Kinch is at the center of the second half of season four of the PBS documentary series Mind of a Chef (episodes begin airing in early November), which explores his influences and philosophies, and his comeback after the fire that devastated his restaurant in 2014. Here, on episode thirteen of the Eater Upsell, hosted by Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner, he talks about the craft of cooking, the frustration of phony food allergies, and the pros and cons of living in a golden age of restaurants.
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Here's the transcript of our conversation in The Eater Upsell Episode 13: David Kinch, edited to the main interview. To hear Helen and Greg talk about table-service conspiracy theories, catch the recording above.
Helen: So David is the star, the central figure of the second half of the fourth season of Mind of a Chef, the really genre-busting PBS food TV show, which is kind of unlike other aspects of food TV that are out there in the world because it's very autobiographical, I think. It’s less — it's not a competition show. It's not a, you know, reality show. It really is an interesting kind of social-psychological take on the psychology of being a chef. So have you been watching the show since the beginning?
David: I have not. You know, I’m not a big TV person. I don't have a lot of time to — if I watch TV, it's usually not food TV.
Helen: What do you watch?
David: But I got caught up on some episodes, you know, to learn more about the show, and we signed on to it. So I found it fascinating. It's not the usual food porn, you know. There was a lot of — it was confirmed during the production of the show. There’s a, just real tremendous attention to detail, especially in the demos. The way they filmed the demos, the things were done over and over again until it's correct. And takes a while to get into the groove. They do a lot of demos, which is, I think, what sets it apart from other shows, too. It's not just food-porn-y. You know, there's just a lot of information that you do a lot of demos, so there's a lot of information to pass on to people who are actually interested in cooking as opposed to just the personality aspect to the show.
Helen: You know, that's one of the things that I found really interesting about it as a series. I'm also kind of new to it. You know, I’ve been aware of it since it came out, but it's only in the last couple months I've been really sort of binge-watching all of it, and it's so fascinating how it clearly is kind of speaking to its viewers from an entry point of the food itself, and then gets you into, I guess, I mean, duh, this is the name of the show, the mind of the chef. Like, after watching several episodes of someone kind of presenting themselves through the act of chopping, or rolling pastry, or whatever it might be, you really do become aware of the strange and beautiful balance of art and craft and emotion that drives sort of the highest-level culinary experience.
"Maybe you had some bad mushrooms and you got sick, and you're never going to eat mushrooms again. That's not a restriction. That's a dislike."
David: Anybody who's involved in, you know, artisan, or some sort of craft, and very — and passionate about it, it's a reflection of who they are in a certain sense, so it's really easy to take it over, to, you know, take it from that really superficial personality profile to a little bit more in-depth. And I think they do a pretty good job with it.
Helen: So do you think of cooking as an art?
David: Um, I think it's a craft first. I think it's something that you learn. You know, if you're good at it, if you get good at it, you know, you work for mentors, your apprenticeship, you work for people who you learn a lot of different things about, and you spend a lot of time in very mundane, rote tasks about getting things done and getting things done correctly, and then from there, putting your own personal stamp onto things can be an artistic element to it.
Greg: Are you pleased with, you know, how the food looks in Mind of a Chef?
David: I was pleased with doing the production of it. I was, you know, I was happy with how things came out. I haven't seen a lot of the finished product. It's mostly by design, you know. I'm going to see it in real time like everybody else.
Helen: They didn't send you screeners?
David: I saw a little bit of it, and, you know, it's nice, but I didn't dive into it to, like, pick it apart, or anything like that.
Helen: One of the episodes that actually really struck me of your season, which, I guess — or your half-season, which maybe you haven't seen yet, it is one that’s, that sort of takes as its entry point the idea of a fine-dining restaurant, that you're at Manresa, which is, I think, one of the finest of the fine-dining restaurants in the world. The way you deal with allergies and customer, sort of requests and restrictions. And the episode takes a very generous and artful approach to it, I think, like, you —
David: Oh, thank God, because we talked very frankly, you know, about a lot of things during the filming of that. It's hard to talk about issues like that and not be perceived as being, you know, anti-customer, which we're anything but. You know, it’s — our job is to please people. There's restaurants that we talk about in the episodes. There's restaurants who say, "If you have allergies, if you have restrictions, then you can't come into our restaurant. This is how we do it," and we don't try to be like that. We try to do everything within reason, and what's reasonable, to give people what they want, and to make them happy. The key word being reasonable, you know, and there are people who are simply not reasonable about it, and don't understand what restrictions or allergies mean, and, um —
"My world is fine-dining. I'm in the restaurant business because I like to cook for a small amount of people, in a very uncompromising way."
Helen: People like diners, or people like chefs?
