Talking to Cooking Star David Kinch

Mild-mannered cooking deity David Kinch is a modest, immodestly gifted chef who has brought fame to the South Bay.

(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in December of 2018.)

In an era when chefs are often tattooed, self-promoting celebrities, with social media trumpeting their latest foul-mouthed exploits, the irrefutable king of the kitchen in the South Bay — and increasingly, beyond — is cerebral, low-key David Kinch, who’d rather be surfing than attending to a throng of groupies. He planted himself in the South Bay in the mid-’90s when, he admits, the region was a culinary backwater compared to the buzzy eating scene to the north. What drew him to this area was that “I found a place that I could afford,” he says, after coming up empty in pricey San Francisco, where he had excelled as the hired executive chef at various prestigious restaurants.

To unwind and stay healthy, Kinch surfs, bikes and does other outdoor activities in Santa Cruz, where he has long lived.

His first restaurant as an owner was Sent Sovi in downtown Saratoga, a tiny bistro serving ambrosial food that was packed from the day it opened. Eight years later, in 2002, Kinch transitioned to larger, higher-end Manresa in Los Gatos, which happened to be after an accidental meeting with owner-chef Thomas Keller at the French Laundry when Kinch went to fetch his forgotten wine bag from the night before. Over coffee, Keller urged him to purchase the building that would hold Manresa, the restaurant that eventually thrust Kinch into the cooking stratosphere, eventually being the operative word.

After the devastating fire at Manresa in 2014, Kinch overhauled the inside and outside of the restaurant, creating a lovely patio at the repositioned entrance.

In the beginning, Manresa had several recession-driven, rocky years.  But after Kinch began getting his produce from a biodynamic farm in the nearby mountains, which goosed his already abundant creativity, his efforts at Manresa began to draw notice from South Bay foodies, who now had a local temple of cuisine that saved them a long drive north. Soon, the accolades began flowing in: first, two Michelin stars, then three a few years later, multiple James Beard awards, top rankings from reviewers and food writers and, best of all, attention from discriminating diners from far outside the region who made pilgrimages to consume Kinch’s ethereal food.

As Kinch evolved his restaurant and his cooking mindset, the South Bay’s restaurant scene was following suit, accelerated by being home to the only Michelin three-star south of San Francisco. At this point, Kinch has ticked all the boxes chefs lust after, publishing a cookbook, “Manresa: An Edible Reflection,” collaborating with the world’s most renowned chefs, mentoring young cooks at Manresa who have later become stars in their own right and launching successful follow-on projects like ManresaBread, now with three locations, The Bywater in Los Gatos, a casual homage to the cuisine of New Orleans, and a new dining spot in Aptos called Mentone to open in spring. Equipped with a wood-burning oven, it will feature a unique take on French-Italian cuisine and have the same casual vibe as The Bywater.

Kinch’s first post-Manresa restaurant was casual, popular The Bywater in Los Gatos, which presents scrumptious versions of New Orleans cuisine.

At age 57, Kinch has been in the restaurant business for over 40 years and he’s started to think about what comes next, explaining that “I’ve worked enough for two lifetimes.” Fortunately for South Bay diners, this modest, insightful chef will continue being involved with food but in the meantime, he’s got interesting things to say about his background, the South Bay restaurant scene, his latest activities and what the inspired creation of food means to him.

Love Apple Farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains has long grown the wonderful produce Kinch uses in his restaurant.

South Bay Accent: How did you get into the restaurant business? Are there any chefs in your family?

David Kinch: Nobody was in the restaurant business and nobody pursued food as a hobby or passion, but my grandmothers were very simple cooks — but good cooks. For me, the key was when my family moved to New Orleans and I started working in restaurants after (high) school part time and I fell headlong into the restaurant and food culture in New Orleans, which is incredibly vibrant and deeply ingrained. That’s really where I fell for it. It fed into all the interests I had as a young kid. Wanting to be creative. Working with my hands. Pleasing people. I found it. And I found an intellectual bent to it as well. You fall into the culture there. It was hard to not like it for me.

