The Manresa Chef on Staying Grounded, Writing His Book, Being the Subject Matter, and Quitting by Text
From his restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos, California, David Kinch has evolved into one of the most celebrated chefs in the United States today. The restaurant holds two Michelin stars, four stars from the San Francisco Chronicle, and David was recently nominated as Outstanding Chef (in the nation) by the James Beard Foundation. It’s a busy time for him: although Manresa is his lone restaurant, he’s planning a bakery, published his first cookbook last fall, and, along with Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farms, is the subject of the recent documentary The Farmer & The Chef. David cooked for such influential chefs as Paul Prudhomme and Barry Wine, and consulted to the Hotel Clio Court in Fukuoka, Japan, before moving to the Bay Area. His first restaurant as chef-proprietor was Sent Sovi in Saratoga, which he opened in 1995 then sold in 2002, the year he opened Manresa.
I hadn’t met David before last November, when he granted me an interview for an upcoming book project. When we connected again last month for a follow up, I asked him if he’d submit himself to a Toqueland interview. Most of this dialogue took place over lunch at Zuni Café, with the remainder conducted by phone the following week.
TOQUELAND: You’ve got just the one restaurant. How tough is that to stick to these days? Do opportunities come your way? Do you constantly have to resist things in order to stay there?
KINCH: There are a lot of opportunities that come my way; none of them really interest me. There’s not one that is a slam dunk. Anything interesting, I’ll entertain. Is it harder just to do one restaurant? No. I like going to work. I like going to Manresa and doing what I do for fifty people a night.
I’ve never really cooked for more than 120 a night. Ever. I’ve never had any interest in it. That’s not why I’m in the business. I’ve always been interested in the bespoke nature of fine dining. I’ve worked in a couple of hotels. They weren’t for me. I don’t know how to do volume.
TOQUELAND: You’re not interested in it or you literally don’t know how to do it?
KINCH: Well, I could probably figure it out, you know?
TOQUELAND: But it’s just something that’s never pressed your buttons? You’re not one of these guys who would wear it as a badge of honor to say, “Oh, I banged out X number of covers tonight?”
KINCH: I think this bakery is going to allow me to stretch my wings a little bit. It’s fairly low impact for me because I’ve got some really fabulous, tremendous employees.
TOQUELAND: What was the genesis of that project?
KINCH: A lot of it is the quality of the people, the baker that I have, Avery Ruzicka, and wanting to create opportunities. Over the years Manresa’s produced an exceptional list of cooks that have gone on to do amazing things, and none of them for me. They’ve gone on to become the competition because I’ve been slow or negligent or perhaps not smart enough to create the opportunities to keep them in the family like a lot of other chefs have done. And I think I have a couple of other projects in me and I’m working on that.
TOQUELAND: What might those projects be? Would they be other non‑restaurant projects?
KINCH: It’d be restaurant projects. Certainly not fine dining.
TOQUELAND: So not another bakery? These would be places where people come and eat?
KINCH: Yeah. I have maybe a bar idea, maybe a casual restaurant idea. But I want to do them not because I have to because that’s what a “successful” chef does. I want to do them because I want to, because I feel really right about the idea. It’s what the bakery feels like.
TOQUELAND: And what stage is the bakery at?
KINCH: We’re baking for two and soon to be three farmer’s markets a week. We have a letter of intent on a space that we really like; not to jinx it or anything like that, but that’s what we’re moving forward on.
TOQUELAND: And your ideal timing to be up and running is what?
KINCH: End of the year.
Trailer from Michael Whalen / Whalen Films on Vimeo.
TOQUELAND: The documentary about you and Love Apple Farms, The Farmer and The Chef, how did that come about?
KINCH: Mike Whalen, the photographer, he’s won a couple of Emmys. He did this really great documentary called Gringos at the Gate. It’s about the history of the Mexican and the American national team soccer rivals. And he lives locally. He teaches at Santa Clara. He’s the head of the film department there. His mother was a regular at my old restaurant.
And he came and he wanted to shoot some footage for a real short at the old farm and the restaurant before the renovation. And in the middle of him filming, Cynthia decides to uproot and move to this newer and bigger location, essentially starting from scratch on a much larger scale. And the restaurant had plans to go through a big renovation. We were building a bar and a lounge and a second dining room. And he saw an opportunity for a story there, how we started out together, our respective visions, and how they intertwined.
TOQUELAND: What was the relationship like between filmmaker and subject? Were you involved in the editing and so on?
KINCH: No. I helped out with a couple of things. Seeing yourself on a large screen is incredibly traumatic over a five-year period. Weight gains, weight loss, bad haircuts. It was a real eye opener. But I was merely the subject matter.
TOQUELAND: Was that a hard thing for you to accept? A lot of chefs and restaurateurs like to control their worlds.
KINCH: Michael earned my respect. I appreciated his vision. I saw some cuts. We were really impressed. I was happy with the final product. I thought it was nice. Tells a great story. It’s been very well‑received, too. So, you know, people ask me, “Hey, can you show your film?” I’m like, “It’s not my film. It’s Mike Whalen’s film.”
