Genius Culinary Innovation
David Kinch, chef/proprietor of Manresa in Los Gatos, California, creates some of the most exciting food in America. After working in Europe, Japan and New York, the James Beard award-winning chef moved to the West Coast and opened his flagship restaurant in 2002. Four years later, Kinch famously entered into a partnership with Cynthia Sandberg and her 22-acre biodynamic Love Apple Farms that produces hundreds of cultivars exclusively for Manresa. Last year, Kinch published a gorgeous cookbook, Manresa: An Edible Reflection, filled with recipes and stories from the two Michelin-starred restaurant. We talk with Kinch about the importance of travel, the breadth of California terroir, and the complex simplicity of Japanese cuisine.
AndrewZimmern.com: Now a James Beard award-winning and Michelin-starred chef who owns one of the best restaurants in the country, what experiences defined your philosophies as a young cook?
David Kinch: I love to cook, but one of the main reasons I was attracted to the industry was because I felt it was going to afford me the ability to travel, to see the world, and it did. I think a lot of milestones in my career can be centered around the times I was cooking in different places: the first time I went to Europe, when I returned to Europe, I worked a brief time in Asia, I spent some formative years in New York. These were all turning points, like chapters in my career, in which I had great mentors. I learned many new things, I had a chance to experience different cultures, visiting markets, working in different kitchens. It affects me to this day. One of the great pleasures of my job now is on occasion having the opportunity to travel and visit peers’ restaurants and markets and experience new things.
AZ.com: Who would you say were some of your most influential mentors?
DK: Well, all of them. I know that sounds like a stupid answer, and it’s not that I don’t want to name names. I tried to be careful about where I worked, I wanted to work at places I felt were going to teach me. You either learn how to do things or learn how not to do things, so everything is a learning experience. I’m grateful to all the places and great chefs I’ve worked with, and even my peers. The person on the line next to you has had different experiences than you, so you learn from everyone.
AZ.com: Many chefs of your caliber seem set on expanding their empires. Why have you stayed so famously focused on one restaurant in Los Gatos?
DK: The restaurant is a little bit isolated, we’re not in an urban area by any means, so at the beginning, the restaurant struggled and it was a bit difficult. Once we gained our sea legs, we formed this relationship with Love Apple Farms and that occupied a lot of time. It’s certainly a satisfying relationship and it changed the whole dynamic of the restaurant, but it was also a challenge to make it work. And it’s a process that we are still working on to this day.
AZ.com: How did the partnership with Love Apple Farms and Cynthia Sandberg begin?
DK: I met her when she came to the restaurant for her birthday, about 7 or 8 years ago. Someone told me she was coming in and was a great amateur tomato grower. So we started talking about tomatoes, and she supplied me that year some really incredible product. The next year, I had this naive idea about trying to grow my own vegetables, as if I had spare time to do that. I quickly realized I would need the help of an expert. I started asking my suppliers if they could help me evaluate land and Cynthia jumped at the opportunity to do it. We started out small and every year we have increased the complexity of the relationship, including a major renovation of the restaurant and her relocating the entire farm, from what was almost a garden to a full fledge 22-acre farm.
AZ.com: How does having a farm that’s dedicated to growing produce for Manresa help you create a sense of place in your dishes?
DK: What we try to do as a team, whether it’s picking out a chair or flowers, or the way we write the menu or the products, we try to look and see if everything is a reflection of not only who we are, but where we are. It’s not like we go down a terroir checklist, there is no sense of time and place checklist. You do what you do, try to stay true to your vision, honor and respect the local products of where you are, the local clientele, and you stir this in with a little of your own personal vision. I think it’s something really difficult to define.
AZ.com: What types of products is she growing for you?
DK: She grows over 200 different cultivars at the farm just for the restaurant. I mean there’s fruit, herbs, vegetables of all different types, honey, eggs, milk from goats. We try to use as much of it as we can. Does she supply every single thing we have at the restaurant? No. Nor do we pretend that that happens. To me that would be limiting. The whole reason for the farm was a qualitative decision, not to make some sort of locavore statement. Ultimately that’s not important, what’s important to me is the quality of the product. And having this relationship with a farm was just another step in having more control with the process of making our food.
AZ.com: What are the most important lessons that you pass on in your kitchen?
DK: Well, my job is to lead the team. I’m the not so pretty face of the restaurant. My chef de cuisine, Jessica Largey, is really in charge of the detail-oriented day-to-day operations. For me, the easiest part of my day is cooking. The hardest part is managing people, the humanistic element. You have to encourage, you have to make people buy into your vision, you have to get people to work as a team. And that’s the hard part, managing all of the moving and working parts. I can’t speak for Jessica, but I think she would agree that if that’s not the most important thing, it’s certainly up there.