David: Well, diners. I mean, you know, I’d say 40 percent of the people coming to the restaurant have some sort of restriction, and it really truly is an American phenomenon. You know, chefs from outside the United States, we talked about it. It's never an issue. Is it only Americans who are, you know, who are allergic to chocolate and onions? You know, and it’s — we try to do the best we can. If someone, if it threatens someone’s, you know, if someone's allergic or someone is on a special diet because of medication, or an illness, or an ongoing illness, that sort of thing, we completely understand, but people who come in — I think it's a lose-lose situation when they, you know, "I don't like peppers, and I don't like mushrooms, so I don't want them." And we do what we can, but we feel like we're being cut off at the knees. I mean, we spend our entire life, and we spend our entire day, trying to create, to craft an experience that really is the best representation of the restaurant, and you're limiting your ability and enjoyment, and who knows? You know, maybe you had a bad experience with mushrooms. Maybe you had some bad mushrooms and you got sick, and therefore, you're never going to eat mushrooms again, you promised yourself that. But we take great pride in — you know, this is a poor example — we take great pride in how we source and how we prepare. And, you know, maybe we can open your eyes, maybe we can bring you back around. That sort of thing. That's not a restriction. That is a dislike. And the other point we tried to make, was that we will do everything we can to craft the meal as you want it because of your restrictions or allergies, but let us know in advance. It's really difficult when someone comes in and says, "By the way, I'm vegan, and I don't like eggplant," when they sit down at the restaurant. We have full-time staff who spends time on the phone with people, almost like a concierge. They try to gather all the information 48 hours in advance. So even with these restrictions in place, we have enough time to craft an experience that you will be pleased with, and we can still do it to the best of our ability. The only thing we ask is that you let us know a little bit in advance, a little bit in time. You know, it’s part of a deal.
Greg: So this sounds like a, sort of a change in dining habits that's maybe, like, the last decade or something, would you say?
David: Yeah, I think yes. Very much so. I think, you know, it’s difficult to pinpoint. It's really exploded in the past ten years. Literally, you know, it's not out of the realm of possibility to have 80 percent of the dining room with dietary restrictions, and it's like I said, you talk to people, you know, Asia, Scandinavia, Spain, France, England. You know, it doesn't exist. People eat food. They're not afraid of food.
Helen: It does feel very particularly American, I think. And there's also — I don't want to point fingers and I won't say any names — but I know some people socially who I think have admitted to me that they make a point when they go somewhere very fancy or high-end of calling ahead and letting the kitchen know that they have, you know, X, Y, and Z limitations, not because they actually have the limitations but because they like the way it feels to sort of exert a degree of power over the kitchen.
David: Yeah. That's exactly what I'm talking about, and thank you for saying that. There are people who want to have control of the situation, and to me, it's like, why do you want to do that? I have 35 people on staff to feed 50 people a night, and our goal, our team goal, our vision is to create the best possible, most satisfactory and pleasant experience that you can have when you're at the restaurant for two and a half, three hours. We work really hard at it. We dedicate our lives to it. Why are you messing with that?
Helen: Yeah, and especially when you're paying that much money — the sort of theatrical, immersive, comprehensive experience of dining at the high end over a multi-hour meal with dozens of courses is not — it's an act of surrender. It's an act of pleasurable surrender to the kitchen, and I feel like introducing your own control —
David: That's all we ask. That's all we ask. I mean, nothing gives us better satisfaction than — let us drive. And people say, "You know what? That was really amazing. You know, I would never order sea urchin off a menu, but you gave me sea urchin" — as an example, poor example, again — "and that was amazing. You know, it was a really memorable experience. It’s great memories." That's what we strive for all the time, and if people say, you know, "I don't eat orange food" — and I'm not making a joke — "I don't eat anything that's white," you know, "I only eat green food." It's almost like it's a game. It's like a parlor game. Sometimes it can be really maddening.
Greg: So you've worked in professional kitchens for, like, 35 years now, something like that?
Greg: I was just looking at your CV a little bit. Very cool. I was happily surprised to see that you worked at the Quilted Giraffe in New York City.
Helen: I knew you were gonna pick up on that. Greg is, I think, he loves the classics of New York City.
Greg: Yeah, these places that are gone and that we only read about, and maybe dig up the old reviews. So what was that like?
David: It’s funny, you know, there's been kind of a raised awareness about that restaurant. And there's been a couple of different articles written about it recently, and I think there's an idea of a book being floated about in that period of time.
Greg: So for those that don't know, it was this splashy, fun ’80s restaurant in New York City.
