In January, David Kinch's two-Michelin-starred California restaurant Manresa will make the switch for the first time to a single-menu format. As Kinch announced last month and Bloomberg News critic Ryan Sutton reported in more detail, Manresa is dropping its shorter $130 menu in favor of exclusively serving the full $185 tasting menu. In the following interview, Kinch elaborates on why this is "the natural next step" for Manresa and how he believes the new format will showcase the best the restaurant has to offer. Kinch also discusses how Manresa will still do its best to accommodate dietary restrictions and explains why he thinks the single-menu format is a direction that more high-end restaurants are headed.
So is switching to the single-menu format something you've been planning for awhile? Why do it now?
It's something that we had talked about. The menu has evolved ever since we started with a la carte. It has slowly become more concise over the years. We don't try to have a knee-jerk reaction about things. We think about if we want to do it. Usually we're the last person to do it. We had this prix fixe menu and a tasting menu now for about probably a little over three years, and the percentage of sales has always been somewhere around 50/50 or maybe 60/40 in terms of the tasting menu and the prix fixe. But we've noticed in the past 12 to 18 months that this has really shifted dramatically towards the tasting menu, almost like an 80/20 or 90/10 percentage switch.
Going to a single menu is something we've always considered, but for whatever reason — you know, we're not in a major area or anything — we were afraid to pull the trigger. But I think this is something that will be embraced and accepted, so we're going to take the plunge.
What are some of those factors that you think might have created that shift to more people ordering the full tasting?
I think we've become a little bit more of a destination. A lot more people are traveling to the restaurant from outside the area, which makes us feel good. What I notice is that people are expressing more confidence and a willingness to allow us to cook, which is what our tasting menu is. We don't list any dishes. We never have. So I would assume that this switch means that people are accepting the idea of putting themselves in our hands and allowing us to put out one specific menu.
The tasting menu is the best possible meal we can produce out of the Manresa kitchen.
And that's good, because that one particular menu is really the best of what we're trying to do on any given day with regard to seasonality, product availability. We're putting [out] dishes we're really happy with, dishes that we're working on and we're really proud of. That's what the tasting menu always has been. It's really the best possible meal that we can produce out of the Manresa kitchen in a particular moment. And if people are trusting enough to allow us to do that, then that certainly makes us feel good.
Have you also seen a rise in reservations in that same time period?
We've been quite busy for the past few years. We're consistently busy. I don't want to say I'm nervous, but every time we make a switch like this, we always want to see how it's accepted. I think this step is the natural next step of our evolution.
In your Google talk, you mentioned dietary restrictions and that sometimes accommodating them was essentially as though you were doing five menus a night. Why structure the menu like this?
We don't want to say no to anybody. And right now we don't. The worst thing that can happen is people come in and they tell us that they're vegan and we don't know in advance. I don't want to be the restaurant that says, "We really only want to do one menu, so vegetarians are not welcome." That's the wrong message. That's saying no. That's messing with the very foundation of what hospitality is. We're not a cheap restaurant, so if someone comes in and they're a vegetarian, I don't want to have to make things up on the spur of the moment.
I don't want to be the restaurant that says, "Vegetarians are not welcome."
So that's the point of that. We don't want to say no. That's one of the things that probably made taking this step a little longer. We just wanted to know how we were going to do with it.
David Kinch. [Photo: Eric Wolfinger]
How is that going to work?
Well, we're going to try to gather as much information about the customer as we possibly can in terms of, "Are there vegetarians in the party? Then let us know now." And perhaps ask a little bit more questions with the reservations when people dine. I mean, 10 or 15 percent of my clientele a night is vegetarian. It's not like it's out of the blue. We just want to plan for it. We want to be ready for people. If someone calls and makes a reservation on a Saturday 10 days from now, we know what we're going to give 'em the day before.
You also said you wouldn't say no to anyone who wanted fewer courses. Could you elaborate on that?
The tasting menu that we're going to be implementing is two and a half to three hours long, if everything goes according to plan. But sometimes people want to go to a show, go to the theater, go to a movie, that sort of thing.
