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Traci Des Jardins, Head Chef, Patina, Los Angeles, CA

When Traci Des Jardin began cooking seven years ago at age 18, she hooked her wagon to a star--Joachim Splichal, regarded by many food critics as one of the most innovative and cerebral of the "new American" chefs.

Splichal agreed to take one Des Jardin as an apprentice at the request of her uncle and aunt, who met Splichal in France. The union between Des Jardin and Splichal began in Los Angeles, where Splichal was executive chef of Seventh Street Bistro. When Splichal left to head the kitchen at Max Au Triangle in Beverly Hills, he brought Traci along, fully convinced of her commitment and talent. The duo worked together there two years and then Splichal left to establish his own consulting firm, while Traci headed to Europe where, over the next few years, she trained at serveral reknowned Partisian restaurants and the Hotel De Paris in Monaco. "I learned a lot about cooking in Europe and a lot about myself," Des Jardin recalls. "It wasn't easy because I was often the only woman and the only American working in kitchens full of men.

The French aren't overly accepting of foreigners, and the experience made me determined." Des Jardin's experience also includes a year-and-ahalf at New York City's Montrachet. Her reunion with Splichal took place when the master decided to settle down and open Patina, which is considered by many critics Los Angeles's best restaurant since its opening in August 1989. She is head chef and responsible for the entire kitchen operation. "This is Joachim's food I'm executing here, but his French/California menu is pretty much my style," she says. "Joachim has been a great influence on my cooking and I've benefited from watching him open this restaurant. I hope someday to have my own in Northern California." "I have no doubts in my mind," says Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichal, "that Traci Des Jardin will be a star in this town. She is truly talented."