(Published by South Bay Accent in August, 2013.)
Your eyes widen, your senses thrum and stray thoughts flit out of your mind as you focus on the moment’s all-engrossing experience. This could define seeing great art on a wall but it equally applies to transcendent food on a plate in the hands of a skillful few. Chefs abound in our region but the ranks of true culinary maestros are small. Three definitive examples are David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, Bruno Chemel of Palo Alto’s Baumé and Sachin Chopra of All Spice in San Mateo.
While born in three different countries — the United States, France and India, respectively — and serving disparate cuisine, these three singular chefs still have much in common. They execute their personal creative ideas with passion rather than follow defined scripts and have unwavering focus on celebrating superb ingredients. Not surprisingly, all three have moved in varying degrees toward growing their own produce. And their restless creativity is leading them into new endeavors beyond the restaurants that have cemented their reputations.
The exquisitely, gorgeous food created by these chefs has garnered critical acclaim. (Salad from Manresa.)
Persnickety foodies, reviewers, bloggers and award givers have put the three restaurants owned by these chefs on a pedestal. For example, Manresa and Baumé are the only Bay Area Michelin two-star restaurants among six in total that are outside San Francisco. All Spice, opened in 2010, earned its first Michelin star last year — a promising debut for a young dining spot.
Slapping a label on these restaurants does the chefs a disservice since their cuisine springs from their imagination, which is far from static. “Cooking is a dynamic endeavor. If it stays the same all the time, you’ll wither and die,” explains Kinch. Or as Chemel describes it, “This place changes all the time because I change all the time.”
Kinch, Chemel and Chopra are bright, interesting chefs with opinions as provocative as their cuisine. Here they share some views on food, fame and inspiration — and throw in some tips for home cooks.
David Kinch Q&A
Now in his early 50s, David Kinch has been involved with food since he was a teenager and says “I can’t even imagine” being anything but a chef. The blue-eyed six-footer cooked in notable restaurants all over the world before launching his first place, Sent Sovi, in Saratoga in 1995, then selling it and opening Manresa in 2002. Kinch has been highly regarded for years by local cognoscenti but it wasn’t until after 2006 that the international food world began to discover him. That’s when Manresa began getting its produce from biodynamic Love Apple Farms in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Says Kinch, (the farm) “is a huge part of who we are, where we are and the recognition that we get.” Besides now being placed near the top of any West Coast “best chef” or “best restaurant” listing, Kinch has his first cookbook coming out, has won on Iron Chef, been featured on other tv shows, makes appearances at cooking events all over the world and has launched new food ventures. The “Manresa Bread Project” sells delicious gluten products at the Campbell farmers market, with people lined up before opening to grab a loaf or sweet. A brick-and-mortar bakery is possible, says Kinch, as is a rumored second, less-formal restaurant.
In all the recent acclaim and activity, perhaps the most lasting contribution of this gifted chef is just how many young cooking professionals have been mentored by Kinch at Manresa, then later became stars in other notable restaurants and sometimes opened places of their own.
320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, (408) 354-4330
Recognition: 2 Michelin stars
Best-known dish: “Into the Vegetable Garden,” wonderful seasonal creation of dozens of seeds, roots, stems, flowers, leaves and more
David Kinch: We like to cook food that we like to eat. We don’t like to eat anything that we don’t serve at the restaurant. Guiding principles at the restaurant now are that we want the food and the experience at the restaurant to not only be a reflection of who we are but where we are. That’s the question we ask when we’re trying something new. “Is this a natural fit?” We don’t want it to be trendy — though it could be.
Q: Are there any foods you don’t like?
DK: I’ll eat everything. I’ll eat kidneys once a year but that’s the limit. (laughs) There were foods it took me a lot longer to like. Cilantro was the last thing I learned to like. I was one of those people who thought it tasted like soap.
Q: What do you eat at home?
DK: First of all, there’s no point in cooking fancy at home because I do it all week. I tend to eat very simply. I like to get great ingredients and taste the ingredients. It’s cooking like that where I start to feel real inspiration that can carry over to the restaurant. Taking that bite of that still-warm tomato is much more inspirational than a complicated recipe from another chef involving tomatoes.
Q: It seems like your food has become less rich, with smaller amounts of cream and butter. What’s happened?
DK: I’m not dogmatic about it. I certainly use cream and I certainly use butter in judicious amounts. We use the amount that we need. But, yes, our food has become lighter over the years.
Q: In your upcoming cookbook, you’ve got some great ideas for making home-cooked food better. What are your general suggestions?
DK: I have really boring advice. It’s nice to stay organized and work clean. Clean as you go. Read a recipe all the way through so you have an understanding of it. So you’re not stopping half way through to read what your next step is. I tell people, work clean and work organized. It’s amazing how it changes things.
Q: What about ingredients for home cooks?
DK: Farmers markets are great. It’s almost a tired cliché about buying in season but it’s gotta be hammered home. The best advice I can give on ingredients is always search out and buy the best possible ingredients you can afford for whatever you’re making.
