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Chef Joachim Splichal's recipe for success

The founder and partner in Patina Restaurant Group oversees a culinary empire with 29 restaurants in the Southland and 35 others around the U.S.

May 08, 2011|By Shan Li
  • Joachim Splichal at the Patina Restaurant Groups flagship Patina at Walt Disney Concert Hall. He was born and raised in Germany and worked in restaurants in Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Israel and France before moving to Los Angeles.
Joachim Splichal at the Patina Restaurant Groups flagship Patina at Walt… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

The gig: As the founder and a partner of Patina Restaurant Group, chef Joachim Splichal, 56, oversees a vast culinary empire with 29 restaurants and cafes in the Southland and 35 other eateries around the country. In downtown Los Angeles, the roster includes Nick & Stef's Steakhouse, Café Pinot and his flagship, Patina, in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Bread in the bone: Growing up, Splichal's parents owned and ran the biggest hotel in the small mountain village of Spaichingen, Germany. Most town functions were held in the 600-person banquet room, and at age 10 Splichal began cleaning, running errands and organizing the wine cellar for 25 cents an hour.

After leaving home to attend a Swiss hotel management school at age 19, Splichal was determined to get out of the kitchen and became a concierge trainee at a Dutch hotel. He quit two weeks later.

"I realized I am shy," he said. "I didn't like too much the interaction with the client."

Wanderlust: Splichal went nomad for a few years, journeying to Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Israel, working in restaurants along the way. Eventually, he figured out France was a necessary pit stop for any aspiring chef and moved there in 1977. A "mad, absolutely crazy" chef with a fondness for soccer took Splichal under his wing after the young cook trounced a rival eatery during an intra-restaurant soccer match.

Wresting control: When the soccer-mad chef recruited Splichal, then 23, to work at the famed Hotel Negresco in Nice, Splichal knew it meant trouble.

A rigid hierarchy governed kitchens at ritzy European restaurants then. "I was just this kid, barely spoke French, and got hired as the No. 3 guy in the kitchen," he said.

Other cooks tried to sabotage him by mixing up orders and shorting ingredients. But Splichal was in charge of the work schedule. After figuring out which cooks were dating each other, he simply never gave couples the same day off.

They were angry at first. "But I basically said if you want to go out with your girlfriend, you make sure you do the work," he said. "That worked very well."

L.A.: In 1981, Splichal came to Los Angeles to work as the executive chef of the Regency Club, a members-only private dining club in Westwood. The members "were all super rich — billionaires, millionaires, all Republican guys," he said. "All they wanted was prime rib and Scotch."

Biggest mistake: A $30,000 signing bonus lured Splichal to Max Au Triangle in Beverly Hills in 1984. The Beverly Hills crowd wanted Caesar salads, but he gave them experimental cuisine. The restaurant tanked.

"We did a lot of incredible things, but it was a nightmare to run," he said. "Maybe if we put a Caesar salad on the menu it would have saved the restaurant. But then you're not yourself anymore."

A place of his own: Splichal hit up his Regency Club connections to raise $650,000 for his first restaurant. Patina opened its doors on Melrose Avenue in 1989. It was a smashing success.

"We had the most powerful people there. We had Kissinger. We had the Paramount people, they brought all the stars," he said.

Business tips: To get advice, Splichal recruited an unofficial group of advisors, including a banker, a real estate developer and several lawyers. He threw a lavish dinner every few months and bounced around business ideas with them. "I realized I don't want to cook sweetbreads when I'm 65 for Mr. DuPont or Mr. X," he said. "So I said, 'We need to expand. We need something casual.'"

Splichal eventually opened restaurants at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum and the Hollywood Bowl. He sold the eateries in 2000 to international food service company Compass Group for $40 million.

Six years later, he and partner Nick Valenti bought back the expanded company for $90 million.

Advice for aspiring restaurateurs: "If guests are happy, they feel great, they will come back. At that point you will have financial success."

shan.li@latimes.com

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