TOQUELAND: I was a big fan of your book. There was a flow and a structure that I loved. I know you have a Japanese history; did you ever see Kill Bill?
KINCH: One of the greatest movies of all time.
TOQUELAND: In the middle of Kill Bill there’s a Japanimation sequence. The flow of your book–especially that gatefold in the middle–sort-of reminded me of that. Did you have any reference points like that in mind when you two [Kinch collaborated on the book with Christine Muhlke] were putting that book together? Where did the inspiration for that style come from?
KINCH: I wanted the author included.
TOQUELAND: You mean Christine?
KINCH: Yeah, Christine. She was a big part of that. But I had written down notes on things I wanted to talk about, like building a dish, and all that sort of stuff. Things that I had collected over the years. I just thought, “Maybe one day I’ll have a chance to write an article for a newspaper or a magazine.” I don’t want to say I had essays in mind, but I had ideas in mind, about my organized, structured approach to how I build a dish and a menu. The notes were more about analysis, things that I was passionate about that I expanded on. And in thinking about it, it made sense to have them built into the book. They dovetailed nicely with how we broke the recipes down; for example, the importance of being close to the water translated to the section called The Pacific as Muse.
TOQUELAND: How long had you been keeping these notes?
KINCH: Ten years.
TOQUELAND: But again, where did this distinct rhythm of that book come from? You don’t often see that rhythm in cookbooks. Cookbooks are often very rigidly structured.
KINCH: Yes. To a fault.
KINCH: To a fault boxy. Like a Volvo.
TOQUELAND: Here’s eight chapters, here’s a list of sources, goodbye. Your book wasn’t like that.
KINCH: One reason it has this feeling is nobody–not an agent and not Christine–said, “You need to write ten essays.” It was just the opposite. I already had all these talking points.
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TOQUELAND: When I came out here last October, you and I had never met. We were going to meet for an interview but you had gotten called away to tape the Top Chef finale, and you called me on a Sunday. You were agonizing over how to let me know you had to reschedule. I was really struck at your courtesy and generosity, that you reached out personally. Now, I’m not saying that other people of your stature would not have been nice about it, but I would have gotten an e‑mail, either from them or an assistant, a quick “sorry it didn’t work out” kind of thing.
KINCH: You can thank my parents for that.
TOQUELAND: I’m serious, though. The need to be like that goes away the more successful you become in any business. Do you make a conscious effort to not let your success affect you in that way? Is that something that you are conscious of? Most guys at your level with a journalist they’d never met, they wouldn’t have picked up the phone.
KINCH: [chuckles] Well, I’m in Los Gatos.
TOQUELAND: What does that mean?
KINCH: I’m not in the media center of the universe. I like staying grounded. What makes me happy, to this day, is being in the kitchen and working with my crew. That’s where problems tend to melt away. Everything that’s complicated kind of drifts by the wayside. I’m at my happiest in the kitchen and I’d be foolish to give that up or to lose that. So that helps me stay grounded, I think. I think it might be part of the reason why I haven’t expanded as rapidly as some people would like, maybe some people would think. And even if I do, I want to continue doing what I do. At my age I don’t want to work more. I don’t want to work harder. I want to work smarter and I want to be in a place where I feel most effective and I’m at my happiest and I can contribute my part to the team. And that’s in the kitchen at Manresa.
TOQUELAND: You try to keep it simple.
TOQUELAND: There’s this thing that’s come up with a lot of chefs I know in San Francisco and I would love your quick take on. I have been hearing for about the past year and a half about what I guess I would call a “cooks crisis.” Chefs are having trouble finding good people and holding onto them. The cost of living in the city is so high that it’s hard for cooks to live here, and there’s a lack of loyalty, people tend to move on more quickly than they used to once upon a time. Does any of this resonate with you where you are or is this a non‑starter for you?
KINCH: It greatly affected me about three, four years ago and also, being an hour out of the city, I might as well have been 3,000 miles away. You don’t have young kids moving from the East Coast to San Francisco so they can live in a suburb of San Jose. They want to be in San Francisco. They want to be living the life. It’s such a great foodie city.
I think cooks have a tremendous amount of options available to them now compared to fifteen, twenty years ago. And loyalty is important. I see it more with servers but I would agree that with cooks, it’s hard to find good people and it’s even harder to keep them. You want to challenge cooks and you want to compensate them and you always come to an end of the line if you can’t kick people upstairs or move them into a new project or something like that. It’s also a little bit softer environment now.
TOQUELAND: I hear this a lot, too.
KINCH: It’s a softer environment and maybe it’s a more humane environment because work conditions used to be really tough. You worked long hours. There was no overtime. You were barely paid. You were treated badly. It was kind of like being in the military. Your word was your badge of honor and you kind of survived this sort of stuff. But now it’s “I don’t like my job so I’m just going to quit.” I’m amazed. Sometimes we have people leave and they don’t even turn in a two‑week notice as a courtesy.
TOQUELAND: You see this in New York, too, but I hear it a lot on the West Coast. I’ve heard several stories of cooks quitting by text.