David: Mm-hmm. It was in New York, the high end in New York, in the ’70s and going into the ’80s was very French-dominated. It was very hierarchical. There was French chefs, and if you wanted to go out and have a great meal, you know, for that birthday or anniversary, dress up, there's dozens of options in town. It was very, very competitive, and they were all French, and they were all, you know, classically trained chefs. You know, the restaurants were different. La Caravelle, La Grenouille, La Cote Basque. They were all different. The Quilted was the first — you know, it was an American restaurant. It was an American luxury restaurant that wanted to be on the same stage as these restaurants, and I guess you could argue that the Four Seasons at that time was like that because, you know, it was really the quintessential American restaurant at the time. But the Quilted was very different. It was very contemporary. It looked France. For ideas like these other French restaurants, but it was much more in a contemporary basis. It was really kind of cutting-edge in its inspiration from France. Pierre Gagnaire was just getting a start in the early ’80s, and Barry had a connection with him, and actually, Pierre Gagnaire came over and did a guest-chef appearance in 1984 before he got his third star, when he's still on Saint-Étienne. That's kind of where they reached for, but it was low in fat, it was very colorful, it was very vegetable- and fruit-centric.
"What's important, what's not important — there's a lot of junk out there. There's a lot of noise in our industry. It's easy to get caught up in what other people are doing."
David: Yeah, Barry grew a lot of — he had a small little farm up in New Paltz, and it was the most expensive restaurant in New York at that time. It was the most expensive restaurant in the country, very unabashedly, and very proud of that. And I was there for almost five years. It was a great experience, and one thing I remember about it was it was open for dinner only Monday through Friday. We were closed on Saturdays and Sundays.
Greg: Whoa. That would be almost an untenable scenario in New York as a restaurant right now.
David: Well, you know, it was interesting how they approached that. It was, they were going to be open five days a week, and they crunched numbers, and people spend more money Monday through Friday. It tends to be tourists and people from out of town. On the weekends, the check average was down. They had kids. They had a place in the country, you know. They drove away for the weekend, and they had a work week Monday through Friday.
Helen: That's so civilized.
David: You know, if you're booked three months in advance and you're always gonna be full, doesn't that mean you can pick the days you want to be open? They just chose to close on the weekend.
Greg: So they could have the weekend.
Helen: How do you decide when Manresa is closed?
David: Manresa, we're closed two days a week. We're open on Sundays. That's by design. We get a lot of industry. Sunday's a very nice, it's a very civilized and sophisticated crowd on Sunday nights. People trying to avoid the weekends as well.
Greg: So over the course of your career, we're talking a little bit, you know, with the allergies, about how diners' tastes change. Do you think that, you know, over your career, diners have have become overall more accepting of this notion of fine dining?
David: Absolutely, absolutely. We're in a golden age of dining right now. I mean, there's pros and cons to that. It's the same with wine. I mean, you know, the best wine ever made in the history of wine-making is happening now. You know, high-end France, you know, Burgundy. Burgundy is making the greatest wines they've ever made right now. They're in this 35-year period of great vintages, and technologies, and know-how, and it's like a tree falling in the forest. There has to be customers out there to enjoy food. You know, if nobody goes to a restaurant, the restaurant is going to close. People are eating out like crazy. It's gone away from being — it's theater. It's entertainment. People go out. That's why there's so many casual places, and loud places. They're social experiments. People know more, are savvy. Not just with information out there, people know much more about the food that they put in their bodies and how food's prepared. You know, cultural exchanges. For lack of better term, ethnic food. You know, just food of different cultures. People are much more aware of it, they're ready to try newer things. Beverage programs, wines from all over the world, people aren't afraid to put them on lists now, you know, because people are more willing to try things. You know, my world's fine-dining. I'm in the restaurant business because I like to cook for a small amount of people, and cook in a very uncompromising way. And a lot of people talk about fine dining being dead — I disagree with that. I think we're entering a golden age. What has happened is there's been a democratization of what constitutes as fine dining. There’s not — people say, "Well, fine dining's dead. It's formal, you know, people in tuxedos, and chandeliers, and stuff like that." I mean, name a restaurant that's like that, you know. Restaurants like that don't exist. Fine dining has morphed into, for lack of better term, a casualness, but it's contemporary, signs of our times. Fine-dining restaurants tend to be the incubators. It's where ideas happen. I start at the top, and there's a trickle-down effect.
Greg: So how do you, as a chef, how do you keep it fresh at Manresa? Do you go out and eat at a lot of other fine-dining restaurants? Do you just kind of listen to your internal thing?
David: Well, you know, we’re driven a lot by product in California. It's tired, and it's cliché, but it's absolutely true. I mean, what inspires us is seasonality and change. Then we apply our ideas. We try to be contemporary. We take notes throughout the course of the year of ideas we have. My kitchen team is very collaborative. We're very, very open in our exchange of ideas and how we feel about what we do. We're not afraid to tweak and change things on a daily basis. I do a lot of reading. I'm inspired by, more than anything else, by travel and visiting markets. I eat out, and fine dining — I tend to do it. I don't tend to do it locally in San Francisco, or anything like that. You know, I’m kind of locked in my own little world. I'm outside of San Francisco. I'm an hour south, and I live in Santa Cruz, which is even further away. It's our own little biosphere. So when I'm traveling, if I'm overseas of something like that, then I really make efforts to visit chefs that are doing interesting things.
