Chef Q&A: David Kinch of Manresa

Becky Paskin - 28/03/2012

Nestled between the Sierra Nevada Mountains and rugged Californian coast in the quiet town of Los Gatos, Manresa's reputation as a destination restaurant has grown rapidly over the past few years. Chef-owner David Kinch uses organic produce from local biodynamic producer Love Apple Farms to create playful dishes that showcase the region's unique produce. What would you say is the concept for Manresa?

My goal is to create a quality restuarant - I hesitate to say fine dining - and a reflection of not only who we are but where we are. We try to capture the spirit of a really unique corner of the country. We have this really beautiful area where the mountains meet the sea with many different micro climates; we have the ocean and one of the most fertile and productive farmlands of the US, plus the wine country.

How would you describe your style of cooking at Manresa?

I like to describe my cuisine as contemporary Californian using tremendous amounts of local products. Our farm is just 15 minutes away and we're importing less and less from outside the state. At that point the food becomes quite personal. I only cook food I like. I try to pay a certain amount of attention to tradition and what has been done before but I also build on that. We are mindful of contemporary techniques and the revolution that has gone on for the past 15 years or so, and are respectful of the previous generation of cooks by taking what they started and building on it for the 20th Century. It would be the easiest thing in the world to get involved in food politics and make some sort of statement with my food, but here in California some people do that certainly much better than I and probably with more enthusiasm than me too.

Do you try and progress it in your own way?

We change the menu frequently and it's always tweaked 5-10 per cent every day. The farm throws us a lot of curve balls because there is a finite number of ingredients. I want this restaurant to be pleasureable and hedonistic - I dont want to put a mission statement on it.

What's the most important thing to you that your cooking achieves?

People hae to enjoy it. It's really nice when the food is thoughtful but I don't know about challenging diners. I kind of stepped away from that because for me that's more about cooking for yourself or other chefs than the guests. I think there has to be a thoughtful element to it though and we want our dishes to remind diners of something, or make them wonder why I cooked something a certain way or that they may not have thought of it. With fine dining what you're paying for is not only the craft aspect, but the artistic element of thoughtfulness.

You have a rare relationship with a single supplier Love Apple Farms whom you source the majority of your produce from and who only supply Manresa. How did your relationship develop and where has it taken you both to now?

I met Cynthia Sandburg here at the restaurant and a friend of hers called me to say she grows great tomatoes so I asked her if I could try some. Later that summer she drove by and on a whim she dropped them off and they were fantastic so I bought from her for the year and rather naively at the same time I had thought about growing my own vegetables. At the farmers market there were chefs all around me and as good as this stuff was everybody was buying the same thing, so I thought how can I cause some degree of separation to find a better product. I went to Cynthia and asked her for some land to grow my own product and she just happened to be looking to start a small farm to supply a restauarant. We made a huge comitment to each other. She dug up her yard, took out her swimming pool and we bought some greenhouses. It grew slowly over the past seven years and about two years ago they moved to a new 22 acre location. The extra land has afforded us many opportunites, we have goats making our own cheese and milk products, we have six pigs and are starting our own meat and charcuterie programme. Every year it becomes more ingrained into what we're doing. We've had a great response thanks to our unique relationship with LAF.

Have you been growing anything interesting lately?

We do alot of experiments on growing things, a lot of trial and error for the future. We work two or three seasons ahead - it's like a fashion house. We sat down in February to discuss our Fall and Winter menu next year and discussed what new seeds we'd like to plant as well as what things haven't worked in the past so we can formulate a plan. The farm is there to grow for the specific needs of the restaurant. We just plant and try to figure out what we need. It's an exclusive relationship, everything is ours.

What degree of your cooking is dedicated to showcasing the produce you get from Love Apple Farms?

More than half. I really try to showcase the produce as we have a lot of unique items that come from the farm. We really don't want to bury that under other ingredients so we look for technique that highlights rather than masks.

Where would you say your passion for food and cooking comes from?

It's the only job I ever had. I had grandparents that were great cooks but it wasn't a case of me cooking at their knee. I grew up in New Orleans and they have a great restaurant and food culture that's really ingrained there. I was fascinated by that and started working in restaurants after school and I fell in love with the business, way before I fell in love with food. I became fascinated with cooking in the end because it was creative - you could work with your hands and were penalised if you took shortcuts. I got a trenemdous amount of satisfaction from making people happy through my food and I haven't left the business since.

Is there a reflection of New Orleans in your cooking?

No, it's very traditional food down there and while it's really good it's not in our repertoire.