AZ.com: Your first cookbook, Manresa: An Edible Reflection, was published last year to great acclaim. In the beginning of the book, you write: “Writing recipes is no fun. It’s difficult to capture the spirit of a dish or technique by writing how-to manuals.” How, in the end, do you hope readers and cooks will use this book?
DK: We never really intended it for the home cook. Actually, we are working on a book that is for the home cook, you heard it here first. We didn’t want just a collection of recipes, we wanted a story about who we were and where we were. And after Manresa had been open 10 years, we had enough to do so. I was pretty adamant that I wanted the recipes to not be dumbed down, they had to be true to how we do them at the restaurant. I wanted it to be a faithful snapshot of how and why we did things. Are some of these recipes daunting for home cooks? Yes, of course they are, I realize that. But, I also want them to be fascinating to read, so you could understand the effort, complexity and thought process that goes into the food. Of course there is going to be appeal to the professional, but I think inspired amateurs or people who’ve eaten at the restaurant will also find some sort of appeal. That said, there’s a lot of simpler recipes in the book as well that I feel people could do with all different skill sets and skill levels. If you cook something out of the book and it works really well, we encourage people to try something with a little bit more ambition. The whole point of cooking anyway is to improve your skills. The more you know about a subject, the more you appreciate it, the more pleasure and enjoyment you get out of it. That’s the basis of this no compromise idea.
AZ.com: You’ve talked about your infatuation with Japanese cuisine and culture. What tenets of Japanese cooking make it to the plate in your restaurant?
DK: There’s a lot of things I find fascinating about Japanese cuisine. I like their presentation, they have this complex simplicity when it comes to plating. I am also fascinated by how they get so much complexity, flavor and balance out of such a minimal use of fat. I don’t want Manresa to be perceived as a Japanese American restaurant, but I do take these fundamental tenets and techniques and find ways to apply them at Manresa that doesn’t affect my vision.
AZ.com: Your longtime soul mate just opened a slick Thai eatery in San Francisco called Kin Khao. Does your relationship with Pim Techamuanvivit allow you to scratch some artistic itch that you wouldn’t otherwise?
DK: What she’s doing is very amazing. The food is so good, but it’s so very different than what we do at Manresa. I’ve been very lucky as I’ve had a lot of the dishes, I’ve watched them develop in her mind over the years because she was cooking at home. Now, the downside is I have to drive to her restaurant to eat it. Going back to experiencing different cultures and being inspired by different flavors or colors, it’s the same thing with Pim’s food. Is it techniques that I would apply at Manresa? Not necessarily so, but that doesn’t affect my ability to improve myself as a cook.
AZ.com: Who cooks the most at your house?
DK: We take turns. When Pim was doing a lot of recipe developing, it would be Pim and I was the happy receptor. We do a lot of cooking together, but we take turns also. It’s a win win situation. If we’re not cooking Thai food, we do a lot of simple cooking, but of course in California that can be a lot of fun with the ingredients that are out here. We love to have friends over, so it’s important that we’re not in the kitchen the whole time. Food, drinks, friends, conversation is all important to us on our days off.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
DK: Butter, eggs, jamón Serrano, champagne, mayonnaise, yogurt, honey. I always have a big bowl of fruit around. I have a lot of jars of sauerkraut and pickles, I like to eat sauerkraut on a whim.
Get David Kinch’s recipe for Mr. McGregor’s Garden, a specialty cocktail at Manresa.
About David Kinch
David Kinch has forged a distinctive culinary path putting him at the forefront of new contemporary California cuisine. His philosophy is fostered by the terroir, or “sense of place” of the California Coast, and the kind of ingredient-driven cooking and modern technique he studied around the world. Influenced by French and modern Catalan cooking, Kinch finds inspiration from European traditions and refinement, American ingenuity, and the vast bounty California offers. His pursuit for exceptional products inspired an exclusive partnership with Love Apple Farms, where most ingredients for Manresa are grown. This relationship creates a closed loop between the farm and kitchen assuring the dining experience imparts to guests a distinct sense of place and time.
Manresa has held two Michelin stars for eight consecutive years. In 2012, it was named one of Restaurant Magazine and San Pellegrino’s “Top 50 Best Restaurants in the World.” In 2011, Kinch was named “Chef of the Year” by GQ magazine and in 2010, he received the “Best Chef: Pacific” award from the James Beard Foundation. In 2013, Bon Appetit called Manresa one of the “20 Most Important Restaurants in America.” Kinch released a cookbook titled “Manresa: An Edible Reflection” in October 2013, which was number 19 on the New York Times “Best Sellers List.”