Q: What inspires you as a chef?
DK: Visiting farmers markets. I find it truly inspirational. Especially when you’re traveling and you’re in an unfamiliar place. It’s a gate into the soul of the place you’re visiting to go to the markets.
Q: You’ve become a famous chef these days, in demand by the media, for events, for other things. Is being this new David Kinch fun?
DK: There’s good and bad aspects. One of the reasons I went into cooking is because it would afford me the opportunity to travel. And that has happened. But if all this had been thrown upon me in the Sent Sovi days, when I was much younger and less mature, I probably wouldn’t have been able to handle it nor known what to do with it.
Bruno Chemel Q&A
Trim, intense Bruno Chemel keeps evolving and evolving. Even though blissful guests have called Baumé “better than the French Laundry,” Chemel, in his mid 40s, hasn’t stopped making changes since he opened in early 2010. The number of tables keeps shrinking — from 24 to nine at present — the courses have reduced in size from up to 15 at opening to eight now, the lovely interior was remodeled recently and the molecular gastronomy lite that characterized the menu earlier on is gone entirely — at least, in what diners see. In actuality, the kitchen is packed with an array of modern, cutting-edge equipment.
“My inspiration and my motivation is to do something that I didn’t do last year,” he says, but a longtime objective has been finding a gardener/partner to grow his produce. This has finally happened and Chemel excitedly talks about the old French varieties soon to be on their way, like impossible-to-find-here gray shallots and other items. Since he spends countless hours searching for beyond-impeccable ingredients that meet his standards, this development will cut down the driving time and increase the kitchen time.
Trained in France when he was a teenager, having worked for Michelin-starred chefs in Paris and in restaurants in New York, San Francisco, Southern California, Honolulu, Tokyo and here in the Silicon Valley, Chemel has a unique take on modern haute cuisine. Nevertheless, he has plans to make his cooking accessible at a casual French lunch place that is awaiting nearby space to become available. “The idea is to let people eat my food at a very reasonable price,” explains Chemel and he says this will be his last project besides Baumé.
Bruno Chemel, owner-chef, Baumé
201 S. California Ave, Palo Alto, (650) 328-8899
Recognition: 2 Michelin stars
Best-known dish: The 62-degree egg, a sublime, silky experience with always-changing accompaniments
Q: What made you drop the molecular gastronomy — foams and pearls and such — that characterized your earlier cooking at Baumé, which was named for an 18th century French chemist?
Bruno Chemel: With the molecular thing, you go out of focus because you do too many experiments. Experiments can be good but the technique shows too much, too. I knew an old chef who told me, the best technique is the one you don’t see. I thought, he’s right. We still use (molecular gastronomy) techniques but people don’t know or notice it, which is good. I don’t even know why I started. It’s not me. I’m very organized. I have 10 backup plans if something happens. What I used to do, there’s no backup plan. I like to be crazy (in the kitchen) but safe.
Q: Since you’re a chef who keeps evolving, what happens with your menu?
BC: We change our menu all the time. If you came a month ago, our menu is different (now). If you come in a month, it’s different. We change a lot. The only dish that doesn’t go away is the 62-degree egg but I always change the garnish. I tried to remove it but I got some Yelp (complaints). The stupid egg; but they want it so I keep it. Myself, I cannot keep the same food all the time. I cannot do a signature dish for two years. It’s mentally impossible. It doesn’t fit me.
Q: There are a lot of young cooks these days who want to learn by working for Michelin-starred chefs like you. What’s the best way for these cooks to increase their skills?
BC: During my time, nobody taught me anything. I learned everything by myself. When I worked at Guy Savoy, Guy Savoy didn’t sit down with me in the dining room with a cup of coffee (and say), “OK, Bruno, I’m going to tell you…” He tells me nothing! I’m the one who needs to pick up from the sous chef who’s doing this, from the cook who’s doing that. I learned by watching people doing stuff. It takes years!
Q: What do you eat when you’re not in the restaurant?
BC: Sometime I have lunch in the pizza (place) next door and people are surprised. “You eat there?!?” (they say). Yeah, it’s good! What’s the problem with this pizza? I like to eat simple food. I’m not eating caviar every day in my house. When I go out, do I want to eat in a fancy restaurant? Not really. I like Chinese dim sum. And the pizza from Italian people. I like Italian food if it’s well done. French food — to be honest, I’m always disappointed. I like Japanese food but it’s not easy to find a good one. There are some okay ones. Not good good. I don’t know why.
Q: What advice do you have for home cooks for improving their cooking?
BC: Work in a clean kitchen; wash as you go so it’s clean and organized. If you have a good attitude as a cook, you respect what you do, you work clean, I think the final dish should be pretty good. When I say good, maybe not star Michelin but that’s ok.
Q: What about finding ingredients?
BC: Farmers markets! I go to them. I’m going to the one tomorrow that finally opened in Los Altos. I go to the market in Sunnyvale all year round because I live in Sunnyvale.