You'veĀ  trained and worked in some remarkable restaurants around the world including the Hotel de la Poste in France and Schweizer Stuben in Germany and Akelarre in Spain - how have your experiences influenced your cooking?

They've all made some sort of contribution, and everybody I worked for is a mentor. I've taken away positive elements and aspects of every place I've worked, and while I dont think I have one particular mentor, there are some people I've worked with that have had an influence on not only how I cook but how I conduct my business.

How would you say your cooking presence has developed over the years?

It's become more mature, confident and simple. I find I'm cooking less like I'm trying to impress myself and more for the customer because I have faith in my own abilities and that of my staff. The single biggest thing is hard to articulate but I've moved on from being a young cook and imitating people. My own style has emerged now and I care less for what's going on around me. I dont mean it like I don't care about what other chefs are doing - of course I'm interested but I'm less so in having it directly influence what I do. It's important to me that my environment, in terms of my location, the people I work with and the produce I work with, has more of an influence on my style than others.

At what point would you say your style was truly established?

It was only in the past three or four years. It's taken a long time. I'm an old guy and I've been cooking for 33 years but it's really been the past three where I've learned a lot about myself and I feel better about my cooking now than I ever have before.

Do you have any regrets that you didn't reach this stage sooner?

No. It's a crappy business to be in if you don't like it but I still love coming to work everyday. When I don't like coming to work anymore then I'm going to quit because it's a really lousy business to be in if you dont like it.

You've been credited with quite a few awards recently. Two Michelin stars for six consecutive years, the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef in America for the Pacific region and GQ Chef of the Year 2012. But despite all that what's been the most rewarding thing for you?

The point in time when I realised the restaurant was going to be a success. There's a big difference between being a chef and a chef-owner. Being a chef-owner you're responsible for 30 people's livelihoods. I'm responsible for giving them work, paying them and ensuring my vendors are paid too, and it's finding the right balance that's a big step for any chef. It's easy to spend ther people's money. That was a major turning point - learning not only how to be a successful chef but a restaurant first and getting the most out of people.

What are your thoughts on the attention you've had over the past few years from the media and critics?

I don't think too much about it. It's a positive and it helps the restaurant be a success but I don't think too much about how it portrays me because it's always distorted. I like to think that you're never as bad as they say you are but you're never as good either.

Would you lke to be a celebrity chef?

No not really. Maybe if they paid me millions for a TV show. I did Iron Chef America which was nerve-wracking and live - there's nothing fake about the hour that you're cooking. The funny thing is that equipment can break or you can cut your finger off but they're not going to stop it. There's a lot of contrived scenario and drama on the show but the cooking is very real.

How would you say your cooking fares on the global stage?

We have a lot of international visitors who make this restaurant a destination and that makes us very proud and happy, but it creates a level of expectation that pushes us. In terms of competitiveness we don't really care, it's not important. It may have been to my more immature self but now I believe it's more important to let things fall where they may. If good things happen to us naturally then it means we are on the right track.

What effect has being associated with the S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants awards had on your business?

In 2006 when we entered the list it was astonishing. It was the first time a lot of people in the US and overseas had heard about the restaurant. There was only a handful of Asmerican restaurants that year and so it put us in this elite category. Although since then we've been in the 51-100 list and it's not the same thing, we've still gained recognition.

Whats the definitive element about Manresa that makes it stand out?

It's a lot of small things we do correctly plus the uniqueness of our location. Los Gatos is off the beaten track and we're not in a major urban area. Even if youre visiting San Francisco and you want to eat at our restaurant it's an hours commitment and a lot of people dont want to do it. This is a destination place but it allows us to really speak about what we are, plus our relationship with Love Apple has a tremendous effect on what we do.

So why did you choose Los Gatos for Manresa?

I was in San Francisco and my first restaurant was a small bistro called Sent Sovi in Saratoga. It was successful and did great but the kitchen was tiny and I thought I would kill myself if I worked there another year. I almost went back to San Francisco with a new premise but we had carved a name in the South Bay and when we stumbled upon this place we fell in love with it. It was a restaurant before but just four walls and nothing on the inside. We've just completed a renovation last year, improving the entry way and patio.

What's in the future for David Kinch?

To stay alive and keep going. I have a couple of little side projects on the go. I've got Manresa's first book to deliver in November for a Fall 2013 release, which will be about our relationship with Love Apple Farms with recipes, photographs and narratives. I'd also like to do another place but I'm not sure what yet - we have a couple of things in the fire. I'm also doing some design projects involving plates which will hopefully be available in department stores soon, but I have a great balance right now, I'm happy. And if I'm happy it puts the restaurant in the most productive mood.