David Kinch Brings It Home

ABOVE: ‘A Real Coq au Vin’.

A third Michelin star makes it official: Manresa is one of the very best restaurants in the world.  Meanwhile, the celebrated chef brings New Orleans home with his new project, the Bywater, and on PBS’s ‘The Mind of a Chef.’

As David Kinch and I visit in the Zen-like patio entranceway of Manresa restaurant on Village Lane, he and his team are weeks away from opening the Bywater, a bar and restaurant (in that order) designed to evoke the neighborhood vibe of his hometown, New Orleans. In a month, he’ll be starring on PBS’s acclaimed The Mind of a Chef, where he will take viewers back to the city where he earned his chops.

And in 17 days, he will win a third star from the Michelin Guide, which confirms what many have believed for years: David Kinch is one of the greatest chefs on the planet.

A third Michelin star is the highest honor a chef can receive. There are roughly 15 three-star restaurants in the nation­, and only 120 in the world. Manresa has held two Michelin stars for nine years straight—proving that the restaurant is one of the best places in the Bay Area to enjoy a serious meal. The third star says that what Kinch is creating at Manresa is of global significance.

As we chat, of course, Kinch has no way of knowing he’s about to be venerated. But it’s almost like he’d seen it coming. He is in a somewhat reflective mode, happy to talk about his career, the roots of his passion, even the state of contemporary California cuisine at this moment in time.

Kinch clearly sees his work as fitting into a long historical context. He talks about the Italian immigrants who fished the waters of the Bay Area, who planted the gardens and olive groves and grapevines and built the restaurants that made San Francisco a food capital more than 100 years ago.

He pays homage to the chefs of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, who, affiliated with the counterculture and the back-to-the-land movement, brought fresh, local and organic ingredients to the forefront of the dining experience. And he praises recent culinary endeavors that have fused this ingredient-focused cuisine with old-world technique.

Kinch, of course, has been at the forefront of these efforts.

There’s something paradoxical about this chef. He has been as serious as a man can be for his entire career, relentlessly pursuing excellence—maybe even perfection. At the same time, there is something profoundly playful in much of what he creates.

In his book Manresa: An Edible Reflection, Kinch writes admiringly about chefs who are “capable of making you connect to an almost childlike joy.” After our first visit, I followed up via email and asked him to talk about work, play and joy.

“Even after all these years, I still like going to work; I am reminded of why I fell in love with cooking from the very beginning,” he responded. “This is important to me, as this is a terrible industry to be in if you don’t like it. It will wear you down.

“But I still get pleasure in cooking for people and hopefully having them be happy as a result. I cook for myself and my clients equally, and it still is representative of who I am both personally and professionally.”

Receiving a third Michelin star does not require an acceptance speech. But if it did, there it is.

 

With the Bywater, Kinch is representing a part of himself that has not been seen in public. Although it will be just a few blocks from his hallowed kitchen and dining room tucked away on Village Lane, the Bywater will be of a different world.

At Manresa, Kinch brought profound technical acumen and a lifetime of rigorous training to bear on one of the most ambitious culinary enterprises of his era. His work at the restaurant has been marked by fearless invention.

At the Bywater, Kinch is doing a reinvention—creating his version of the places he used to hang out after working in the New Orleans kitchens where he learned how to cook.

The first thing he says when asked about the Bywater could be a mission statement. “I want this to be the kind of place I’d like to go after I get off work,” he says. “A place to go after work and slam down some oysters, meet some friends and have a drink or two. In New Orleans they seem to do that kind of thing so naturally.”

It’s very likely that he will get what he wants. Kinch knows New Orleans. It’s where he went to high school, where he became best friends with Wynton Marsalis. It’s where he got his first restaurant job and eventually worked at the legendary Commander’s Palace under Paul Prudhomme, the king of Cajun cuisine, who passed away in October. It’s where Kinch fell in love with cooking and decided to live the life he’s led.

More to the point, it’s where he found the watering holes that inspired his current project.

