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David Kinch on His New Manresa Cookbook and the Difficulty of Simple Recipes

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Photo: Eric Wolfinger

manresa-cover.jpgDavid Kinch's two Michelin-starred Manresa opened in Los Gatos, California twelve years ago; today, his first-ever cookbook is released from Ten Speed (check out Eater's preview of the book here, order on Amazon). Below, Kinch discusses the act of sharing the personal act of cooking through the cookbook, a collaboration with Bon Appetit's Christine Muhlke and photographer Eric Wolfinger. He talks about the artwork of printmaker Tom Killion — whose work hangs in the restaurant and appears in the book — the benefits of reading cookbooks instead of flipping through online restaurant photography, and the importance of not dumbing down recipes for home cooks. And for pete's sake everybody: weigh your ingredients.

In the introduction the the book, there's a quote that struck me: "To cook simply, to cook well, is really hard to do with a recipe." How do you navigate that when you write a cookbook?
I put that disclaimer in the beginning of the book for a reason. With the recipes we weren't trying to get people to replicate the dishes exactly. The important thing was the spirit and the intent on the recipe. If it didn't come out exactly like the pictures or how you envisioned, but it still tasted good, and you're still happy with it, then the differences are to be celebrated. Cooking being such a personal act, one cooks for themselves and they also cook for others, which is a really unselfish act. It's an act of sharing. So it's very, very personal. This is a long-winded way of saying, celebrate it being different, your results being different than what your expectations are. Especially if you're making something for the first time. That said, we had to offer a recipe that gave people a chance.

The things that were important to me when writing the recipes were metric system and weighing everything. For many years, cookbook publishers wanted imperial measurements, and they didn't want to use weight. They wanted to use volume measurements. But people who use professional cookbooks are looking for that insider tip. What do the professionals do that I can use in my home kitchen? And one cannot overemphasize that what we do in the kitchen — because it's more efficient, because it's cleaner, because it's better organized, because it's so much simpler and easier and consistent to do — is to weigh the ingredients. And if there's one single thing that anybody can take from the book, it's that weighing ingredients and the metric system are not that big of a deal. I think that if they take the plunge and actually spend $15 on a digital kitchen scale, they will find it's that much easier.

There's a vignette in the book in which I say that a cup of floor measures differently on a day that it's raining than on a day that it's dry, because the flour absorbs moisture. But if you weigh it out, 500 grams of flour is 500 grams of flour is 500 grams of flour. It doesn't matter whether it's wet or rainy or high barometric pressure. None of that matters. That level of consistency could be the single best thing. You make a cake, you measure out the eggs, you measure out the flour, you measure out the sugar, you measure out the butter. But you know, with a digital scale, you put the bowl on, hit tare, it goes to zero, you add the sugar, you hit the tare, goes to zero, you add the butter. Instead of getting four things dirty, you get one thing dirty. Everything is consistently measured out. It is so easy. That is the one big underlying important lesson.

[Photo: Paula Forbes /]

So as someone who clearly places a high value on precision, how were the recipes developed for the book? Did you have records at the restaurant you could refer back on?
I pretty much have a list of every dish we've done for the past twelve years. And a good solid base of recipes. When we first agreed to do this book in partnership with Ten Speed, the first thing I did was go back and make a list of dishes from the past twelve years that I thought would be of interest. But as we shot and as we developed it, we realized we really kind of gravitated towards the dishes we're most proud of, which were the dishes that were currently on the menu. And we ended up weeding out a lot of the past dishes.

That said, signature dishes or dishes that we've become known for over the twelve years are certainly well represented. You know, the garden dish, tidal pool, the egg, the story behind the egg. Those of course would have to be included. So I would say maybe ten percent of the recipes are recipes that are part of our repertoire from the beginning or sometimes a little later.

But in all fairness, since the book project was 15 months long and we shot over 15 months to make sure all seasons were really well represented, 85% of the book turned out to be a snapshot of those 15 months. It's funny, even looking at the book now and seeing what we did a year and a half ago, we've progressed. I feel that we've moved on from what we were doing 15 months ago.

Did you find that the process of working on the book changed how you approached cooking and developing dishes?
The process offered clarity. Cooking is a dynamic endeavor, it's constantly moving forward. You're human, you progress, you try to improve, you build on what you've done in the past. That became much more obvious and really clear in reviewing this project.

More so than other restaurant cookbooks of this kind, you seem really invested in encouraging and challenging the reader, whether a fellow professional or a home chef. What do you hope people get out of this cookbook, or achieve through it?
I love cooking, I love eating, I love drinking. I take great pleasure in it, in being in the industry. I still do. It's great to pass on information and spread the joy of cooking to other people. None of the recipes are dumbed down for the reader of the book. Everything is as we do it at the restaurant. That said, there are some really simple recipes in here. Even a lot of the more complicated recipes have components that can be used alone or as part of simpler preparations. Those recipes themselves are really simple.

So if people attempt recipes from the book, they're going to be attempting exactly what we do at the restaurant. And people should find the level in recipe that they feel comfortable in doing. If you're happy with the results, then wouldn't it be natural, wouldn't it be obvious to say to people, well, if you're feeling good about it, try something a little more ambitious. You'll increase your repertoire, you'll increase your skill, which in turn increases your understanding and appreciation and, of course, pleasure in what cooking has to offer.

