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Patina Gets a Shine

Chef Joachim Splichal makes another surprising move.

October 25, 2000|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I think I would go back. I would take that 60-seat restaurant any day."

That was Joachim Splichal last winter in the Los Angeles Times, responding to fellow chefs' laments that the business climate makes it impossible to run a small restaurant with perfect food and perfect service.

"But that's your idealistic side, not your practical side," countered Piero Selvaggio of Valentino.

Splichal agreed.

Or maybe he didn't. This summer, he remodeled his 11-year-old flagship restaurant, Patina, and while it's no 60-seater--its top capacity is 85--it seems smaller because a new dining patio means less crowding. "And I no longer enlarge tables, four seats to eight or six to nine," Splichal says.

At the same time, he altered Patina's kitchen beyond all recognition. Once a typical restaurant hellhole as cramped as a ship's galley and as noisy as a boiler factory, it has taken over most of the space of a small parking lot that used to adjoin the restaurant. Splichal describes the cost of all this only as "in the millions."

And after 10 years of developing a chain of 13 restaurants particularly known for inventive dishes based on humble ingredients such as the potato, he has revised Patina's menu to emphasize luxury ingredients: foie gras, line-caught salmon, heirloom tomatoes.

Splichal has a habit of surprising us. When he burst on the Los Angeles restaurant scene in 1984 at 7th Street Bistro in downtown L.A., and even more a year later at Max au Triangle in Beverly Hills, he showed a wild inventiveness that deeply colored the frenetic late-'80s restaurant scene. Fifty years ago, every jazz saxophonist suddenly wanted to play like Charlie Parker; 15 years ago, every California chef wanted to take chances like Joachim.

When he opened Patina in 1989, with its simpler menu, it became L.A.'s favorite restaurant (or at least the favorite of the Zagat Guide's correspondents) for the next 10 years--and handily survived the recession of 1991 that killed off a lot of restaurant high-fliers. In fact, Splichal's operation managed to grow continuously throughout the '90s, adding six Pinot bistros, four museum cafes, a downtown steakhouse and an Italian takeout.

Finally, last November, he astonished fellow restaurateurs by selling the whole Patina Group chain to the huge Restaurant Associates firm of New York. Under the deal, he stays on to run the operation.

*

In the beginning, he didn't dream of building an ideal kitchen--he didn't dream of kitchens at all. As the son of innkeepers in the small south German town of Spaichingen, he attended a Swiss hotel school. After graduating in 1973, he went to Holland to work as desk man at a hotel. But he found he didn't like hotel work after all, so he signed on in the kitchen as a lowly commis chef.

"I liked working in the kitchen," he says. "I found that as a cook I could travel and see other countries, learn other languages, meet people. I was young, all I had was two pair of jeans and two shirts, I could go whenever."

He soon did travel--to Quebec, because his Dutch girlfriend had dumped him. "He'd gone to Holland because he was totally in love with this Dutch girl," says Christine Splichal, whom Joachim would marry in 1981. "When I found out, I thought it was so romantic of him."

He showed promise in Quebec, and the chefs there told him he should get experience in a Swiss hotel restaurant. So he spent a summer in a big old Swiss hotel, "the kind where people come from all over Europe and stay in the same room every year," he recalls, "and the waiters know their names and exactly how they like their eggs done."

Then he knocked around for a couple of years. For three months he picked fruit on a kibbutz in Israel. He worked in a restaurant in Stockholm. He applied to 60 restaurants in France and chose La Bonne Auberge in Antibes, where he met chef Jacques Maximin, chef of Chantecler at the Hotel Negresco in nearby Nice. He went back to Switzerland, to Zermatt.

"He was a ski bum, a long-haired ski bum," says Christine. "I've seen pictures."

Meanwhile, he was studying the art of cooking intensively. "At one time I memorized all 100 classical ways of cooking potatoes," he says, "because I had started late, in European terms--I hadn't apprenticed at 14 or 15. We don't use those recipes anymore, but it was good to study."

In 1978, when Splichal was 23, Maximin invited him to be his chef saucier at Chantecler. Five months later he promoted him to sous chef, in charge of 40 French chefs, all older than he was. "It was tough," Splichal recalls. "I got my nose broken in a fight." But two years later Chantecler had two Michelin stars and Le Cercle Epicurien had named Splichal most creative young chef.

In 1981--in what was becoming a familiar pattern--another girlfriend dumped him, and again he wanted to get out of town. He accepted a job at the newly founded Regency Club in Los Angeles and trained under the club's consulting chef, Louis Outhier of L'Oasis in La Napoule, one of the most famous restaurants in France.

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