The Bywater is named for a New Orleans neighborhood—“a very New Orleans neighborhood,” Kinch emphasizes. “It was all working class and poor when I was there,” he says, adding with a hint of disappointment, “it’s since become a hipster neighborhood.”

“It had a tremendous amount of character. For me, it’s a neighborhood that symbolizes what New Orleans is about. And I like the ring of it: the Bywater.”

A Real Coq au Vin’

A Real Coq au Vin

 Kinch in a NOLA kitchen.

Kinch in a NOLA kitchen.


 

When Kinch resided in NOLA, he says, the Bywater was known for “neighborhood funky-butt lounges.” All of them—like the famous Vaughan’s Lounge and BJ’s Lounge—featured great music. A few also had great food.

The Bywater will not be funky-butt, but it will definitely vibe as a casual neighborhood hangout. While it will serve wine, there will also be signature cocktails, including variations on New Orleans stalwarts like the Sazerac. There will even be a machine dispensing frozen daiquiris. Nothing fussy about that.

Of course the food will be central to the mission. At its heart will be a raw bar featuring fresh oysters flown in from East Coast and West Coast sources. As in New Orleans, the rest of the Bywater menu will be determined by the calendar.

“No meat on Fridays. Red beans and rice on Mondays. Roast suckling pig on Thursdays,” recites Kinch. That’s how they do it back home. The city is proud to boast one of the nation’s most famous regional cuisines, the result of a deep commitment to tradition.

But I expect some version of the thrill-of-the-new one experiences when enjoying a meal at Manresa. “It’ll obviously be a Northern California take,” Kinch says. That is probably an understatement.


Unlike many of his peers
, David Kinch has not pursued celebrity status. Respected to the point of worship by those in the industry and serious gourmets, he remains virtually unknown in the wider world of casual foodies. That will change next month.

After appearing in 2009 on an episode of Iron Chef, where he trounced fellow New Orleanian Bobby Flay, Kinch retreated from the spotlight. He reemerges this fall, when he will star in eight episodes of the PBS series The Mind of a Chef (set to air on KQED starting Nov. 8).

Several factors converged to make this the right time for Kinch to step up. For one thing, like the Bywater, The Mind of a Chef gave Kinch a way to reconnect with New Orleans.

“The show presented an opportunity to revisit past memories and to think a bit more deeply about where I came from as a cook,” he says. “The filming in New Orleans presented a great opportunity to go back to my very professional roots, an opportunity that I probably would not have been able to create for myself.“

This was also the right time, career-wise. “Manresa has been my sole focus for over a decade,” Kinch says. He points to the devastating fire that gutted the restaurant last year as an event that, while difficult, opened up some new “possibilities.”

“Manresa is open again and better than ever. And I’m starting to do a lot of new things with the opening of Manresa Bread this year and the Bywater later this year. It seemed like the right time to tell our story in a meaningful, detailed way.”

He also is a fan of the program, which is narrated by Anthony Bourdain and goes deep, as the name implies. “It’s a thoughtful, artistic show, and they know how to pay respect to the food and the process,” Kinch says.

So will we find out how a kid who took restaurant jobs in high school, partly because their flexibility allowed him time to study, winds up being one of the most celebrated chefs in America? And recipient of two Michelin stars nine years in a row, and now a third? Winner of GQ’s Chef of the Year in 2011, and James Beard Award nominations for Outstanding Chef in 2014 and Outstanding Restaurant in 2015?

Most food critics point to the intense seriousness that has guided Kinch from the outset, evident in the precision of his cooking. After talking with him and his closest allies, I believe there’s something else driving him. I believe viewers of The Mind of a Chef will learn that Kinch’s hardcore focus is fueled by love and joy.


We’re sitting in the shade
on a warm October afternoon. Kinch, in white chef’s coat and black clogs, with a two-day beard and a gold stud in each earlobe, is leaning forward, elbows on knees, blue eyes focused. Inside, his staff is preparing for service, and he is patiently answering questions he’s answered many times, once again telling the story of the journey that led him from New Orleans to unexpected fame cooking in Los Gatos. And then back to New Orleans.