KINCH: Yeah, yeah.
TOQUELAND: This kind of thing is rampant, no?
KINCH: Well, you know, when you text people, you don’t have to look at them. There’s no interaction, no body movements and all that. No eye contact, you know? Do you trust people that can’t even look you in the eye? I don’t.
What I don’t understand is, in San Francisco, and even in New York, the chefs’ community is fairly small. We know each other. And you’re burning bridges. You’re burning bridges. If someone walked out on me or just decides to quit or does something like that, I don’t forget it. I don’t move on. If I meet another chef at the bar and he says something to me like, “I got this guy applying for a job,” I’ll let him know what happened. “This guy did this to me.” And I don’t say, “Don’t hire him” or anything like that because that would be against the law.
TOQUELAND: Right, but you can state fact.
KINCH: I can say, “Oh, interesting. You’re hiring that guy? You know, he worked for me and he walked out one day.” And then you have cooks that work at nice places, some of them go to culinary school, they’re top professionals and everything, and … walking out? Quitting by text? Really? To me, it’s more of a symptom of society than the profession.
TOQUELAND: But it seems to me like it must be connected to this other thing you were saying. I’m not making an argument for a lot of the practices that used to happen in kitchens and still do in some places, but it seems to me like the two things are connected. If there were a certain amount of fear of the chef, people wouldn’t behave that way. Does that make sense?
KINCH: Of course it does. I hate training people. It’s my kitchen. People are specialized. Our kitchen system is unique. It’s different. It’s something that’s been developed that just kind of works for us. And you don’t learn it in two weeks; you learn it in three months. And I don’t want people working for me for six months. It’s a complete waste of my time. They finally get up on their feet and they’re making a contribution after three months and then they’re leaving in three months and then I’ve got to start all over again.
TOQUELAND: So there’s no return on your investment.
KINCH: I don’t like training people over and over and over again. For me it’s worth it to maybe pay them a touch more or have them in a collaborative effort where they view it as a positive work environment and they stay eighteen months to two years. And selfishly that’s what I want because I benefit from that.
TOQUELAND: When I told some people I was interviewing you for my book about the chefs and restaurants of the 1970s and 1980s, they asked why. I said, “What do you mean? He worked for Paul Prudhomme. He worked for Barry Wine.” They’re shocked by that. You and I have discussed this: people seem to think you’re younger than you are. Do you think of yourself as a late bloomer? Does it surprise you that people respond that way?
KINCH: Well, I mean, it’s because of my handsome looks, Andrew. [laughs] “Late bloomer” is correct. I think late blooming is accurate. My first place that I opened up myself, I was 34-years old and it was a little bistro. It was a bistro with ambitious food. Manresa opened in 2002. I was 41. Is that considered a late bloomer?
TOQUELAND: In your industry? By today’s standards, I’d say so. I don’t mean it as a derogatory term. But given that, and given where you are now. You probably wouldn’t say this about yourself, but you’re right up there in terms of the hierarchy of chefs in this country right now. Where do you consider yourself in your evolution both stylistically and as far as knowledge base goes? How do you think about that topic given where you are and the level of success you’ve had at Manresa?
KINCH: I think I’m still improving. I think the restaurant gets better and better every year. I think that I’m not working as physically demanding as I used to. I’m in a very lucky position where I can hire good people. I guess it’s a convoluted way of saying I think I work a lot smarter now than I did previously.
TOQUELAND: What about stylistically? You’ve gone from a bistro to what you do now. Of course the food’s going to change as you go along, but do you feel like stylistically you’re pretty much defined now, and that the way you think will be the way you think for the rest of your career? Or do you feel like there’s another evolution that could or you expect to happen?
KINCH: It’s hard to tell. It happens kind of organically. People ask me to describe my food. It’s hard to do. It’s very personal. It’s very much a product of my experiences, visiting markets, visiting restaurants, people I worked for, where I traveled, people I worked with. Cooking things that I like to eat, not cooking things I don’t like to eat. This all plays a part. And that hasn’t stopped. None of that’s stopped. I like that the evolution hasn’t stopped.
Here’s a good example: When I first signed on to do the cookbook, first thing I did is I went through all my files. Went through everything, got all these older dishes, dishes going back ten years. You know, “Oh, I’m going to show them my evolution!” Then, I looked at everything and I was embarrassed at everything I looked at. I was, like, “I don’t want to put any of this stuff in here. Everything looks dated.” And it felt dated to me. So I got a little bit of pushback on that but I have to be comfortable with that.
AF: What do you mean pushback? You mean your co‑writer or your publisher would have encouraged you to just do it anyway?
DK: It basically ended up being a year in the life of Manresa–2012 or 2013. That’s what it was. The photographs and ninety percent of the dishes in the book were of that year. And the funny thing is I look at Manresa’s book now and, we’re a year later, and to me it looks dated, even in the book. We’ve already moved on to different things. So to me that’s a good sign that the restaurant is continuing to evolve. And because I’m involved in it day to day, I like to think that I’m evolving also.