The element of surprise

For David Kinch dining at the top level is all about an element of surprise. “Why tell everybody everything?” he asks. At his two-Michelin-starred restaurant Manresa in northern California he reveals very little about the intricacies of his food. His menu is simply a list of the ingredients diners may expect to see; the dishes themselves remain unknown until they arrive at the table.

A case in point is a dish plainly presented as a sweet turnip consommé. Bringing together different forms of turnip – raw, cooked and charred – as well as matsutake mushrooms and Dungeness crab and served in a double glass bowl giving the impression of the food floating in air, it’s a lot more than just a bouillon, showcasing not only superlative ingredients and technique but a complexity of textures and flavors that translates to nothing short of a blast of purest culinary pleasure.

“There’s a nuance or an idea of what’s coming your way,” David explains. “It might be a play upon words, a trick with the eye, something served at an unusual temperature. These are the tools and techniques that we use to create an experience people pay good money for. And surprise is a big part of that.”

We meet at Manresa in Los Gatos, a sleepy, well-heeled town, about 60 miles south of San Francisco. Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountain range, with its wooded peaks overlooking the Pacific Ocean, there’s a sense of peacefulness to the region that is so distinctively northern Californian, you couldn’t be anywhere else in the world. The dining room, looking immaculate, with its soothing gray and earthy tones and soft carpeting, beautifully reflects its surroundings, emitting that same sense of calm.

But just a few months ago, this peaceful, quiet room was a very different site when Manresa was incinerated during a devastating fire. The blaze, the cause of which remains under investigation, ripped through and destroyed the entire back of house, the kitchen, bathrooms, offices and dry storage, while the dining room – and its major renovation from just three years ago – sustained extensive smoke and water damage. “You have no idea what a shock it was,” David recalls looking somber. “I was on vacation on the East Coast when I received the phone call from the Fire Brigade. It was a long flight home.”

Although there was no structural damage to the restaurant, the rebuilding took six months to complete, a long time for one of the USA’s most celebrated restaurants to be shut. But, David concedes, the hiatus gave him and his team a chance to refocus: “One of the silver linings of the disaster was that it gave us the opportunity to be introspective and revisit and re-evaluate all that we do. That said, at the time of the fire Manresa was the best restaurant it had ever been and we had the most momentum we had ever had. So there weren’t a lot of wholesale changes that we wanted to make – we tweaked little things and became more efficient, we addressed all of the small, unsexy elements that people don’t notice.”

Tall and of solid build, David has a quiet intensity about him, a passiveness and introversion akin to an artist. A chef’s chef in the truest sense of the word, the James Beard Award winner has been described by his contemporaries as “out of this planet” and having “the most beautiful hand” in the USA today. But in an age of franchising and celebrity, he is an anomaly, shying away from the limelight, choosing to concentrate his creative energies on his one restaurant and – a bakery aside – avoiding expansion or a TV career. “I’m not terribly enamored with the business of restaurants,” he admits. “I have no interest in feeding 500 people a day. I simply love to cook and I love the power of food and the effect it has on people.”

Food affected David at a young age. A “classic oil brat”, whose family “moved around a lot”, he discovered his love for cooking while training to be a waiter in New Orleans. “I can unequivocally say that if I hadn’t moved to New Orleans and been introduced to its joie de vivre at such an early age I would not be cooking today,” he explains.

After graduating from Johnson & Whales in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1981 and moving to New York, where he worked at Manhattan’s Quilted Giraffe, David travelled the world, honing his skills under iconic chef Marc Meneau at L’Espérance in Burgundy, France, as well as Germany’s Schweizer Stuben, and Pedro Subijana’s Akelare in San Sebastian, Spain. In Japan, David set up a contemporary American restaurant at the Hotel Clio Court in Fukuoka. The travels, he insists, had a “tremendous amount of influence” on his cooking. “What influences a chef? It’s about life experiences,” he says. “I am a product of my personal life and work experiences and everything [I do] is a distillation of that.”

In 1993, David returned to the USA, moving to San Francisco to work as executive chef at the city’s landmark Ernie’s Restaurant. Two years later, he opened his first solo venture, the Catalan-inspired Sent Sovi in Saratoga, where over the next seven years he made a name for himself and his cooking. He sold the restaurant in 2002 and – taking the advice of Thomas Keller – bought a building in nearby Los Gatos where he opened Manresa.

So after working in New York and traveling the globe, what attracted David to settling in California? “Once you spend a February in California, you don’t really want to go back to New York,” he laughs. “I really love it here. There may be other places where I would rather live but in terms of being in the United States and the quality of the product that we get in our kitchen, there simply isn’t a better place.”

David sources the vast majority of his produce from Love Apple Farms, with which he has worked for nearly a decade. Run by Cynthia Sandberg, who uses biodynamic and organic farming methods, she has grown more than 300 different varieties of fruit, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers exclusively for Manresa, supplying the restaurant with everything from amaranth to zucchini.

“Entering into the relationship with the farm changed everything,” David recalls. “All of a sudden it wasn’t me writing the menus anymore, it was a piece of cabbage writing it. It was a really hard thing to do but it has also been the single most satisfying thing we have done.”

The umbilical relationship between the restaurant and farm has turned Manresa into somewhat of an ecosystem, creating a direct connection between the produce, kitchen, and diner. No dish represents this union more than his signature dish called Vegetable Garden: a garden green velouté made with an ever-changing mix of leaves, stems and roots from the farm, a few drops of winter savory oil, a chicory root pasta ravioli filled with braised bitter greens, edible “dirt”, and aged parmigiano cheese, with a few delicate leaves and flowers completing the dish.

David feels that food is dynamic. “You become static you die,” he says. And as such, like the farm, the menu at Manresa is ever changing and evolving. Since January 2014, the restaurant serves a single nightly tasting menu only, which has not only changed the way David plans and cooks but also morphed the farm’s output. “Four years ago we were growing 300 different cultivars for the restaurant as we had a much larger menu. Now that it’s more compact and we are focusing all our knowledge and energy towards this one great menu every night, we don’t need 300 different things; we need 45 different things but a lot of them.”

David describes his cooking as contemporary California cuisine: “Our mantra for everything we do is that it has to be a reflection of who we are and where we are.” That means his food utilizes the bounty of California’s larder, it is modern and inventive, beautiful to look at and, most importantly, it’s delicious. Dishes like ankimo with peas and caviar; and beef broth fortified with buckwheat and truffles epitomize his rare skill to really bring out the very essence of all the ingredients on each plate.

David is more than a chef and Manresa is more than a restaurant, more than a business to him. It is his home, where his heart is and a labor of love: “I love where I live. I love that I can work and create with my hands and I love that I get instant reactions from people. I love that I can make people happy.”

Find out more about the culinary career of chef Kinch