When Joachim Splichal was young, he worked at his family's restaurant in Southern Germany. The pay was something like a penny an hour. He went to hotel and restaurant school in Switzerland, worked for a top chef at a famous restaurant in the South of France, then came to L.A. in 1981. With the opening of Patina in 1989, he became one of the best-known chefs and restaurateurs in Los Angeles. His group, which includes a significant catering business, now runs about a dozen locations in Los Angeles at some of the largest cultural landmarks in the city including the Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and downtown's Museum of Contemporary Art. He sold his company, then called Patina Group, to food and hospitality company Compass Group in 1999 for an estimated $25 million; he continued to run Patina for Compass. In 2006, when Patina had reached $100 million in annual sales, he partnered with Nick Valenti, the former owner of Restaurant Associates in New York, to buy back Patina and Restaurant Associates from Compass. The deal resulted in the creation of Patina Restaurant Group. Splichal recently debuted his first restaurant in Beverly Hills, Paperfish, and a restaurant called Tutto Italiano in Epcot in Florida. He is working on opening a Patina restaurant in Lincoln Center in New York. He sat down with the Business Journal at his downtown office to discuss his travels and experiences.
Question: Can you describe the opening night of Patina in 1989?
Answer: It was mid-July and we had to open because there was a journalist from Esquire in town to do an article on all the local restaurants. But we weren't ready to open. There was a guy hemming the trousers for the waiters because they just came in from Hugo Boss everyone had Hugo Boss uniforms. In the afternoon, we were still fixing the tables in the parking lot, putting those together. The kitchen was in chaos, everyone was nervous. There were a thousand things that had to get ready and everyone helped out.
Q: Did it work out?
A: We were ready at 6 o'clock and we had the first customer walk through the door, and the journalist from Esquire came and we had a very successful first night. It was really a great effort by a team that wanted to work in the restaurant business. We had an incredible review. "The Best New Restaurant in America," blah, blah, blah. So that was our first night. We were more than exhausted, but it felt tremendous.
Q: Are restaurant openings still like that now?
A: You still have to push the contractor. They have to push the subcontractor. You need to get permits, the health department approval. And all of that gets compressed in a few days before the opening.
Q: What was your biggest disaster on a catering job?
A: At a very large party, there were 1,500 people and the mashed potatoes were sour. We couldn't use them. We had 50 or 60 chefs there and we had 250 waiters. So I sent 10 people to the neighborhood supermarkets and had them pick up powdered mashed potatoes. You need about 1,200 pounds of mashed potatoes to serve 1,500. We bought all the powder we could get and we put cream in the butter and we melted it and made the mashed potatoes. The clients commented how good they were. You have to be very resourceful. If something happens, no one wants to hear you have a problem. That was the only time something like that happened on a large scale, but we overcame it.
Q: What was your first job in the restaurant business?
A: I grew up in Germany in a very traditional restaurant family. My parents had a little inn and a restaurant and a butcher shop so I always helped out in the family business with big parties. I set up the banquet rooms. I helped with the dishes. I folded napkins. I set up tables. I cleaned up afterward. I think I got paid a penny an hour or something like that.
Q: How did you move up through the industry?
A: I went to a hotel and restaurant school in Switzerland and trained for management. But I realized this was not really the thing I like. I like the culinary side of it. My first job in a kitchen was in a Swiss restaurant in Holland. It wasn't anything special. But I realized, or the people around me realized, that I was pretty talented at what I was doing. And then I went to at least four or five other countries and ended up in France and worked with Jacques Maximin at Hotel Negresco in Nice for four years before I came to the United States in 1981.
Q: Do you have any formal training in culinary arts?
A: No. I just picked it up. Everywhere you work you learn things. My family business was basic German cooking. Nothing fancy, nothing elaborate. But you learn a couple of skills in every place you work. My goal was to work for the best guy. And I tell this to other chefs: It is important to work with the best people in town.
Q: How have your international travels affected your career?
A: I speak four, five or six languages. That is something you take with you all your life. And it exposed me to different cultures, different cuisine, actually. And that has helped me to really grow the company because I know a little about Italian food, I worked with French food and I'm coming from a German background, that gives me a knowledge about Germany, Switzerland, Austria. I lived in Israel. I lived in Canada. It gives me a broad idea of the world's cuisine, so to speak.
Q: Why did you come to Los Angeles?
A: I had a job offer at the Regency Club in Westwood. At the time they hired me as the chef. I had quite a few job offers. As a matter of fact, I had just broken up with a French woman after four years together, so I decided to go far away. Los Angeles was the farthest job offer I got so that's why I ended up here.