Greg: Do you eat in your restaurant?
David: I sit down in the restaurant and eat very rarely. I've done it, counting on one hand in thirteen years.
Helen: How do you decide, or how do you figure out where you're going to go when you're traveling? Like, which restaurants, which markets?
David: My travel is always work-related. I'm doing an event, a charity event. That's a big part of what we do, is help other chefs out, but it's also an opportunity. You know, you'll go and you'll do work events, and then you have a day or two off. So these are just like short spurts. It's not like two weeks at one place. It's usually four days. One day to travel, one day to prep, one day to do the event, and then a day that's free, that you can either pass out in your hotel room because you're exhausted and jet-lagged, or, you know, you can do something that's worthy and bring back.
Helen: I find that one-day thing often to be kind of oppressive. Like, I, you know, also travel for work pretty frequently, and find myself with that one day, and there are usually, I don’t know, a dozen or more restaurants that I'll want to go to or markets that I’ll want to check out, and the idea of trying to either prioritize them in a way that feels just impossible, or to cram them all into one brutal powerhouse day of eating. I mean, neither —
David: Yeah, it then becomes more like notches in a belt. And that's not very pleasurable for me. I mean, to me, especially fine dining. It's supposed to be this really kind of pleasurable experience. Do three in three days. You know, it kind of defeats the whole purpose of what you're doing. It kind of waters it down, in a way. And so I kind of try to pick my spots before I — the days are gone where I just power-eat. Physically, it's tough to do, and to me, it kind of downgrades the experience that you're trying to —
"The restaurant’s not the tables and chairs, it's the people who work there."
Greg: How much does that sort of physical aspect of how the food makes you feel, or what — you know, this is something I'm always interested in, with the tasting-menu scenario, is, like, different tasting menus. You feel differently after eating them —
Helen: They're like the ones where you need to, like, be wheeled onto a cart at the end and you hate yourself, and then there are the ones where you feel like you could go for a Big Mac, and then there —
David: Well, actually, you know, a responsible chef — it's interesting. We talk about that in the show as well. We talk about this concept of 25 bites. And it's a really bad joke, but it's appropriate, is that, you know, you buy a pizza and someone says, "You know, I can slice it into six pieces or ten pieces," and the guy says, "Mm, slice it into six. Ten’s too many. I'm not that hungry." And a tasting menu should — if you go in and have an appetizer, main course, and dessert, or a tasting menu, it should really be the same amount of food. A tasting menu should be — what you're paying for is, you know, a diversity of tastes, and maybe techniques, and how things are presented, and ideas, and that sort of thing. That's really what you're paying for. You know, the difference between three courses and twelve courses is not four times more food. It should be the same, essentially, the same amount of food, but, you know, the portions should be modified to where when you're finished, you're sated. You feel great. You don't want to kill yourself because, you know, you're so full, or the, "I’m never going to eat again." You should be able to kind of hop, skip out of a place.
Greg: That's amazing. I wish more people would kind of think about that.
David: Well, if you offer a tasting menu, you know, the responsibility of chefs should be that it's a responsible amount of food as well.
Helen: Well I wish that that idea of thinking of the bite as the fundamental unit of measurement would also be expanded to casual dining. I know a thing I've complained about to Greg numerous times over the years that we've known each other is that one of my most frustrating things when I go out with a friend to a casual place is, if we both order an appetizer, and one of us gets, say, like, a crudo, and one of us gets a salad, the crudo will be like four bites, and the salad will be ten bites, and the pacing of our course is completely off. And it drives me crazy.
David: Yeah. It's a trend, too, along with noise, which is, I'm waiting for someone to start putting down noise levels in restaurants, and you're starting to see it. There’s, you know, in the West Coast, a couple of the critics in northern California and southern California are starting to push back on noise levels in restaurants. That threshold of pain, you know, that F-16 at takeoff, dull words. Like, look at where we're sitting right now. We couldn't have a conversation in most restaurants you go to nowadays. That's right, we'd be leaning towards each other, and cupping our hands at peak hours. That's the new normal, and that's a real shame.
Helen: Who was it, John Mariani, I think, he used to travel with a decibel meter when he would check out restaurants for Esquire, like, when he was working for them several years ago. And he would just put this decibel meter on the table in any restaurant he'd go to, and if it was over a certain limit, beware.