“My first job was in the front of the house, in the dining room,” Kinch says. “But I’d go through the swinging doors, and I’d be immediately immersed in the scene there in the back of the house, in the kitchen. And there was this profane group of guys, working with flames, working with knives. Working with their hands. Creating. And I’d see the results of their work, because my job was on the floor, where I’d see all the happy people enjoying what those guys were creating.

“My next summer job was in the kitchen. And I’ve never looked back.”

Kinch was in high school when he landed the gig cooking with Prudhomme, who was already on his way to becoming one of America’s first celebrity chefs by popularizing his hometown’s Cajun and Creole cooking in a fine-dining context. Blackened redfish was on.

It’s possible to imagine that Kinch might have made a name for himself decades earlier if he’d stuck with his mentor and stayed the course. But that was not the plan.

“What they say about New Orleans is that there were 5,000 restaurants and five recipes,” he says. As much as he might love jambalaya, gumbo and red beans and rice, Kinch knew those dishes were not his fate.

“I learned to love cooking in New Orleans,” he says, “but I did not want to cook gumbo.”

After high school Kinch enrolled at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. The school was noted for its culinary program, but this was 1979, long before a degree in culinary arts was a ticket to anything like stardom.

After graduating, Kinch went to New York, where he worked as sous chef and then executive chef in two respected kitchens.

Then came a bit of a culinary adventure. In the western culinary tradition there’s a term of art: staging, pronounced “stah-zhing,” à la Francaise. It means apprenticing, and it’s a rite of passage for serious chefs. These ambitious souls travel from restaurant to restaurant, from kitchen to kitchen, working for next to nothing and learning from the greats. Kinch decided to take some time to stage at the Hôtel de la Poste, Beaune, France, where he worked under Marc Chevillot.

Returning to New York, Kinch was hired in 1984 at The Quilted Giraffe, which was introducing what was then a new style of complex cooking. He worked as a chef there until 1988. He then travelled to Japan, where he learned utterly new ways of approaching his craft that are on display every day at Manresa.

Later travels landed him in San Francisco, where he headed the kitchen at Silks and later Ernie’s. In between those jobs, he returned to Europe for two years, staging in Germany, France and Spain.

“One of the reasons I went into cooking is it afforded me the opportunity to travel,” Kinch says.

Along the way, with some months to kill between gigs in New York and Japan, Kinch came to the South Bay to work the 1988 vintage at the historic Mount Eden vineyards in the hills above Saratoga.

“I just wanted to immerse myself in the wine world,” he says.

The experience left a deep impression. “I lived on-site,” Kinch recalls. “I’d been living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and I was now camped on top of a mountain in Saratoga. It was, to say the least, a decompression.”

Hearing that story, I couldn’t resist the notion that this experience—a late summer spent harvesting Chardonnay in the Santa Cruz Mountains—is what led Kinch to open the first restaurant he could call his own, Sent Sovi, in Saratoga. What poetry! But no.

“I started by looking for a location in San Francisco,” he says. “We looked and looked, but rents in the city at that time were insane. It was simply by chance we landed in Saratoga.”

There’s something revealing about the way Kinch tells this story. He doesn’t take the opportunity to romanticize the tale of his arrival in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, where he would eventually make his reputation. It would be easy to infer that there were some cosmic forces at work, to concoct a compelling myth: “Summer at Mount Eden Draws World-Class Chef to Saratoga.” But no. It was basically economics and happenstance.

Not to make too big a deal about it, but I think this shows a fundamental personal attribute that has made David Kinch one of the great chefs of his time: He’s a truth-teller, in the kitchen and in life. Maybe it’s this no-nonsense attitude that has driven him to create what many critics believe is the most interesting, and at the same time most honest, food being made in the world today.

 

I will never forget my first meal at Manresa. In particular, the first dish.

