It was back in the spring of 1979 that Barbara Lazaroff discovered the way to a cook's heart is through his kitchen. When the Bronxborn college student met Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck at an L.A. disco, he invited her to his Ma Maison cooking class the next day. "I said to myself, 'Uh-oh, I'm in trouble,' " Lazaroff recalls. "He was shy, sweet." When she arrived at the restaurant, Puck looked up and was so captivated, he says, "I dropped a glob of butter on the floor."

Sixteen years later, the playful Puck, 45, and the deadpan Lazaroff, 41, have become the king and queen of California cuisine. His prowess with a pan and her theatrical interior designs have spawned 11 restaurants, beginning with the hugely successful Spago in 1982. They married in 1984, went on to have two sons, Cameron, 5, and Byron Jason, 3 months, and settled into family life. "With children," says Lazaroff, "you have less time, less privacy." The nature of their business further complicates their ardor. "We have to work," complains Puck, "when other people play."

Then again, this couple have never been sentimental. "The first time I ever cooked for him," recalls Lazaroff, "I said, 'If you don't like it, you can flush it down the toilet.' " Retorts Puck: "I did." She shrugs sheepishly "I didn't know he despised the smell of eggs in the morning." So what is their idea of a romantic meal today? "Caviar and blinis," Puck says, "champagne and a chocolate soufflé."

But they also appreciate the earthier things in life. He once gave Lazaroff a beautifully wrapped present, adorned with a potato. "Instead of a ribbon," he wrote on the card. "This is more like me." She liked the gift—a purple silk dress—but treasured the potato. "I kept it for a year," Lazaroff says, "even though it sprouted all sorts of things and got moldy." For once, she turns serious. "Wolfgang is not a hearts-and-flowers kind of guy. But love is stuck to us."