David: Yeah, there's a lot of critics who do that. It's interesting. You know, our large critic, our big critic in the Bay Area for the Chronicle. He has a noise rating, you know, as part of his reviews.
Helen: So it's like not just three stars, but it's also, like, five —
David: I think he does it with bells because of noise in those levels.
Helen: Right ,that makes a lot of sense. There was an article in the New York Times about how New York restaurants are starting to at least be aware of the fact that sound is part of the experience, and I think that speaks to, you know, what you were saying about a golden age of dining, I think that speaks to a certain movement that's happening culturally where, for a very long time, it's been entirely about the chef and entirely about the food, and this recent resurgence of sort of the value of the guest experience outside of your mouth seems to be sort of speaking to that.
David: Comfortable chairs and a sound level where you can have a normal conversation. It's funny. It goes back, you know, to the fine-dining-is-dead thing. Everybody talks about the casualization of fine dining, but what happens when all these people in their 20s and 30s, you know, they're out, they're being social. They're at these loud, noisy places that do small plates, and things come in a haphazard fashion. What happens when, you know, they become more economically mobile? They settle down. They have kids. They move out of the city, and then they have birthdays and anniversaries. Do you think they want to go to a place with a wooden bench, and where they can't hear each other, you know, for their special night out? No. They go to — they want to go, and they're willing to pay for, a comfortable chair where they can sit down for two and a half, three hours, where they can have a decent conversation and a normal conversation. And you got to pay for that. It's real estate. You know, you have to have trained professionals who, you know, spend their life working to be able to pace and understand, and when to lead people on, and when not to lead — you know, as opposed to, you know, people doing it as a second career, orwhatever it is. And there will always be a market for it, and, in fact, that's why I'm a big believer in that whatever the new contemporary model of fine dining's going to be, the future is bright as ever because you have this whole generation of people who are much more savvy about food and wine, but what happens when they get a little bit older and they mature? And they're looking for that experience. You have this whole giant flood of people who are going there, and it's a big part of what we do at Manresa, you know. To me, that is what our demographic ten years from now is going to be. So everything we do is — you know, we don't have waiters in tuxedos. We don't have chandeliers. We don't have long, tapered candles. And you know, that's almost like a cliché, "Fine dining is dead." That's been dead for 25 years, anyway, you know. Show me where a restaurant like that exists that is, you know, really on the forefront of what's considered fine dining nowadays.
Greg: But Manresa — although I've not dined at your restaurant, I've definitely, you know, looked at it.
David: That's a big mistake, big mistake.
Greg: It's on my list! But I mean, it is a different environment is what it looks like to me. It's a fine-dining environment.
David: It's a fine-dining environment, but, you know, we're also not doing 250 covers a night. We're doing 50 people a night. It's like, you know, who are people that spend $5,000 on a dress? You know, there's not a lot of people, but there are some, so there's a reason why not a lot are made. That's why they're hand-stitched. You know, there's someone who's devoted their life and their passion to making, to designing and making and stitching those perfect stitches on something that's never going to fall apart that they’re — and it might be a lot of money. People say, "$5,000 for a dress? Are you out of your mind?" Well, you know, there's people who understand the value in it, and it gives them great pleasure, and they understand what it's about, and that's what that dress is for. That is the person that this dress is for, and there's not going to be a thousand of them. There might be twenty of them, but you know what? There's twenty people in the world who understand and appreciate the value, the perceived value, and that’s, you know, what we do. I mean, Manresa is an expensive restaurant, but we work very hard on that perceived value. When people come to the restaurant, we want them to leave and say, "That was really great, and it was expensive, but we can't wait to go back, you know, for the appropriate occasion."
Helen: I think the analogy that has arisen in the last couple of years towards these kinds of fine-dining, long-experience, immersive meals has been theater, and I think it's not just because of the idea of this multi-sensory, immersive experience, but it's also because theater tickets are outrageously expensive. Or maybe I shouldn't say outrageously expensive, maybe the point is — theater tickets, easily, I mean, especially here in New York. We're sitting a block and a half away from Times Square, where if you want to sit in, like, the crappiest seat at the back of the top balcony for one of these hot shows that's been running for twenty years, you're still going to pay $250 a person, and that's if you buy it at the box office. Most people are going wind up paying it through StubHub or a third-party seller, and they're going to pay even more. So, you know, if you're going to basically spend hundreds of dollars per person for what is essentially watching a movie from really far away that just happens to be played out by real people, it makes all the sense in the world that you would pay a couple hundred dollars for an extraordinarily meticulous, detailed — I mean, to use your example, basically a couture dining experience.
"Manresa is an expensive restaurant, but we work very hard on perceived value. When people come to the restaurant, we want them to leave and say, 'That was really great, and it was expensive, but we can't wait to go back.'"