Q: Why did you stay?
A: I was young and it was California: the weather, the opportunities. I was a chef in different places, but after I opened Patina together with my wife, Christine, I realized how many opportunities were out there.
Q: Is your wife still in the restaurant business?
A: She built the business together with me. Her background is more in food. Her father is a famous pastry chef in the Southwest of France, in Biarritz, and she came over here to L.A. to get her M.B.A. and that's how I met her. When we sold to Compass in 2000 she basically started her own business. She has a spa called Kinara on Robertson in West Hollywood.
Q: How did you come up with the name Patina?
A: Patina is a finish and it is also used for a cheese that is better with age. So my wife and I thought we really want to make this a restaurant that gets better with age.
Q: Do you consider yourself more a chef or a businessman?
A: If you are a chef, you are always a chef. You know it's like I run a substantial business. I enjoy both. But in my business, if the food is not good, there is no business to run.
Q: Are you in the restaurants a lot?
A: I'm at the restaurants a lot, my office is downtown and I'm within walking distance of the restaurants downtown. I cook once in a while at different places and when we have big catering functions I'm definitely there.
Q: Why do you build in landmarks around L.A.?
A: It started way, way back when Richard Koshalek was the director at MOCA. He had this little caf & #233;, and he said: "Do you want to take it over?" That was like 15 years ago. I looked at it and said OK. The clientele of many cultural institutions at that time was our clientele. We opened one and then we got LACMA. After we had two, a lot of other institutions came to us. And now we have nearly everything except the Getty Center.
Q: Are you working on getting the Getty Center?
A: That is part of Compass, so we have a noncompete there. But we would love to have it.
Q: You are called a celebrity chef. Do you mingle with the celebrity scene?
A: No. I like being a celebrity chef, that's great. But I am the guy behind the white curtain. I am pretty shy. I try to direct my business in quiet.
Q: Are you friends with Wolfgang Puck?
A: Yes. We are friends. Well, we run into each other when we do charity work. We both live very busy lives so we see each other once in a while. In the chef business, on a certain level, everyone knows everyone in the world. They come here to cook and we do things there. It's a very close network in a sense.
Q: What part of your job do you appreciate the most?
A: Well, it's nice to hear that we do a good job even when we are growing constantly. And it's nice to get the reinforcement of the clientele that they enjoy it and they've enjoyed it for years and they are coming back. And with our product and service and the food, that they enjoyed it.
Q: Do you cook at home for your family?
A: I do, yes. We all love to cook together. The boys cook.
Q: Do you think your sons will go into the restaurant business?
A: Maybe. They will do whatever makes them happy. I definitely will explain to them that it's not the easiest business. When you talk about celebrity chefs 15 guys, 20 guys, 25 guys in the United States that's a small percentage. You need to go into this business with the ambition to be happy to be excited about serving great food.
Q: Did you want to make it big when you first started?
A: When I started 18 years ago, people weren't as aware of chefs. Now you have popular TV shows. In those days we had two or three food magazines. Now we have 15. I think it has given tremendous exposure to a lot of people.
Q: Do you have a favorite restaurant in L.A.?
A: I like all kinds of food. I like sushi, I like steak. The moment it is well prepared I think it is good. I like a good breakfast. And I'd like to lose 30 pounds.
Q: What was your biggest career accomplishment?
A: Selling a multimillion-dollar restaurant company to Compass was wonderful. And selling it for the price we sold it. I think it was a tremendous achievement. But then other achievements have been huge, too. For me to do 2,800 dinners for the Emmys in two weeks, that's as important. And cooking a meal for two people who are going to get married, that's important. I think some achievements are from a business standpoint and some are from a culinary standpoint.
Q: Do you want to be in this industry forever?
A: My dream is to own a winery one day. It might be in France, Spain maybe, or here in the wine country. There are other places I would like to live. I like Los Angeles. I like San Marino and the Pasadena area very much. But who knows where I would live in the next five to 10 years.
Q: What are your hobbies?
A: I like to travel with my family. I have a house in Biarritz and we go quite often. We go and see all the restaurants there. From a culinary standpoint, I think France is where everything is happening. I like to play tennis; I like to ski. I collect wine. I'm interested in modern art.
Title: Chef and Founder
Company: Patina Restaurant Group
Born: 1954; Southern Germany
Education: High school; restaurant management program in Switzerland
Career Turning Point: Selling company to Compass in 1999
Most Admired People: Warren Buffet; French chef Jacques Maximin
Hobbies: Skiing, traveling, collecting wine
Personal: Lives in San Marino with his wife and 11-year-old twin sons
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