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The Pluses and Minuses of Consulting Chefs

February 14, 1988|COLMAN ANDREWS

When I did a tongue-in-cheek listing two weeks ago of key positions in the average contemporary "New American" restaurant, I neglected the latest important post: Consulting Chef or Chef Consultant.

This hot, new title has been locally held by such culinary notables as Joachim Splichal (the Regency Club), Claude Segal (Wave), Lydia Shire (Beverly Market & Restaurant and the still-to-come Langan's), Wolfgang Puck (Hotel Bel-Air plus several other Los Angeles-area projects still in development and several hotel dining rooms out of town), Jonathan Waxman (Malibu Adobe), Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (City of Angels Brewing Company) and Claude Koeberle (Tamayo), among others.

The way it usually works is simple. A new restaurant (or an older one wishing to upgrade its quality) hires a well-known chef to create a menu, train kitchen staff, line up reputable suppliers and generally put his or her stamp on the place without officially taking over. Sometimes the chef is between restaurants and takes the job while looking for a permanent post (or, more often, while trying to set up a restaurant deal of his or her own); sometimes the chef simply accepts consultancy work as an added challenge. In the former case, the chef sometimes cooks at the restaurant in question for a few months; in the latter, the chef might send trusted personnel from his or her own place to the new restaurant, or train new restaurant personnel first-hand in the more established kitchen.

This is the up side of the deal: The new restaurant gets expert advice, and an added boost in its early days through its association with an established chef (who it probably could not afford to hire on a full-time basis). The chef gets a nice little hunk of cash for less than a total commitment of time and energy. The customer gets good food, at least in principle--a taste of famous-chef quality at less than famous-chef prices.

But there's a down-side too. Consulting-chef relationships rarely last very long. When the consulting chef moves on, the kitchens they leave behind sometimes fall apart. Then the poor restaurant has to start from scratch (and thus might have been better off developing its own lesser talents from the beginning, without the help of a famous chef). Meanwhile, the customer is disappointed--and probably thinks badly not only of the restaurant but of its erstwhile consultant as well.

I certainly don't begrudge good chefs the opportunity to make a little extra money and spread their reputations a bit further abroad--but I do think that people whose reputations are based on their finely honed skills and firm control of kitchens in the first place ought to perhaps think twice about selling their names and temporary attentions too promiscuously.

DRAGON IN ANOTHER YEAR: Now that you've finally gotten over New Year's Eve the way it's celebrated in the Western World, it's time for the Chinese version of the event--the New Year, in this case, being 4686, the Year of the Dragon. According to a spokesman for Madame Wu's Garden in Santa Monica--which observes the holiday for a week, starting this Tuesday evening, with a special Peking Duck dinner nightly at $29.50 per person--those born in Dragon Years are known for being "sensibly balanced." Examples? Salvador Dali, Jimmy Connors and Bernardo Bertolucci. And no comment from this corner. . . .

Genghis Cohen on Fairfax marks the New Year with a festive banquet on Thursday at $35 per person, including Spring Moon wine from China and the Ming Yee Chinese Lion Dancers. The banquet, with the wine but without the dancers, will also be available Friday through next Sunday. The theme song for the celebration, says Genghis Cohen proprietor Alan Rinde is Stevie Nicks' "Stop Dragon My Heart Around." Well, it's better than trying to tell people that Salvador Dali is sensibly balanced, for heaven's sake.

Elsewhere on the Chinese New Year Circuit, Trader Vic's in Beverly Hills offers a special dinner for two or more, at $25 a head, Monday through the 29th. . . . Ho Toy's in Sherman Oaks will serve a seven-course repast for $25 a couple through the 22nd. Ho Toy's, incidentally, adds Sigmund Freud and Ingrid Bergman to the list of sensibly balanced Dragon people. . . .

Singapore Express in Marina del Rey offers complimentary egg rolls and "lucky money" (which, alas, is not real money) to diners Wednesday through Saturday. . . . And if you're heading north this season, noted Asian food authority Bruce Cost prepares an elaborate Chinese New Year's banquet at Chez Panisse in Berkeley on Feb. 22 at $85 per person, which includes wine or beer, tax and tip.

Now if somebody would only tell me how to say "Gung Hay Fat Choy" in Pinyin instead of Wade-Giles.

DAILY SPECIALS: Patout's in West Los Angeles celebrates Mardi Gras Tuesday night with a Cajun buffet, a full open bar, a costume contest and recorded music for dancing until 11 p.m.--all for $50 per person, tax and tip included.

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