David: Very much so, and it's like when you're paying a lot more for something, for something that — where the value is much higher, the flip side is expectations are higher, either, so you have to deliver. It's like the dress. It's the same thing. Is that dress going to, you know, meet your expectations on what you're paying for? You know, the craftsmanship, and the design, and how it looks on you, or whatever, so.
Helen: Do you find that there's a breakdown in the dining room at Manresa between the people for whom spending, say, $500 per person after wine and everything on dinner is not a financial blip, and the people who sort of saved up and made this a special occasion?
David: You know, that's tough to tell. In this day and age, you know, especially in Silicon Valley, which is, you know —
Helen: Everyone's wearing a hoodie.
David: Yeah. People aren't wearing socks, you know, and they're worth $400 million. It's pretty funny.
Helen: Yeah. I think, when I was very young, when I first moved to New York, I saved up for months and months. I was an editorial assistant at a book publisher, which, like, you make zero dollars.
Greg: You were in it for the money, right?
Helen: Oh, yeah, totally. I was raking it in, and I saved up for almost six or seven months to have a meal at Le Bernardin, and it was‚ you know, I walked in the door and I felt completely out of my element. Like, I felt — I mean, they were wonderful to me, but I felt so like everyone else in the room belonged and I didn't, and it was only with, I think, the sort of confidence and clarity of hindsight that I realized that probably a quarter of the people in the room also felt just as terrified as I did.
David: Mm-hmm. But you had a great time?
Helen: I did.
David: Yeah. That's a great restaurant.
Helen: Yeah, it is. It's a very special place
Greg: So the Manresa book is, I know, a huge influence to chefs and diners, too, I mean —
Helen: It's a gorgeous book.
David: Thank you.
Helen: I mean, beautifully written, beautifully photographed. It's so emotional and intellectual, and —
Greg: It was a huge release, and a huge deal, I think, to, you know, people that are very interested in the cutting edge, and what's going on, and your work. I'm just kind of curious, I mean, obviously that was a long time in the making, how does it feel to just have that book on the shelf now?
David: It feels great. You know, it’s — you know, we had a lot of people work on it, a lot of very talented people, and it was a great collaboration, and it was a great experience. And I'm very lucky that the book did quite well, and a lot of great feedback from people. A lot of nice notes from chefs and amateurs alike, you know, who were inspired by it. So that feels good. The funny thing is, is, you know, we talk about this on the show, is the difference between passive and dynamic, and looking at it. You know, what that is is a snapshot of the food that we made two years ago. We're cooking very differently now. There's not a lot of things in there that we make or think about anymore. It's really fascinating to do that.
Helen: I think that is one of the, I guess, both upsides and downsides of a cookbook, is it's a great chronicle of a moment, but then, as soon as the words and the pictures hit the page, it’s, you know, it’s trapped in amber, and it doesn't evolve the way that real life evolves.
David: Yeah, I remember when elBulli was a restaurant. When it was open, you know, he did — near the end, he was doing, you know, a book every other year. And it was to capture that time frame and snapshot of the revolution. And it was like, that's really ambitious, but now, I look back at my own book. We're like, "Ha, we used to do it that way," or, "we used to —" and we actually did that, and that all makes sense now.
Greg: I think it's a trend in some New York restaurants, sometimes casual, sometimes a little bit, you know, nicer, that they have, like, actually the cookbooks in the kitchen, in the shelf, if you can see them?
Helen: Oh yeah, like, the collections of everyone else’s cookbooks that they —
Greg: The collections that they almost like —
Helen:: Yeah, definitely.
"It's tired, and it's cliché, but it's absolutely true: what inspires us is seasonality and change."
Greg: It’s kind of this weird thing that like, obviously, maybe they're wearing their influence on their sleeves, but also saying, you know, "This is who we respect." And Manresa the cookbook is definitely one of those books.
Helen: Every restaurant will have a copy of this on the shelf.
Greg: But also, like, people learn something. That's why they got it. They wanted to get inside and figure out what you're —
David: That book was, you know, I don't want to say it was easy to write, but it was very comfortable to write it because — it's funny. Aaron Wehner, who’s the publisher, the editor, at Ten Speed. I've known him socially for a long time, and always bugged him about, "I want to do a book. I want to do a book," and he's like, "Um, okay, we'll put together a proposal." He's blowing me off, and I realized — there's a period about three years ago, where he said, "You know, you should do a book," and I realized Aaron was waiting for me to be ready to do a book. You know, nowadays, chefs, and the power of media and everything, a chef opens up a restaurant and becomes hot, becomes trendy. And part of the trajectory is a year and a half in, he does a book. Whether he's ready or not, he or she is ready or not, and a TV show, or whatever is, you know. Whatever trajectories are nowadays. For me, writing that book, it happened at the right time. We were ready to tell our story. We were ready to — who we are and where we are, which is all important details. We — it wasn't just a collection of recipes. It was actually a story. There was a narrative.