[Photo: Paula Forbes /]

What was the process of working with your collaborators like — Christine Muhlke and the photographer Eric Wolfinger?
Christine and I have been friends for years, it was a very natural choice to work with her. I would write chapter outlines down, in a very broad sense of how I want the narrative to be. And then I would send this to Christine, and we'd talk a little bit, and she would work on a series of questions. In fact what she would do is she would interview me. We would get on the phone, and actually I went to New York a couple times, we spent a couple days together. And she would essentially just interview me. We would tape it, we would record it, and we would have it transcribed. And then that transcription would come to me, and I would do my best to add my voice to it, with her help because she has such an understanding of that. And then the final step was that she would clean it up, because I am no writer. She did what she would do. I think she did a remarkable job making it all sound like it's my voice, but she also cleaned it up and made it coherent. Which is something I could never do.

In terms of the production of the dishes, we did 15 photo shoots, we'd shoot ten to twelve dishes once a month for 15 months. We'd do it on a day that the restaurant was closed. And all the dishes were essentially shot in one location, in a corner of the restaurant with natural light. We never lit any of the plates. We would have our recipes together and Jessica Largey, my sous chef, and I would make the dishes. I hired someone to record the recipes while we made them. And they'd go out to Eric and then they'd be shot. It was really kind of efficient, in an eight to ten hour day, we'd shoot ten, twelve dishes. Which is a pretty fast pace.

But we were also getting the bones and the foundation of the recipes in place in real time. And then in between these monthly shoots we'd clean up the recipes and getting them in place. I thought it was a pretty efficient system. It involved people who are really, really competent and who I'm really grateful to in making this project happen. It allowed us to mature our measurement of ingredients, and the intent was in place in real time.

[Photo: Paula Forbes /]

There's a section in the book where you talk about influence, and while you won't go to the internet for inspiration, you do read cookbooks from time to time. How do you use books, and how did that influence you when you wrote this one?
To be clear, I don't completely avoid the internet. I just don't obsess about the internet. There are a lot of great restaurants out there. But if you look at yet another slideshow of a twenty-five course meal somewhere in Scandinavia, or Italy, or Japan, or somewhere else, it's detritus. It's in the way of how I process things. I'm trying to work on my own style, and while "pollute" is the wrong word, that's basically what's happening. It's stuff in the way that doesn't allow my own natural development to take place. It gets in the way.

Cookbooks are more methodical. It involves reading as opposed to image after image after image flashing in front of you. It allows you to be thoughtful. It allows you to contemplate. It allows you to think about what you want to incorporate into your own style or repertoire. Sometimes it's just fun to read, you know? It is a pleasure.

And of course there's travel, travel is being in a place and bombarded by all your senses. You're really immersed and really involved. How are you going to get more from a meal? From looking at an internet slideshow of five different meals from a restaurant, or actually sitting down and eating in it? In which everything makes sense: you're smelling things, the ambiance of the restaurant works its effect on the experience you're having. Everything comes into place. To me that's much more of a valuable experience than using the internet as a flash card.

Well, and also both reading a cookbook and experiencing a meal demand a certain amount of time and allow you to process what you're experiencing, whereas you can become numb to a barrage of photos.
Of course you can, of course you can. It's like people who have never been to Mexico but they know what every single dish at Pujol looks like for their entire season. That's not necessarily a good thing. The best thing you can do is go to Pujol to really get a grasp of what's going on.

So are there specific examples of cookbooks you enjoy?
I enjoy everybody's point of view. I buy all the cookbooks from all my contemporaries, all my colleagues who come out with books. I'm always fascinated by other people's opinions. I read pretty much anything I can about Japan, it's a longtime infatuation with me. Not necessarily Japanese food but the tenets behind Japanese cooking: simplicity, how they cook without fat and make everything taste so good, I find that incredibly fascinating. The plateware, the presentation is usually very simple. It's such an important part of their cuisine. I try to find as much information as I can about that, and of course try to travel there. I'm one of those types that can pick up a book about anything if I'm interested in it. I was a person with my nose in a book all my life.

[Photo: Paula Forbes /]

The book has pieces from artist Tom Killion. Tell me about you relationship with his art. How did that come about?
Well, I live in Santa Cruz, and his work appears a lot in and around Santa Cruz. In book shops, in postcards, on magazine covers, that sort of thing. I was always fascinated by it because he captured a real sense of spirit, a sense of place of California. Because of the fact that he used woodcuts as a medium, it has this real Japanese quality to it. It's almost a Pacific Rim quality to it. His work speaks about a real innate sense of place of California, which is very important to me because that's something we bear in mind with everything that we do at Manresa. So I felt a real pull to it.

When the opportunity came up to do the book, I actually cold called him out of the blue and said hey, your stuff is great. We have two original pieces of his in the restaurant, so when I first made contact with him I said I really like your stuff, do you want to do a trade or something with the restaurant? To get some of your pieces at the restaurant. He came in, we started a professional relationship, and I asked him if I could use his stuff for the book. And I explained to him why: our book is going to be our story and about who we are and where we are, and I think your work really shows that, this wonderful place of bounty where we live and work. And he was kind enough to agree. I'm incredibly grateful.

Honestly, I'm just really happy for all the people who helped me do the book. I think it looks great, and I hope people like it.

· Manresa: An Edible Reflection [Amazon]
· All David Kinch Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Cookbook Coverage on Eater [-E-]


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