(Published by the Bay Area News Group affiliates on June 6, 2013. Link)
Backstabbing and profanity may be the route to becoming a television Top Chef but David Kinch did it the slow, old-fashioned way, honing his craft over a few decades into the culinary equivalent of a 10th degree black belt.
In recent years, Kinch and his esteemed restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos have perched at or near the top of all the “best” lists — two Michelin stars since 2006, multiple James Beard awards — and he has become a mild-mannered cooking deity.
The thoughtful late bloomer, now 52, is embracing his recent fame, with well-deserved accouterments like TV appearances, cooking events from Australia to Paris, his first book and a tasty new food venture that, he says with droll delight, “has turned out to be quite the roaring success.”
Carbaholic foodies are lining up before the Campbell farmers market opens so they can snag some swoon-inducing chocolate brioche, super-seedy pumpernickel rye, exotic buckwheat cherry boule or whatever extravagant goodie might be available through the Manresa Bread Project.
With the line lengthening weekly, customer Kathy Finley of San Jose must hop into the queue earlier each Sunday morning. “The bread is addictive,” she explains. “Now I can’t have other bread. It’s not the same.”
Even prices up to $12 per loaf don’t deter the enthusiastic crowds and the Manresa offerings sell out in a couple of hours. Staffing the booth is Kinch’s baker, petite blonde Avery Ruzicka, who spends all night creating up to 500 items in the Manresa kitchen, then hauls them to the market in the morning. “It’s a workout,” she says. “But this is my baby.”
Such passion is a hallmark of Kinch and his staff and is being poured into another much-anticipated project: “Manresa: An Edible Reflection,” which comes out October 22. Co-written with well-known food editor Christine Muhlke, the book eulogizes Northern California’s tremendous local ingredients and shares some of Kinch’s cerebral yet practical techniques for making better-tasting food, like umami principles such as plopping a bit of sun-dried tomato or kombu into a chicken stock during cooking to deepen flavors.
This project has long been on Kinch’s mind. “Every chef hopes to do a book at some point in time,” he says. And this one offers some signature recipes like his sweet/tart, delicious strawberry gazpacho and crispy, unctuous and herby garden beignets. (See recipe links below.)
While Kinch might have recent notches on his toque like awards and the book deal, the usual next step of endless Manresa Cafes popping up coast to coast isn’t likely. But one new restaurant? “I wouldn’t rule it out” is his careful response. Ditto regarding the brick-and-mortar bakery that his legion of fans would love to see.
As part of its march toward Michelin, Manresa underwent a major remodel in 2011 that enlarged the dining area, added a full bar, created a lovely patio (above) and gave the restaurant a sophisticated new look.
Given all the recent hubbub and acclaim, it’s easy to forget that Kinch cooked in far-flung restaurants for years in semi-obscurity before opening his first place in the mid-90s, then later endured a challenging early period at Manresa, which debuted in problematic 2002. He has admitted that there were moments when he thought about closing.
The economy might have wobbled but his cooking never did. Those locals who did make pilgrimages to Manresa considered it the French Laundry South — or better — while enjoying Kinch’s increasingly refined, intricate, painstaking dishes.
“Cooking is a dynamic endeavor. If it stays the same all the time, you’ll wither and die,” he insists.
This search for hyper-local perfection has led him to gather seawater near his Santa Cruz home for cooking fish and making in-house salt. His kitchen has churned its own butter from cream produced by local cows. Since 2006, the restaurant’s produce has been coming from nearby biodynamic Love Apple Farms.
“Love Apple is a huge part of who we are, where we are and the recognition that we get,” says Kinch.
Contrary to assumptions, Manresa spends three times more on this grown-for-the-restaurant produce than what the usual approach would cost, according to Kinch. But these estimable veggies enable buzzed-about courses like gorgeous “Into the Vegetable Garden,” a 40-ingredient seasonal extravaganza that is Kinch’s homage to a legendary dish called Le Gargouillou originated by three-star French chef Michel Bras.
Long before Kinch’s skills finally ignited the international crowd, he was a 20-something line cook in the mid-80s at New York’s legendary Quilted Giraffe, where owner Barry Wine predicted his imminent stardom. It has taken more than 20 years for the rest of the food world to catch up.
Interesting Things You Probably Didn’t Know About David Kinch
Thought you knew everything there was to know about Manresa chef David Kinch? Here are five tidbits that may surprise you.
1. The New Orleans connection
Kinch started working in restaurants at age 16, training as a waiter at New Orleans’ famous Commander’s Palace, but soon decided the kitchen was more fun.
One of his closest friends is jazz legend Wynton Marsalis. The two met as teens when they shared a desk in biology class.
2. The name
Kinch named Manresa for a Santa Cruz-area beach — and a medieval city in Catalonia — during a period in his cooking evolution when he was enamored with modern Spanish food. Since then, he has broadened his influences — refined Japanese cooking inspires him these days — and deepened his focus on surprising, original food that draws inspiration from everywhere.
3. The female-dominated kitchen
It’s no surprise that the restaurant world is a male-dominated scene, but more than 75 percent of the cooking staff members at Manresa are female, including chef de cuisine Jessica Largey, baker Avery Ruzicka and pastry chef Stephanie Prida, who was just named “America’s Best New Pastry Chef” by Food & Wine magazine.
4. The chef legacy
Many of Kinch’s acolytes at Manresa have gone on to become star chefs themselves. Among them: Jeremy Fox (Ubuntu in Napa, Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica), James Syhabout (Oakland’s Commis), Charlie Parker (Plum in Oakland and Freddy Smalls Kitchen in Los Angeles), Jason Marcus (Traif and Xixa in Brooklyn) and Marty Cattaneo (Dio Deka in Los Gatos and the upcoming The Alley in Los Altos).
5. The Flay dust-up
In an appearance on “Iron Chef America” in 2009, Kinch pulverized celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a contest to cook the best dishes based on cabbage.