A year after being promoted to lead Patina's fine dining kitchen, chef Charles Olalia was asked to confront one of his professional fears. Joachim Splichal, who owns the Walt Disney Concert Hall restaurant, wanted Olalia to spend less time in the kitchen saucing Durham Ranch rabbits and grilling Mediterranean sardines, and more time mingling with patrons in the dining room.
"My worst fear is coming to a table and hearing, 'You just cooked me my worst meal,'" Olalia says. As if sensing how that sounds coming from a veteran of the Michelin two-star Guy Savoy in Las Vegas and the French Laundry in Napa Valley, the affable 30-year-old chuckles. "I always feel like I should be in the kitchen," he explains. "I never feel comfortable being out there."
To help Olalia get over his anxiety, Splichal last year gave him the title of executive chef, which made official his 2012 promotion, and asked him to start holding cooking classes. "The whole thing was to create a sense of community with the restaurant. We're so detached because we're up on the hill here in downtown," says Olalia. "It broke a barrier of being such a stiff restaurant."
Before prep started on Saturday mornings, a small group of students would join Olalia in Patina's kitchen for a three-hour French cooking lesson. The classes were a hit and they marked a milestone in Olalia's culinary journey.
The son of Manila doctors, Olalia, along with his six siblings, followed his parents into medicine, but he couldn't get past a premed degree. "I'd rather be on the line than be memorizing all these books," he says.
He took his first cooking course in the Philippines. He peeled potatoes at the Ritz-Carlton Resort in Half Moon Bay. After climbing the ladder in Northern California, he went to Las Vegas and immersed himself in the world of fining dinning. "I just set my path," he says.
He'd arrived at Patina as a sous chef working under then-executive chef Tony Esnault, who remembers him as a "green product," despite the impressive résumé. After hiring him, Esnault didn't speak with Olalia during his first four months on the job. "I then helped him," Esnault says. "I show him everything I know."
After a year working under Esnault, Olalia's tutelage ended when Esnault left Patina (Esnault, now at Church & State, is also working on Spring, a new downtown restaurant coming later this year). Olalia expected to have another, more experienced chef brought in over him so he could keep learning. "That was my whole plan, but that chef never came."
Instead, Splichal promoted him to lead the kitchen as chef de cuisine. Olalia was shocked. "You haven't even tasted my food," he recalls thinking about the owner's decision. Moreover, many of the kitchen staff who worked under Esnault followed him out the swinging door, leaving Olalia to hire replacements fast. "Everybody that I hired had zero fine-dining experience," he says.
Patina now has a kitchen staff with an average age of 21. With Patina celebrating its 25th anniversary, it's now one of the city's oldest fine-dining restaurants — with the youngest kitchen staff.
"I've never been in a situation when I was the oldest. In all the kitchens I worked in, I was the youngest guy," Olalia says.
Diners can expect nuanced changes to the menu, such as the Mediterranean sardine dish with fish sauce or a tomato dish with a salted duck egg on it. "Very Filipino," he says. "Everybody thought it was feta cheese."
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"In the traditional French cuisine, it's not so common," Olalia says. "But you can't always have caviar in everything."
As part of its birthday celebration, Olalia will again be teaching the Saturday classes, which started in April and run on the first Saturday in June, August, October and December. (Registration is $95 per person and can be made by calling the restaurant at 213-972-3331.)