The Mind of a – Michelin Starred, Emmy Award Winning – Chef: David Kinch Interview

David Kinch Manresa

When you picture a three starred Michein chef, you might conjure up a image of a distinguished, white-haired sage, or perhaps a young chef, with a buzz cut, square glasses and an intense stare. David Kinch fits neither of these stereotypes. The chef patron of Manresa in Los Gatos, California, rocks an altogether more casual vibe; wearing jeans and ‘sneakers’, both ears pieced, sandy hair, and of course, in true Cali form, has a killer tan.

But don’t let his laid back demeanour throw you off; meeting David Kinch at Food on the Edge last month he had all the focus, professionalism, and insight you would expect from a chef who has achieved the highest commendation possible in his industry. Relaxed and under the radar strolling around in between talks, when he took to the stage for his own panel discussion he soon commanded the attention of his peers, and held his own amongst equally vocal chefs; Amanda Cohen, Rasmus Monk, and Nathan Outlaw.

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Aside from the black diamond earrings, another curve ball comes, when you hear that he also won an Emmy award earlier this year – no, David did not take inspiration from his neighbours down South in Hollywood, unearthing a flair for acting, but was bestowed the Outstanding Culinary Host award for his role in Anthony Bordain’s award-winning PBS series, “The Mind of a Chef.”

David smiles when I broach the subject saying this was one accolade he never expected: “That was a surprise, I never would have been able to predict that. I just got lucky.” While David says the golden statuette will move from the restaurant to his mother’s home shortly – “I know she will appreciate it much more” – his three Michelin stars are awards he has worked far too hard to let go of.

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After two decades spent crisscrossing the globe to work in kitchens in France, Spain, Japan and New York, David settled on America’s West Coast opening first Sent Sovi in Saratoga, California, and then, almost 15 years ago, Manresa, in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Combining his learnings from around the world and a vision to create a “sense of place” with his cooking, David has been at the forefront of a new contemporary California cuisine.

Central to his philosophy are the exceptional products California offers, so much so that he has forged partnerships with a number of local farms, who provide almost every ingredient used in David’s kitchen. Applying modern techniques to the farm’s bounty, David has created dishes like his signature ‘Into the Vegetable Garden’, which features the root, leaf, shoot, and flower of thirty vegetables – an ingredient-led style of cooking that has been documented in his New York Times bestselling cookbook Manresa: An Edible Reflection.

Manresa. photo by Eric Wolfinger

As influenced by the terroir of the California Coast as his Michelin stars are, they have an Irish connection too. David was in Tigh Neachtain’s Pub at the wrap party of the inaugural Food on the Edge last year when the news broke. Since his last visit to Galway, David says “it’s been a very eventful year.” Though it is what happened in the years prior to achieving the accolade that makes the feat all the more impressive.

Having held two Michelin stars for 9 years consecutively, Manresa suffered a devastating fire in 2014, and reopened only in early 2015. The setback instilled a new lease of life into an already dedicated team at the restaurant, and from the ashes rose a phoenix. “I think we had something to prove,” says David.

“We were kind of taken by surprise by the award, but it has been a really great year. It’s been really busy. There are heightened expectations, but in general that’s not a bad thing. People have genuinely very, very happy for what has happened, and that makes me feel real good.”

The Michelin guide has received some backlash in the media, particularly of late, with some commenting it has become out of touch with the modern culinary world, but David respects the power of the little red French book.

“Anybody who says that Michelin doesn’t have the influence that it had before would be completely off base, it’s been a truly astonishing year in terms of the success of the restaurant.”

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“About an hour South of San Francisco,” David says Manresa has become even more of a culinary destination. “There’s a lot more people visiting the restaurant for the first time, which I am very grateful for. A lot of people travel from out-of-state, and from outside the country just to come to the restaurant.”

The collaboration with local farms means that Manresa serves a nightly tasting menu that not only showcases the finest produce of the season, but of that very day. David and his team crafts a menu around these ingredients, delivering a distinctive dining experience and imparting the guests with distinct sense of place and time.

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Knowing this, you can understand why the chef is frustrated by phony food allergies. “Allergies we understand; preferences we try our best to discourage people. Ultimately what we have is a dedicated team of people who are very passionate about what we do, and we spend our entire professional lives putting together, and trying to craft an experience that we feel is the very, very best. I feel that when people come in being afraid of food, being a little bit close minded on what the possibilities can be. I think that they are short-changing themselves.”

“We are going to give the customers that they want, but my message is: there is everyday eating, but then there are special occasions, special experiences, and eating for pleasure, and I think when you commit to that, the time, the expense, to the sense of adventure, and letting people who really work their whole lives to create this scene I think it’s wise to let them try.”