Helen: What does it mean to be ready? Like, is it just a question of time? Or —
David: I think it's more a level of maturity. You know, it's easy for me to talk about maturity now because I'm an old guy. You know, I’m not a young cook anymore. So, you know, there's always levels of development, and you never stop learning, obviously. You know, I learn something every day. In this day and age, you know, cooks that come into the Manresa kitchen, they've all staged around the world, they've worked in different restaurants, and they worked in places that I only could've dreamed about working at when I was a young cook. So they're filled with a lot of ideas, and they have a lot of experiences that I could only have dreamed about in a firsthand basis. So I'd be foolish to think that I know everything, and imparted everything to everybody.
Greg: As the chef, the boss of the kitchen, do you have any sort of, like, time requirements that could be like — if you're going to work for me, you're going to work for a year or six months.
David: Yeah — anybody who works anywhere for less than a year is usually a waste of time. I hate training people. You know, it drives me nuts to sit and, like, be self-consciously imparting. It’s nice when people are in the groove. Doesn't mean I don't do it, but to train someone, you know, our kitchen culture is very idiosyncratic. We have a lot of systems that I think are unique, and different, you know, and just part of who we are and what we do, just like any other kitchen. And it takes some three months just to walk around, know where a spatula is, or a chinois, or to be able to set up and just be comfortable to where they can really produce — so training and being comfortable, that's six months right there, so if someone leaves after six months or a year, you know, it really is just a complete waste, not only of my time but of theirs. I'm a big believer in training people, finding people who care. That's really a big thing. I'm not experienced in long résumés, and you, know, worked here, and worked there, whatever. That's all great, and that's all fine and dandy, but important thing for me, people are really, really passionate, want to be at Manresa. I can show them what I want them to do, and hopefully we treat people with enough respect, and we take care of people enough that they tend to be around. We have fairly low turnover. We have — I have had people who work for me since the day we opened the door thirteen years ago. I couldn't ask for much more, and to me, that makes my job easier because the longer they stay around, the more comfortable they are, the more that they exert their own influence on the kitchen, and I don't have to train someone new, which is great.
David: Yes. We were open January 2. We did service New Year's Eve, and we opened January 2.
Helen: And you know, in reading interviews with you from during the period when the restaurant was closed and rebuilding, there was an incredibly palpable sense of something that, I think, in other conversations with chefs, and interviews, and TV shows, and everything like that, I feel like there's a hint of, but it was so evident that you felt this sort of human loss of the restaurant as a space. There was a feeling of, like, you missed it, you wanted to get back there. And it felt almost like a person that you missed in your life, which I found to be interesting and powerful. Maybe I'm bringing too much literary criticism to this.
David: The restaurant’s not the tables and chairs. It's the people who work there. You know, it’s the experience that we work hard to create as a team. The fire, what burned was, you know, obviously the building burned, but there was a lot of other things that burned as well. Thankfully, though, it's behind us, and majority of the people came back, which was really great, made me feel great. We lost very few people, and it wasn't because they didn't want to work there anymore, it was just the nature of someone's place of work disappearing for half a year, you know, so.
Greg: Have you been able to recoup your losses from that?
David: We're getting there. I mean, you know, the fire had a big effect on me in a lot of ways, and it did a lot of damage in a lot of ways as well. And you know, I’m almost back, and the restaurant's almost back. In terms of loss, you know, there's always financial loss. You can work with an insurance company and they can make sure that your doors are opened back up, and stuff like that, but you know, if you want to talk about money, you talk about six months of lost revenue and six months of, you know, a family that you created, a team that's working together that has no source of income as well. There's a lot of factors. And but I like to think that's the past. It is. It's a new restaurant. It's a different restaurant. I think the restaurant's better than it's ever been right now, and I think the fire was a big impetus in that. You learn that something you worked hard at your whole life can disappear really quickly, and you learn perspective on things that are important. What's important, what's not important, there's a lot of junk out there. There's a lot of, you know, noise in our industry. It's easy to get caught up in what other people are doing. It's giant media-zation of the industry as well. You know, it's all fine and dandy, and it's great to have exchange of information, to know what people are doing, but you get perspective on what's important. That's what I learned.
Helen: How has the restaurant changed?
Helen: More the food, really. Like, has your cooking changed?
