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New Special at Patina: Overhead Cameras

Chef can now monitor meals from the kitchen. Some customers aren't ready for their close-up.

October 19, 2000|ANGELA PETTERA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Big Brother Is Serving You: Patina got a little more with its recent remodel than most diners might know. Mixed in with the state-of-the-art refrigeration units and warming counters, Patina's kitchen has some technology that might give you pause. On the wall between the hot line and the pantry area hangs a video monitor. It broadcasts pictures picked up by cameras in the dining rooms. The cameras, mounted on the ceiling but not readily visible to diners below, are trained on the tabletops and can be panned around; yes, the diners' faces are visible.

As chef de cuisine Walter Manzke explains, these cameras are used by him and the head waiter to keep an eye on the progress of the food courses. If Manzke wants to know if Table 12 has finished its appetizers, all he has to do is check the thumbnail image on the monitor or zoom in for a closer look--he doesn't have to wait for the waiters to fill him in. He can start getting the main courses on the fire right away.

This streamlines the food service and cuts down on lags between courses, which can be especially handy when serving an eight- or nine-course tasting menu. The video system also helps the head waiter check on his employees and make sure they're not having any trouble with their recently stepped-up table-side service.

Many restaurants in New York, such as Restaurant Daniel, already employ this technology. So do some restaurants in Las Vegas and San Francisco. As far as we know, this is the first video system at a Los Angeles restaurant. We asked Joachim Splichal, Patina's executive chef and owner, if he thought any of his customers might feel nervous about being watched through dinner. "Why should they feel nervous about it?" he replied. "Our issue with this is that it's for service efficiency." Splichal wants to be able to keep control of the dining room from the kitchen. The video system allows him to do this more conveniently.

Nevertheless, some people are very protective of their privacy, especially in this town. Ironically, some of the same folks who make a living putting their own (or other people's) images on film are most averse to being filmed or watched on their off-time.

We've all heard stories of movie ideas being scribbled on restaurant napkins. Might that practice come to a halt if every napkin is now subject to overhead scrutiny?

Film producer Jeff White acknowledged that a lot of deals are made at restaurants and country clubs, but he didn't think having a camera present would change that. It just might affect his table manners. "If I knew that I was going to be on camera, I would be more comfortable with it," he said.

Still, one film producer we talked to (on condition of anonymity) told us, "There's an implication of privacy at Patina and other Hollywood eateries." He also said, "I'd prefer [the cameras] weren't there."

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Spago Beverly Hills, which shares some of Patina's powerful customers, has no such video technology. General Manager Tracey Spillane says they have no plans to install anything like it. But hesitation among Spago's decision-makers has nothing to do with the issue of privacy. They merely prefer to keep the personal touch at their restaurants. "We have the same system," Spillane told me, "we just use human eyes." She also said, "We never thought to enhance that with TV cameras."

And what about the assumption by the average Joe that when you're in a restaurant, you're not being watched by electronic eyes?

Some women we talked to were nervous about the cameras for a different reason. "What if I'm wearing a low-cut dress?" one complained. "I don't want the kitchen staff getting an eyeful of my cleavage."

When asked, Splichal was quick to say that if any of his patrons were uncomfortable with the system, he would gladly keep the cameras off their table, or off completely for the night. It's also important to point out that Patina has no microphones anywhere and no videotape recording mechanism attached to the video monitor. Splichal told us, "There is no other intention there, just to make sure the customer is very well taken care of."

It's an issue the customer will have to decide for him- or herself.

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Angela Pettera can be reached at (213) 237-3153 or at pettera@prodigy.net.

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