I have a regular customer who eats at the restaurant once a week. Guy comes in, spends good money on wine, staff loves to deal with him, he's really appreciative, he does three courses. That's what he wants. He wants to do three courses. I mean, I don't do three courses even in my current format. But, you know, we're in the hospitality industry and he's a great customer. What am I going to do? Am I going to tell him no, he can't come to the restaurant anymore? No. Our goal is to make people happy.
And I know you said that you guys tend to be the last to things, but do you think this is where a lot of high-end dining in the US is moving right now?
It's tough for me to speak for other people. I've seen a lot more of it. I think it's getting a lot more play. I know in places like in Japan and certain places in Europe it's kind of the way things are. You go in and they cook for you. So it's kind of catching on here.
The concept behind it is great. You're going to a small restaurant, a fine dining place, and they're doing their thing. You're there to eat at that restaurant and that style of food. I think that is the direction a lot of places are going. I understand people wanting to have choice on a menu and being able to decide. But I think there are some restaurants who have decided that they're willing to take the plunge for this.
Manresa [Photo: Official Site]
There's definitely an audience for that, too.
Yes. I mean, if I said I'll buy you a plane ticket anywhere in the world to go eat, what restaurant would you pick?
Hmm, I think I would pick Osteria Francescana.
Okay, oh, that's so funny because you picked a restaurant that has actually a big menu. That's pretty funny. I was hoping you were going to say Noma or something like that. I know [Massimo Bottura] has a tasting menu. The one time I went there, we saw a menu, but it was kind of implied we were going to have the tasting menu at the restaurant. But they have a list of carte dishes and I wonder if that's for the locals. It's so funny, it's world-famous, but there are locals at the restaurant, too. That's interesting. You blew my trick completely out of the water.
How about Faviken?
That's a great example. I think they have only one menu. You go in and you don't even see anything I guess. I'd like to go there, too. I haven't been.
Yeah, that's a super designed-for-you experience.
Oh yeah. And I think the snow is a big part of the picture there, too. It's part of the whole mystifying nature of the place. The quiet and the stillness and the cold and the snow. It actually makes you want to go to a place that's really cold. It's pretty amazing.
I'm going to Japan for my birthday the first week of April, and I've been working on my itinerary and reservations. Every single restaurant, there's no menu, except for the really casual places. Every restaurant that I've been talking to. It's expected that I show up and that they feed me. It's just so natural. It's not like I'm going to go there and say, "So you have decided that this dish is the best that you can make and you're going to give it to me tonight? I don't want that. I want something else. This is what I want."
Let the masters do their thing.
Yeah. Back to Manresa, I wanted to do this four or five years ago and my old GM — my old business partner who actually passed away unexpectedly a couple years ago — was the voice of reason. "You know, it's a great idea, but we're not ready for it."
I think everything has led up to this moment.
I think now we're ready for it. I think everything has led up to this moment. Back then, when everybody was ordering 50/50 off the prix fixe and the tasting menu, it would have been a provocative move because there were a lot of people who ordered the prix fixe. But, for me, I think the tipping point was the past 12 to 18 months where we've had this noticeable and dramatic shift to the tasting menu.
And finally, I read your interview earlier this year with Ryan Sutton when you raised the prices of your menus. I was curious, too, whether food costs had anything to do with this?
Not really. I don't raise my prices on a schedule. I don't really care about what other people charge in restaurants. It's not a race to be the most expensive or anything like that. For me, I have margins and food costs that I monitor and every couple of years things start to tighten up. That's usually inflation and costs of ingredients and costs of wages, the usual things that happen when you run a business. Then we raise our prices.
Even though Manresa is a fine dining restaurant and considered very expensive, it's important that we are always perceived as a value. And even though people are spending good money for the experience, [it's important] that when they leave they think, you know, that was expensive, but it was also worth it. Because, to me, that is the first thought that crosses through people's minds when they decide if they want to come back. And that's the goal is to have people come back.