SBA: You’ve been in the South Bay since 1995. How has the food scene changed over the years since then?

DK: I knew (the South Bay) was a little off the beaten path, a little bit of a backwater but I felt if I stuck to my vision and worked hard, people would come. (Back then), you had San Francisco in the ’80s and ’90s, you had the Disneyland of the wine country in the North Bay. And in the East Bay, of course, you had the whole Chez Panisse circle; gourmet ghetto and all that. So the South Bay was the last frontier in terms of the Bay Area. But we had a client base here, people with disposable income. People in the South Bay are sophisticated, they travel, they were open to new experiences.

There were many cultures where the cuisine was vibrant in the South Bay, so the bones were in place.  It was just a matter of other chefs getting in the game, other restaurants making their mark. The South Bay is a really interesting place in terms of the restaurant scene right now.  There are a fair amount of Michelin stars down here. There are a lot of diverse restaurateurs and chefs. It’s an exciting place to be.

One of many Manresa signature dishes is “A Winter Tidal Pool,” which features earthy flavors and seafood in a light, delicious broth.

SBA: Manresa is one of just seven restaurants with three Michelin stars in the greater Bay Area. Do you feel pressure to keep those stars, which are so difficult to get?

DK: I try not to be stressed out about it. It’s the same way as when you’re trying to get them. You don’t cook to keep them, you just do what you do. You stay true, you stay focused, you keep your team motivated, you have a shared vision and you let the chips fall where they may. It’s really that simple. If you sit there worrying late at night, then your health suffers and things can go south if you’re not careful.

SBA: Speaking of health, you’ve talked about how you changed your lifestyle profoundly after the first fire, in 2014, closed Manresa for many months. After that, you lost a lot of weight and made other changes. What happened?

DK: Part of the reason why I was so unhealthy is that I had become the restaurant because I thought that’s what great chefs do; you morph literally into your restaurant. When the fire burned, I burned as well. It created a lot of physical damage to the restaurant but it created a lot of emotional and mental damage to myself. I had to figure out how to get out of it because my goal always has been my entire life not to die in a kitchen.

The restaurant would have to change and I would have to change.  So I make a concerted effort to find a balance in my life. Have the restaurant be important to me but not have it be my life. I spend less time at the restaurant. I do that by design. I’ve learned to delegate tasks to people who are incredibly talented and passionate and it has afforded me the opportunity to find balance, be happier but still find great joy in going to the restaurant every day, which I still love to do.  The kicker to all this is that making these decisions and finding balance and not treating the restaurant as actually an inner part of my soul is that the restaurant has actually gotten better. For me, it was a win/win situation.

SBA: What’s your lifestyle like now?

DK: No one’ s allowed to contact me from the restaurant unless it’s an emergency before 10:30 in the morning. That’s my time. I read books, I go to the gym, I go for a surf, I go for a bike ride. I start my day off with physical activity to clear my mind and prepare for the day. That’s very important. If people insist the only time they can meet is at 9 a.m. in the morning and it’s important, they have to find another way to do it because that’s my time. The easiest thing I could do is to allow my current 12-hour day to go to a 15-hour day and I refuse to do that now.

As his fame has spread worldwide, Kinch has cooked with and become friends with some of the world’s greatest chefs such as Eric Ripert from Le Bernardin in New York City (right).

SBA: You’ve had quite a career, working all over the world as a chef: France, Germany, Japan, Spain, New York, San Francisco and now in the South Bay. How have these experiences with different cuisines impacted what you create today?

DK: My vision has evolved over the years. I didn’t arrive in California until 1990. During the decade or so before that, my ideas were evolving. I became very much of a Francophile. I admired what these great chefs in France were doing. How they were creating these senses of place and people came to them. They had a certain amount of freedom and creativity that I was drawn to.