While David has little tolerance for culinary compromise, he is a firm believer in the old-guard, French style of hospitality, and admits he’s not “a believer in saying no.” “We take care of the guests”, says David, putting it simply, and he notes that some modern-day Michelin chefs make it “more about them.” Cautious not to name names, David politically says: “obviously, I have an opinion, but I state my opinion by the style restaurant that I have. That’s what I believe in.”

“It’s not about us; it’s not about me; it’s about the guests. I’m a real firm believer that a big part of our success at the restaurant is our commitment to hospitality.”

Though proving he is far from a food snob, in 2016, David took people by surprise by opening his first casual dining restaurant; The Bywater. At his New Orleans themed joint, David set about to create somewhere with “good food; great drink; a place where the music is just a little bit too loud; more of a meeting place for the neighborhood – and that’s what it’s becoming.”

the bywater

“It’s a completely different world, and so much fun. I’ve been thinking about doing a second restaurant for a long time; I don’t know that other people’s expectations were, I think I caught a lot of people by surprise by just how casual it is. It’s a neighborhood joint, but it’s also a love letter to the town of New Orleans; where I fell in love with the industry; where I fell in love with cooking. That’s exactly what I wanted it to be, to bring back the memories of a very happy time in my life.”

His restaurants might be “world’s apart”, but geographically at least they are just about a quarter-mile from each other. Though Manresa will continue to capture most of his attention David says their close proximity allows him to be both eateries every day.

Also vying for a slice of David’s attention is Manresa Bread, which he opened with two partners in 2015 with the vision of becoming Los Gatos’s village bakery, featuring an ever-changing selection of breads and pastries. One of those is also the chief baker, Avery Ruzicka, formerly head of the bread programme at Manresa, who previously worked under master baker for Thomas Keller’s Per Se. “I created Manresa Bread as an opportunity for her,” says David, “for her skill, passion and ambition. She has really grasped it and run with it, and I’m very proud of it.”

Another protégé of his, Chef de Cuisine at Manresa Mitch Lienhard, took top honours in the S. Pellegrino Young Chef 2016 competition, at the grand finale in Milan this October. “Mitch is a great leader. He is a young chef, but is wise beyond his years. He leads by example, and he commands the respect of everybody in the kitchen, including myself.”

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It was in 1981, when David too was in his twenties and just at the beginning his culinary adventure, that he first visited Ireland. “My next visit was last year (at Food on the Edge), and I jumped at the chance to come back this year because I had such a great time,” David says, and he remarks that Ireland’s relationship with food has undergone a striking evolution in the intervening years:

“I find the country incredibly beautiful, I find the people very warm and inviting, and I see this nascent growth and awareness with the population in regards to food; the importance of food; the quality of food; and the importance of being aware of what they put in their bodies. We’re not talking about gastronomic restaurants, we’re talking about everyday eating which is really what it’s all about.”

During each visit to Ireland, David says he is continually amazed by the quality and spectrum of Ireland’s produce. That day after wandering around FOTE’s Artisan Food Village, he was taken by one of Ireland’s culinary gems in particular: “The oysters,” he exclaims, “the oysters are world-class, extraordinary, that man from Kelly’s Oysters is just incredible.” A display of seasonal wild game birds also caught his attention, and he laments that “unfortunately, these are very difficult to find in the United States.”

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Beyond discovering more about another country’s indigenous gastronomy, he says events like FOTE are essential to the progression of the food industry: “It’s important because in the 21st century the exchange of positive information and knowledge is what allows us all to get better. Not only in how we run our establishments, but how we lead by example to the general public. The general public looks up to high profile restaurants; restaurants and people who have a high visibility; the people who get invited to things like this; and we have a responsibility and a duty to show respect for each other, to what we do for a living, and to get better.”

“Networking is how we get better, it’s how I get better. I’m at home, I work with my team, we collaborate, I read, I cook for myself, but ultimately I find great inspiration from travelling, meeting my peers, and eating in their restaurants.”

Fresh off the stage after his panel discussion on ‘Building a Global Network’ his passion is at surface level, and he answers with gusto the question central to FOTE: What is the future of food? “The next generation, our children,” he declares. “It’s about making sure that they understand that there’s really a lot of messed up things; we have screwed up a lot. I think we are relying on them to correct it, and we need to give them the tools to sustainability, and to understanding the importance of being aware of what we put in our bodies.”

INTERVIEW BY ERICA BRACKEN

Erica Bracken Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.

Erica Bracken  Erica Bracken

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