When chef David Kinch was in New York nine months ago, he met me for a fairly short and direct Q&A. This time around, on the heels of several milestones for him and his Los Gatos, California restaurant Manresa, we went to Pulino's to sit down, have some pizza, and see where the conversation would go. It started with a basic question about a recent collaboration with Wynton Marsalis and turned into an hour-long discussion largely devoid of newsy tidbits but full of candid reflections from the chef. Kinch isn't afraid of sounding heady, discursive, even artistic, but he seems to naturally temper it all with a cook's sense of craft and hard work.
Here, in part one, he talks about the importance of personal expression in cooking and the many challenges Manresa has faced over the years.
You've been traveling.
I was in Paris for five days and now I'm here in New York. I'm only missing two days of work this time around, really, since we had a three-day weekend at the restaurant.
You did Paris Des Chefs with Wynton Marsalis, whom you've known since you were a kid. A lot of these interdisciplinary, experimental collaborations can sometimes reek of BS, so what about it was compelling to you?
The important thing is that we've known each other a really long time. We were friends growing up and we've remained friends. We always have talked about a collaborative effort of some sort. We have been talking about doing a book of some kind for years, but it has been hard to get a publisher to bite on it. But we've known that we wanted to do something together, and I think that what made this presentation pretty successful is that we actually know each other and are good friends. It wasn't this thing where I said, "Maybe I'll find an architect or a comedian to work with!"
What did you do?
He didn't bring his band with him, but he brought in several musicians from France that have played with him before. I prepared three dishes on stage, and beforehand we talked about what the dishes were and what they evoked in terms of appearance, atmosphere, landscape — and we considered how we wanted the customer to react to them. We considered very basic emotions. We had only a few minutes to prepare each dish, and he took this sense of mood and built jams around the dishes. The band improvised, basically.
What's an example?
A good example is a signature dish at the restaurant called "Winter Tidal Pool," which is atmospheric and evocative. I told him to do "La Mer," and he sort of said that wouldn't be possible without an orchestra. He ended up pulling it off, and it went really, really well. The last dish was an oyster dish, which obviously brings to mind New Orleans, where we both grew up, so it gave them the opportunity to do an upbeat swing.
And you feel there is a strong resonance between the two disciplines?
Yeah, music and food have a really close connection. The intertwining of those two particular disciplines or art forms lies in that they are ephemeral. You eat a plate of food, and then it's gone and it becomes a memory. It's not like a painting or a book that you can revisit or look at again and then maybe get different types of emotions from. Food is different in that it depends on how you feel and the environment around you; you sit down, and then it's gone. The experience or your enjoyment of a dish can dissipate or it can grow in your mind. There are many factors, and that's why it's so personal.
Music is the same way. Obviously, there are recordings, but it's not a live performance. Does it grow in stature or does it decline? That was the basis of the collaboration.
That connection brings us to the hackneyed question: do you see what you do as an art form, and is it even valuable to consider that question?
Personally, it's what I do for a living. I tend to think deeply about it, but do I see it as an art form or see myself as an artist? Not really. It's my job. We do certain things and we do it by rote. It's a craftsmanlike process with ingredients that vary every day and subtle changes that we must adjust to. Ultimately, if you're working in an original style, there are certainly artistic elements to it, but you eat it and then it's gone. I want it to taste good and I want people to have lots of pleasure, and realistically, that's what it's all about. If what we do can be thoughtful, then maybe people will appreciate the experience as being a bit more than just a meal.
Then how much of the process is about expressing a personal style and how much of it is about providing a service and making sure you please someone?
I'm really lucky in that I can cook in a very personal style of food, but it's difficult to label or describe exactly. People ask for that all the time: is it seasonal California? Contemporary California? Contemporary American? These are really just labels to get an idea of what we do. Essentially, it's personal food, which means that we serve food that we like and we don't serve food that we don't like. That's really what it comes down to. It's affected by experiences, by travel, by what we read, by what we eat elsewhere, by anything. Is it personal expression? Yeah, but it's more about likes and dislikes.
Do you think the term "authorial cooking" is valid, then?
Yeah, I do. Chefs imitate, they assimilate, and if they are lucky enough to have a kitchen, they begin to develop their own style. I think all the best restaurants have that in common. They have someone with a personal vision of what that restaurant should be. It's not decided by committee or a corporate office. So, yes, that does exist. It doesn't necessarily have to just be a chef, though. It can be an owner or someone from the front of house or anyone with a vision.
Going back to that question about providing a service: do you think there is a tension between doing what you want to do and doing what you think would please the most customers?
I don't think it's that black and white. If you have a menu — we have two at the restaurant — you can do a nice mix of each. That's the beauty of it. You can put out dishes that will make people comfortable and bring them pleasure, and then maybe try some things that are more challenging.
But you never feel like there's pressure against you doing your thing?
No, I don't.
Now to that quote in the recent GQ piece, that you're "quietly inventing a new kind of cooking." What does that mean to you?
I don't really think about it. I mean, we cook our food. We have a lot of long-term employees, a really special relationship with our farm, an amazing area, a clientele that appreciates all of it, and a collaborative effort in a kitchen that results in something unique.
I don't sit and think about that. Our success hasn't happened overnight. We've been around for ten years, and it's only started to pay off in the past year or two years. We've gone from no one knowing who we are to people almost being sick of hearing about us [laughs].
How difficult was it for that big first stretch?
It was tough. The economy was bad. We opened right after 9/11, and we also had the tech bubble. Silicon Valley is kind of my bread and butter. We then had the financial meltdown. You think of our parents and grandparents, and they usually had to deal with eight years or so of robust growth, and then a "correction" — not a "recession". But it's different now for several reasons, be it globalization or the way borders change, and you can't really set your watch to it and adjust consistently. We've only had one really "up" year: 2006. We're lean and mean because of that. We know how to do it when times are difficult.
Can you talk more about that?
You have to be savvy. There was a period of time when we couldn't get the best possible ingredients. It's hilarious when people say that we must save a ton of money using our own farm, but the amount of effort and money that goes into that — just on the restaurant's end — makes it three times as more challenging than if we just went to a market or produce company. There was a period of time when we couldn't afford that.
Would you say it used to be a worse restaurant?
I think the restaurant changed completely when we started using the farm. It transformed us.
Are you comfortable with things now or is it still precarious?
I'm never comfortable. I do definitely think that the hard work and dedication of the entire staff has started to pay off. We're feeling good about the future of Manresa, and there were times when we didn't feel that way.
Did you ever think of closing it?
There were moments when we thought that was maybe the best thing to do.
Do you think your case was exceptionally unlucky?
No, I don't think so. I think it's been tough for every restaurant these past ten years. People have learned to thrive. We didn't suffer more than anyone else.
But what about in terms of recognition?
What do you mean?
You're an extremely well-regarded chef, but there's always been this sleeper quality about the restaurant.
I think there was a cognoscenti early on. We were an early blog favorite when that was new territory. I think that in terms of national recognition, though, it's only been in the past eighteen months or so.
Did that ever bother you?
No. It's funny, I sometimes think that our local market was the last group to embrace us. We had a lot of people traveling early to the restaurant and seeing it as a destination place. And now, like I said, we're feeling good about things.
On Monday, in part two, Kinch talks about the future of Manresa, the next big thing (hint: it's Japan), and the need to strive for individuality and avoid being a copycat.
[Photo: Mark Holthusen]