other fabrics. It allows me to support the villages, which have 15 families who do the weaving.”

Puck mentions she has plans to expand her line if the right partner comes along. Meanwhile, her husband saunters over and reclines in a chair at the table. Where did you guys meet? We wonder aloud to slender Ethiopian and her stout Austrian chef husband. “At Spago,” they say in unison.

“We lived in a condo, and we used to make complaints to the city about the parking at Spago,” Gelila says.

“I had to marry her to get rid of the complaints,” Wolfgang quips.

A third cocktail arrives—playfully called “Help!” Save the Bees, and made of vodka, limoncello, thyme and lavender honey, and lemon juice—and Wolfgang departs. The conversation turns into around art openings in Japan, taking photography lessons from celebrity photographer Greg Gorman, and the difficulty of traversing Los Angeles to attend more than one event in different parts of town. “Forget going to Venice,” she says. “I went to the Alexander Calder show at L&M Arts, but I’m not a Venice hippie girl.” She laughs, and her necklace, made of hundreds of metal tusks, jingles.

She tells a story about her 7-year-old Oliver, who decided he wanted to be an artist one day, and for whom she had an opening in her dining room; attendees included John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, and collector Rosette Delug. “Do I really want him to be an artist? No. Artists suffer,” she says, half-jokingly. “But now he wants to be a chef.”

Another guest joins us just in time for a lychee martini. Meals and drinks with Gelila Puck seem to go like this—people coming in and out. The gentleman is legendary British bespoke designer Ozwald Boateng, in town to dress Jamie Foxx for the Oscars. Wolfgang returns with Oliver, just off school. We realize “cocktails” has turned into a four-hour affair. Just a typical day at Spago with Gelila Puck. “In everything I do,” says Puck, as a sort of explanation, “I have always beat my own drum.”

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