I fell in love with Spanish food and the way they ate there. It was something very different and certainly off the map. For me, it’s really about learning different things, learning different cultures and just expanding my repertoire more than anything else.

With Japan, the appeal was the importance of service pieces being integrated into the dish and how important it was just as much as the food being pleasing to the eye. And how they cook these incredibly delicious dishes without a gratuitous amount of fat — sometimes no fat at all. I found that extremely interesting.

Besides his restaurants, cookbook and wide acclaim, Kinch has frequently been featured on television in various programs, including a segment on the PBS “Mind of a Chef” show.

SBA: You’ve been developing a small food empire, opening new operations like the third ManresaBread location and two informal restaurants. What’s been going on lately and what can guests expect at your restaurants?

DK: We’ve opened up another retail bakery, on Campbell Avenue. It has a beer and wine license and we’ve expanded the concept just a little bit and went from ManresaBread to ManresaBread Cafe.

The Bywater (in Los Gatos) is a fun, neighborhood place; it’s supposed to be casual and fun and easy. There’s a great playlist that’s probably played a little bit too loud. For us to be recognized by Michelin with a Bib Gourmand was a complete surprise and made us very happy. It’s the same thing with Manresa. It’s not a cheap restaurant. It’s a special-occasion restaurant but we want people to come in and have a great time. We want them to dance out of the restaurant and not feel like they’ve been killed with food. Even though it’s cost them a fair amount of money, we want them to say to themselves, “Man, I can’t wait to go back and do that again.” I’m very fortunate that the restaurant is quite busy on a regular basis.

ManresaBread now has three retail locations and produces an addictive array of goodies. It was spun out of the restaurant and is run by talented Kinch protege Avery Ruzicka.

SBA: What about your newest place, which will open this spring in Aptos?

DK: The name of the restaurant is Mentone, which is the Italian name for the French border town of Menton along the Riviera.  We feel the name evokes me and my partner’s fundamentally French background and will be our interpretation of a Riviera-style cuisine.  We hope to show our interpretation of the Riviera, as represented by both France and Italy between Genoa and Nice in a casual and fun style.

SBA: You recently mentioned the appeal of cooking two nights a week for a handful of people on a tropical island as your “retirement.” Were you kidding?  

DK: I was absolutely not joking around.

SBA: So explain what this perfect life would look like.

DK: I’m a fan of islands. They’re something I have a lot of attraction to. I like the idea of being close to the water, swimming in the ocean every day, not wearing a shirt, not wearing shoes.  Being on the water, either sailing or surfing. That’s all a dream-like situation for me. I love cooking dinner for myself and for friends, at home. I cook on my days off. I get great pleasure in that. When I dream, that’s what I dream about.

My life is complicated. My business is complicated so I dream of a simple life. When you’re on an island, that island becomes your universe.  The simpler the island, the simpler your universe is and I find that very appealing.

SBA: If you wanted to do that, you could, right?

DK: Yeah. I think so. Why not?

Another unforgettable dish at Manresa is “Into the Vegetable Garden,” which features dozens of veggies, herbs and other fine things from the earth.

SBA: What food-related things get you particularly excited these days?

DK: I’m fascinated by the world of fruit right now. All the diverse fruit, particularly exotic fruit. I’m a big fan of all things citrus. We’re doing a lot of fermentation at the restaurant, which we really enjoy and we’re finding it adds the next level of flavor to the dishes that we’re doing.  We’re cooking with a lot less fat than we ever have been. I find that health and nutrition have become much more in the forefront and so that plays a role when we create dishes.

SBA: You’ve been called a “chef’s chef,” having hired and mentored many young cooks who have gone on to launch stellar careers. People like Jeremy Fox, James Syhabout, Charlie Parker, Kendra Baker, Belinda Leong, Jessica Largey and many more. In a competitive place like a professional kitchen, what’s your view on what your role as a restaurant owner-chef should be?

