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David Kinch on Noma Clones and Doing Your Own Thing

Photo: Mark Holthusen

In part two of our interview — see part one here — Manresa chef David Kinch discusses his love for Japan and how that country might soon impact dining in the U.S. more than it ever has, the natural but nauseating impulse to copycat, the problems with sous vide, and the need to be true to yourself and your ideas.

Where do you think Manresa is headed? You talk to a lot of people now, and it seems like Japan is your big thing.
It's constantly evolving and we're constantly trying to do new things. I just don't want to be a Noma clone. It's everywhere. You see it in the way people plate, and it's nauseating.

Like elBulli.
Yes, it was the same.

I don't cook Japanese food, but I have been trying to apply the great tenets of Japanese food to my cooking. I have a tremendous amount of respect for them.

What are they, in your view?
One: you can always improve the quality of the dish by using the best ingredients you can afford. You can get a sea bream for $9.95. Or, you can spend $14.99 or $23.99 per pound or $60 or $80. And that's for the same species of fish, so you get what you pay for. There are qualitative differences, and you can taste that.

Also, I think things should taste like what they are. I think the age of making a carrot taste like a tomato is over.

Did you ever dabble in that?
Not really. We've always tried things, though.

Why were you averse to it?
My aversion to it was that it didn't taste very good. Years ago we used to sous vide everything at the restaurant, and now, we hardly do it to anything. There are always exceptions: when it improves the dish. I think there's a reason why it was a technique created for hospitals and prisons.

We'll talk about sous vide after Japan.
So: quality ingredients, treated simply, and have them be and taste like what they are so that there is a synergy and the sum is greater than the parts.

A lot of it is about umami principles, which exists here, but we don't tend to explore enough. Parmesan cheese and tomato, for example. Why don't people make a chicken stock with a bit of sun-dried tomato at the bottom of the pot? It will still be a chicken stock, and it will be better. There's a leeching out of amino acids and glutamatic acids that just make it better. An understanding of this is a lot of what we do at the restaurant. We'll put kombu in stocks not to make ramen, but to add that depth.

The last thing is that we've paid lots and lots of attention to the serving vessels we use. Not by strictly using Japanese plates, but by applying a similar emphasis you see over there. The rule at the restaurant is that it can't be overtly Japanese, but it just has to be an integral part of the dish. It's about presenting it in its best possible way.

Is this for appearance mostly or to aid the process of eating the dish and guiding the diner?
Mostly the appearance, presentation. Bowls, especially with lids, are extremely important to capture aromas. And you don't really see that now.

But I think that will come back, since everything is so cyclical. Right now everything is about presenting a magical landscape, a quenelle of something, a dehydrated this or that, with swoosh of vegetable purée on it. Nothing has aroma, it's room temperature, it's sous vide.

And you think Japan is the next big thing?
I really think Japan and Asia in general will transform what's going on in dining.

Please elaborate on that.
We don't really know that much about it. Japan has always viewed outsiders from an arm's length. China has been a communist country but it has a vast culinary tradition. We haven't even begun to talk about Vietnam and places like that, where they can build so much complexity, even in dishes prepared at home. There is a reason Michelin went to Asia. Yeah, maybe to sell more guidebooks, but there are a lot of exceptional restaurants.

How do you think it will happen?
I think more and more chefs travel. I haven't found anyone who's gone there and hasn't been effected in some way. It's almost impossible to get a bad meal because there is so much competition. You hear a lot about the perfection of the old French chefs, and you see that in Japan. That's why I'm going back in March.

Will it be just another trend or do you think it will make a lasting impact?
I hope it will come in in a good way. I don't think a lot of people understand these tenets. But look at these counter restaurants opening up.

You were just at Brooklyn Fare.
I know where César [Ramirez] got his model from. He may have the greatest understanding of these tenets of anyone I know. Eating his food and listening to him talk last night made me realize that he is one of the few that gets it. Sure, people use Japanese ingredients and can do all the fusing, but it's not at that level. Every bite is alive. Nothing has more than three things on it. There is no fat, yet everything is singing. He can build the acids, build the flavors. He thinks like I try to.

So you'd say that what's going on in Japan is better than what's going on here?
[Smiles] It's really, really, really good. It's hard to describe it.

Let's return to the comment about sous vide.
I'll give you the rap. The minute I start seeing things that are on our menu that start to resemble too much of what someone else is doing, we move on. It's gone.

It's just got to be different. We don't want to be like everybody else. We want to be Manresa in Los Gatos.

But sous vide: fifteen or twenty years ago, let's call it the neoclassicism of Keller and those chefs. The world of fine dining in the 80s and 90s was different. It was about saltiness and richness and really expensive ingredients. Lots of soft, luxurious textures — scallops, racks of veal, filet mignon. That's what sous vide does. It gives you that luxurious texture.

It effects a sort of sameness in things like meats. Sure, there are some differences, but it really does affect the textural integrity of the product. The soft and blandness aren't really in now, since people like a bit of chew; people don't seem to mind that now.

If you cook a beef and venison tenderloin, there will be differences. If you have a specific product, you should strive to maintain its inherent qualities, its integrity. Yeah, in sous vide you can cook them at different temperatures and blah blah blah, but what you end up having is a product that's lost its integrity. It's also very consistent...

Yes, one of the cases for it is that it's reliable and there aren't many variables.
Nothing smells. There is no aroma.

If there are so many negatives to it, then why do you think it remains so popular still?
Because it's trendy. Famous chefs write books about it. Everything is a trickle down. It started with those guys years ago and now you can get a sous vide machine sent to your house.

What do you use it for?
Only certain things. I cook a lot of fruit and vegetables in sous vide, for instance. You can make a great vegetable purée.

When a culinary process or technique becomes mindless, there's a problem, is my point. But it's consistent, which is very important if you run a restaurant.

What are some other trends you could do without?
Foraging. People have been doing that for quite some time [laughs]. It's René's thing, though. What he does is absolutely amazing, but the way he does it, where he does it — it is his. Thank God there was only one Ferran!

So you aren't opposed to avant-garde cooking?
No, not at all. I just like people who do their own thing, who have their distinct styles. I don't want to be critical of trending, since it's just a fact of life. You either choose to participate or choose not to. In Manresa's case, we don't like to be colored.

How do you mean?
I'll give this as an example: you read about some technique or combination of flavors, and the easiest thing is to go and find out exactly how it's done. What I like to do is try it without researching it, so you go through the frustrations and do it your way and either understand the process or not make it happen and just use it as a reference point in the future. You're always making sure that you're putting your own spin on things.

Seems like the most important thing for you is doing your own thing.
Yeah, man. It's fun. It's about the process, not just the finished plate or how it looks. It's about how it comes together and what goes into it.

· All David Kinch Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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