David: Well, you know, we have — I think the cooking has changed, though if you ask me to put my finger on it, it'd be tough to do. You know, our lives are, you know — people who work restaurants, you know, so relentless. We work so much. We work long hours, and we always have great ideas, but sometimes it's kind of like, when do you have the time to implement them? You know, it’s nice to be organized and come up with ideas, and make changes, and that sort of thing, but the one thing the break did afford us is it gave us six months, not only as individuals but as a team, to sit down and think about every process that we do. Reevaluate every single step, whether it's a fork, how we drop something at the table, shades of tablecloths, you know, just every single detail. The knot and the tie of the servers. All this sort of stuff. We had a chance to reevaluate every single thing, and that's what we did. I mean, we met, the management team, you know, we worked full time. We worked Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. We had regular, we had banker's hours. But we worked, and we sat down there, and we methodically — we pretended we were guests at the restaurant, walking in the door, and everything from, you know, the sidewalk, and the cracks in the sidewalk, and then the walk, the stone path in the walk, and the trees, the placement of the trees, and the front door, and we pretended we were guests, and we reevaluated every single step, including the food. Because we had the time to do it. I mean, we had to keep busy, in that sense. So I think we're different because of that, but if you ask me to put my finger on it, how is the food different? I don't know if I could tell you.
Helen: It's not, like, a teaspoon more salt.
David: No, it's definitely not like that.
Helen: It's a feeling thing.
Greg: Well, David, we have come to the part of part of the Eater Upsell that we like to call the Lightning Round. It's nothing to be too afraid of.
David: Oh, great. Excellent.
Helen: You sound so enthusiastic about it.
Greg: So we're just going to ask you a few questions. We ask all the chefs this, and you just — you know, the first thing that comes to your head, just roll it out there.
Helen: So when you're traveling and you have an hour to kill at the airport, what's your vice?
David: I will — hmm — read. Find a place that's quiet and read, which can be difficult to do in a busy airport.
Helen: Do you read fiction, or magazines?
David: I read everything. I like to read a little bit of everything, but I do read fiction, yes.
Greg: So you walk into a bar. You go to the bar in heaven that knows your favorite drink.
Helen: Oh I like this spin on it.
Greg: What is that drink?
David: Wow. I’d say a Negroni. Bitters, I like bitter. I like amaro. Anything with a kind of bitter flavor.
Helen: I like that answer. It's a good answer.
Greg: It's a very good one.
Helen: If you are on a road trip, and you're just, like, alone, flying down the endless highway with the blue sky up above, what is the song that you're blasting and singing along with?
David: Ooh. That's tough, that's tough. It could be anything. It could be a lot of things. I like road music. Road music is good, that's driving, you know, with a beat. I don't know. I like a lot of old rhythm and blues, blues music. Big fan of jazz, but jazz is not music to drive by unless it's in the middle of the night.
Helen: Somewhat erratic driving, if you were driving along to jazz.
Greg: Hey, it's just a regs night, you know at Casa Kinch, you're hanging out, and you're —
David: A what night?
Greg: It's a regs, a regular night.
David: A reg night, okay.
Greg: Yeah. And you're just going to cook something. What is it?
David: I'll roast a chicken.
Helen: Anything with it, or just, like, a chicken?
David: It'll change, it'll change, but roast chicken, to me, is one of those great dishes, you know. It's very simple. It's very simple to make, it's very complicated to make perfect, so I learn something every time I roast a chicken.
Greg: What do you do to the chicken before you put it in the oven? Do you like, put nothing?
Helen: Speak sweetly to it.
David: There's two things. It's very, very important to stuff it, even if it's just with a piece of tin foil or raw onion, because people don't understand. People say, "You know, you roast a chicken, the breast is dry. You got to cook the legs until they're finished, and the breast is always dry." That's because when you put a chicken in the oven and you don't have it stuffed, it cooks from the inside out as well. The heat in that giant cavity, so if you put something in, it slows down the cooking of the breast. The heat only comes from the top.
Helen: Oh, that's a good tip.
David: And also smear — I take chicken and leave out a bunch of butter room temperature, and I cover the entire surface of the chicken with butter before it goes in the oven.
Helen: That's never a bad idea. I think everything could stand to be smeared in butter before it goes in the oven. If you were not a chef, what would you be doing with your life?
David: I don't know. I think it would probably being, do something with the water or the ocean. I've been fascinated by the water. Maybe something involving science, something like that.
Greg: Awesome. Well, David, thank you so much for chatting with us here on the Eater Upsell, and David is one of the stars of the new season of Mind of a Chef.
Helen: Yeah, which you can check out on PBS.
David: That's right. Let’s see, it starts, I think, this weekend, with Gabrielle Hamilton from Prune, which is really fantastic. She's the first half, and I think the Manresa episode starts sometime around, I think it's Halloween, actually, October 31.
Helen: Check your local listings to figure out what your PBS channel is, and watch Mind of a Chef. Thanks for being here, David.
David: My pleasure. Thank you.