Q: Are there any foods you don’t like?
BC: I never cook anything I don’t like. That’s rule number-one for me. Is there food I don’t like? Yes. Not a lot. I think I could be lactose intolerant because I don’t like everything with a lot of butter and cream. I realized that not long ago. When my customers come in and say, can this French chef go easy on the butter? My wife (the maitre d’) says, don’t worry, I don’t put butter or cream anywhere. They ask, how come? Because he doesn’t like it. They say, but he’s a French chef and he doesn’t like cream and butter? That’s true. I don’t like heavy food. For, say, 80 covers in a week, I’ll only use a quarter of a pound of butter in all my sauces for the whole week. My cooks say, “We never order butter in this restaurant!”
Q: What does it take to improve as a chef?
BC: Evolving as a chef, it’s in the edges. It’s not because you already know everything. Me, I think I know nothing. Every day, I make it up. A Michelin star, I’m still nobody. Even if I get three Michelin stars next year, I’m still nobody. I have this attitude that I never arrived. I know the mountain is very high. I tell that to my staff. It’s a long way to go so keep going.
Sachin Chopra Q&A
While Kinch and Chemel have vast arsenals of modern equipment in their kitchens, Sachin Chopra’s cramped space in the old Victorian house that holds All Spice only has room for the basics. But this hasn’t held back the friendly, baby-faced chef, who uses a home appliance bought at Macy’s for his celebrated ice creams and whose unique cuisine has been turning heads and getting awards.
The food that Chopra, in his late 30s, produces is leagues away from the usual $8 all-you-can-eat Indian buffet. It’s modern, subtle, beautiful and deeply delicious. He’s more likely to create a dish featuring prized Spanish Ibérico ham than one gushing ghee, the clarified butter used in Indian cooking. Although Chopra has cooked at most of the notable local Indian restaurants — Amber India, Sakoon, Mantra — his first U.S. job was at four-star Daniel in New York. His blend of Western techniques with complex flavors has foodies buzzing.
Handling the front of the house at All Spice is his wife, Shoshana Wolff, who he met during his stint at Amber India. In fact, he has demonstrated his spousal devotion by inventing a couple of popular dishes featuring beets (she loves them, he hates them) at All Spice called Ode to My Wife. With their recent success, the pair has thought about some new ventures, like selling some of their spectacular ice creams in flavors like brown-butter corn at a local farmers market. Even more likely is a new casual fine-dining restaurant featuring game to be located in San Francisco or Oakland.
1602 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo, (650) 627-4303
Recognition: 1 Michelin star
Best-known dishes: Shortrib Vindaloo, a complex, fork-tender entree, and Chocolate Kulfi, an indulgent, delightful dessert
Sachin Chopra: It was a choice that I fell into. I was going for medical school back in India. I got in but the college had a very limited number of seats, so I was left on the waiting list. I didn’t want to wait another year for the next year’s round so I went into hotel management. I got into a good school and it was, “Okay, let’s give it a shot.” It was much more natural to me to cook and things came much more easily for some reason.
Q: You didn’t cook before going to culinary school in India and New York, so how has your family reacted to your cooking success?
SC: My mom is considered a really good cook and she’ll send me ideas for ice creams. She’ll send me a recipe with potatoes. She’ll say, “Who do you think taught you all this stuff?” But that’s not how I learned. It’s pretty amusing.
Q: So have you made any potato ice cream?
SC: (laughs) No, nothing with potato. In the past, we’ve done black pepper and goat cheese, parmesan and roast garlic, strawberry and balsamic vinegar and black pepper. Lavender salt. Beer and pretzel.
Q: What are some foods you don’t like?
SC: The beets are one. And I don’t care so much for peanuts and peanut butter. It’s too gummy for me. Licorice is another thing I don’t really care for. The black candy. It’s just weird.
Q: Your menu is very seasonal. What’s your favorite ingredient source?
SC: We have a little garden outside that we’ve been picking things out of. It’s an immense amount of satisfaction that you have (when you grow it). We’ve been pulling out some radishes and celery and you’re so proud to say, I grew this!
Q: How can people at home improve their cooking?
SC: I think people need to believe in their own palate. Something that you really like is the perfect food. Ultimately, is it tasty to you? If you’re really good at making spaghetti and meatballs and you’re happy eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, then that’s the best.
Q: Do you have any techniques you’d like to share?
SC: Especially in cooking proteins — meats and fish — go slow at a really low temperature. It gives you an entirely different texture in the final result. Even a braise or something. Then there’s cooking meats starting off at a low temperature and finishing off at a higher temperature in a really hot oven. It creates a different texture of the meat.
Q: Your food has been evolving at All Spice since you opened, becoming more modern and less Indian and attracting more diners and happy critics. How are you dealing with the Indian vs. modern cuisine issue?
SC: “This isn’t Indian at all” is what some people have thought. We face a quandary. As a chef, I don’t see myself as an Indian chef. I see myself as a chef who’s trying to make up tasty food. The restaurant is progressing in that same direction.