DK: We’re all links in a chain. You just have to understand where your place is in that chain. I am a great admirer of the chefs that came before me. I found them incredibly inspirational. I’d like to feel I’m the next link in the chain from their legacy and my job is to pass on knowledge and information and work to create the next generation and keep the chain going on.  That’s very important.

Recipe Bonus

Kinch has long offered his unique madeleines before and after meals at Manresa; chocolate madeleines with berry pate de fruit being the final nibble.

Manresa Madeleines (Black Olive or Chocolate)

Kinch’s creativity and level of success have been built on many memorable dishes at Manresa like his famous “Into the Vegetable Garden,” a custard topped with vegetable veloute and 35 to 40 picked leaves, flowers and herbs from the restaurant’s gardens, or equally renowned “Winter Tidal Pool,” an umami-rich bowl of seafood, pickled kelp and other earthy delights. One of many signature dishes are his luscious little madeleines, savory and sweet, served to start and end a meal. They would make a delicious addition to any table.

Makes 100 pieces

Special equipment: madeleine batter, nonstick metal madeleine molds with small cavities, plastic pastry bag

Black Olive Caramel

225 to 450 gram (8 to 16 ounce) jar of black olive paste

sugar

water

Drain the olive paste in a strainer to remove the excess oil and weigh the drained paste. Put an identical weight of sugar in a spotlessly clean heavy saucepan and add just enough water to the sugar to create the consistency of wet sand. Stir briefly with a very clean utensil to loosen the sugar. Cover the pan and cook over medium-high heat, leaving the pan covered to prevent crystallization, at least until the mixture liquefies. Do not stir and ensure that the temperature of the mixture rises constantly without dropping. Dampen a folded kitchen towel and place it on a counter near the stove. When the sugar caramelizes and turns a medium amber color, remove from the heat and touch the bottom of the pan to the wet towel to cool it slightly and prevent further cooking. Once the bubbles subside, whisk in the olive paste, a little at a time. The hot mixture may spatter when you add the olive paste.

Chocolate

Approx. 40 grams (1 ½ ounces) 72 percent dark chocolate, melted

pinch of salt

Madeleine Batter

185 grams (1 cup) strained unsalted brown butter

185 grams (6 or 7) strained egg whites

125 grams (1 cup) fine almond meal, sifted

210 grams (1 ¾ cup) confectioners’ sugar, sifted

80 grams (½ cup plus 1 tablespoon) pastry flour, sifted

Bring the egg whites and brown butter to room temperature. If these ingredients are not at the same temperature, the batter will break. Combine the almond meal, confectioners’ sugar, and pastry flour in a mixer bowl and mix with the paddle attachment for a few minutes. Add the egg whites and mix to combine. With the mixer on high speed, slowly add the brown butter, a little at a time, to create an emulsion. Mix until batter is a solid straw color without any unincorporated egg whites.  Weigh the batter.

For Black Olive Madeleines

Multiply the finished weight of the batter by 15 percent, and measure out this quantity of Black Olive Caramel. Fold the caramel into the batter until it is completely mixed. Put the batter into a plastic pastry bag and refrigerate until firm.

For Chocolate Madeleines

Multiply the finished weight of the batter by 5 percent, and measure out this quantity. Fold the chocolate and pinch of salt into the batter until it is completely mixed. Put the batter into a plastic pastry bag and refrigerate until firm.

Baking

Preheat the oven to 400°F (205°C). With a pastry brush, coat madeleine molds with softened butter and dust lightly with flour. Pipe the cold batter into the molds, filling them about three-quarters full. Place the filled molds on a sheet pan or cookie sheet and bake for two minutes. Rotate the pan and bake for another two minutes, or until the madeleines are semi-firm. Remove the pan, turn the madeleines out onto the sheet pan with the molded side up, and allow them to cool.

Note: The madeleine batter will hold for three to four days in the refrigerator if well covered.

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