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The man behind Patina's curtain

Joachim Splichal dominates downtown, high culture and now, Disney Hall. And that's just the way he planned it.

October 22, 2003|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

One cook struggles to strain a 50-gallon pot of beef stock while another turns dozens of zucchini strips on the grill. Ten other cooks scurry about preparing test meals as Joachim Splichal walks into the kitchen at the new Patina in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

No one looks up. If anything, they hunker down, intent on appearing competent in a state-of-the-art kitchen they are only just getting to know.The celebrated chef and notorious kitchen tyrant is back working the line, making sure the new Patina hits the right note. His staff knows that means the standards will be exacting, the pressure intense. The opening is days away, on Tuesday.

"We have to be very, very careful we make all of the right decisions from a food standpoint," Splichal says. "When we start off, start very slowly. My first meal will only have 40 people, I don't care who calls."

Actually, the pressure already is intense. Splichal, 49, stunned the food world when he announced last month that he was moving the restaurant that made his reputation, the foundation of his empire, from its tucked-away Melrose Avenue location to a downtown space bathed in spotlights.

He didn't say that the old Patina is dead. But with a new room, new chef, new sommelier, new menu and new hours, too little of the old Patina remains to argue the point.

Yet, as the shock wore off, the transformation seemed a natural next step for the culinary entrepreneur, a prevalent force in downtown L.A. who made himself Southern California's cultural concessionaire.

The German-born, French-trained chef now has two restaurants at the Los Angeles Music Center -- Patina and Kendall's -- as well as its cafes and banquet facilities. Two million people a year are expected to visit the Music Center's four theaters.

That's on top of the meals he serves at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Hollywood Bowl, Bowers Museum, Descanso Gardens and Norton Simon Museum.

His other downtown restaurants -- Cafe Pinot, Zucca and Nick & Stef's Steakhouse -- form a chain of some of the best food available in the city's financial district, without the ambitions -- or critical acclaim -- of Patina.

The explosive growth didn't happen by accident. Almost as soon as Patina won raves, Splichal the chef began to morph into Splichal the businessman.

Now, with the new Patina, he's come full circle, saying it's time to return to the kitchen.

New risk

For 14 years, Patina, Splichal's flagship restaurant, has jockeyed for preeminence among L.A.'s best dining experiences. Moving Patina to a space born to grab the attention of the world will not be easy.

"Patina has a lot of baggage," says Splichal, a small man whose intensity makes him a feared presence in his kitchens. His face lights up with an impish grin. "Expectations are high. It's important for me to pick up a pan, to help."

The risk is worth it, he says. Disney Hall has "a tremendous amount of prestige. It will be the building in Los Angeles for a long time, drawing a tremendous amount of tourists."

Splichal doesn't want the new Patina to mimic the original. While both places were designed by Hagy Belzberg, the new room is brighter, lighter -- a showplace. It is wrapped in a curtain milled from solid walnut and topped with a wiggle wood ceiling. A bamboo wall obscures the street view, bringing privacy to the corner.

While other top L.A. chefs flocked to the upscale Westside, Splichal and his wife and front-of-the-house partner, Christine, staked their claim east of La Brea Boulevard.

By design, Splichal chose areas where he didn't compete with his rival, Wolfgang Puck. Between them, the two chefs dominate L.A. catering. But Puck grabbed national attention with his television appearances and a ubiquitous brand name. Splichal focused on Southern California, with his chain of restaurants and the cafes in cultural venues.

Splichal built his dining empire on the strength of Patina, a restaurant launched on a shoestring budget in the wake of a financial disaster -- culinary sensation Max au Triangle.

Max made him a legend. Then-Los Angeles Times food critic Ruth Reichl raved about his "completely original dishes" that featured rarely seen items like cockscombs. "Eating Splichal's food is like going on a little treasure hunt, for this is a cuisine of constant discovery."

The restaurant's finances, however, rested in the hands of its backers. Max closed in two years, a personal blow that makes Splichal wince to this day. The lesson has guided him ever since. If he doesn't have control, he doesn't do it.

After suffering such a bruising failure, Splichal had to cut corners to maintain control of his next project: Patina.

The building was small and nondescript, the kitchen tiny and under-equipped. The whole thing, including the wine cellar, cost $635,000, a stake raised from investors who bought shares at $25,000 each.

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