It was an egg. Served in its shell with some very simple added ingredients that made for a mind-blowing mouthful of deliciousness. Much of the pleasure derived from surprise, and I want you to experience that someday, so I won’t tell.

Unlike everything else at Manresa, the egg is not a Kinch invention—it’s a tribute to one of his heroes, Alain Passard of Paris’s Arpège restaurant. It is a permanent item on the menu, clearly because it was a major inspiration. In An Edible Reflection, Kinch describes the moment he first tasted the Arpège egg as a revelation. It seems to have been a key that unlocked his culinary imagination.

What makes the thing work is the ingenious combination of ingredients. One could say the same thing about many of Manresa’s recipes. In fact, this is a theme found in the writings of every food critic from far and near who has visited Los Gatos to eat.

REFLECTION: ‘Into the Vegetable Garden’ is a different dish every day, depending on ingredients are at peak ripeness.

REFLECTION: ‘Into the Vegetable Garden’ is a different dish every day, depending on ingredients are at peak ripeness.

THE GARDEN: Love Apple Farms is an integral part of the Manresa kitchen.

THE GARDEN: Love Apple Farms is an integral part of the Manresa kitchen.


 

Another staple on the menu also began its life as a tribute but has evolved into something that defines Kinch’s art, something all his own. It’s called Into the Vegetable Garden, and it’s a different brand of amazing every day.

There is no recipe for this dish. Instead, there are what Kinch refers to as “rules.” Rule 1: “Take whatever is perfectly ripe that day and prepare it the way it needs to be prepared.”

His aim is to take the idea of terroir, the connection of food or wine to a specific place, one step further. “Not only are you getting the flavor of the season, but also of a particular day,” he says.

From there things get interesting. The dish generally contains nine elements. Seven come straight from the garden: roots, shoots, stems, seeds, buds, flowers and leaves. Each will receive the preparation that is appropriate to the day. Some might be cooked, some will be served raw.

These vegetative elements are then layered—generally roots on the bottom, with leaves, flowers and seeds on top—as a symbolic reflection of the garden. And again, in whatever way seems appropriate at the moment.

All of this sits atop the Dirt (a concoction including dehydrated potatoes and roasted chicory root) and topped with the Dew (a mild dressing). Voilà. Brilliant. Charming. Simple.

Genius.

The backstory of what is on the plate may even be more interesting. Kinch certainly believes it is. Manresa has a unique and exclusive deal with Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farms, a biodynamic operation in the Santa Cruz Mountains just 20 minutes from the restaurant. All of the vegetables and herbs at the restaurant come from the farm. Kinch describes the relationship as symbiotic. Love Apple Farms is by now an integral part of Manresa.

Before every growing season, Kinch and his team meet with Sandberg and her team to discuss what worked the previous year, what didn’t, and what to plant for the coming year.

I ask him if he has a favorite vegetable. “Really?” he asks in an almost withering tone. As in: “Is this guy serious?” He quickly recovers. “I have 100 different cultivars in the garden,” he explains patiently, “and all of them are there for a reason.”

 

Andrew Burnham, Kinch’s friend and business partner, sees the Bywater as a perfect next step for their company.

“I think he’s always wanted to do a casual place like this,” Burnham says.

“For people who’ve dined at the mothership, at Manresa, you got the sense that David was not one of those fine-dining chefs who places everything at right angles, where everything is German-engineered. David is doing more soulful food. That’s probably partly to do with the time he spent in New Orleans.

“He’s had beignets and churros on his menu on and off for years. That’s not something your really ambitious or competitive chef might do.”

Like me—like, no doubt, many happy diners—Burnham distinctly remembers his first meal at Manresa.

“It was a Monterey Bay spot prawn on a plate,” he says. “A modest sauce. A piece of sorrel. The prawn was cut in half. It was barely cooked.”

Obviously a simple meal. But as Burnham, a trained chef in his own right, knows, not an easy one to execute.

“First of all, the restaurant needs to buy a piece of equipment, a water tank that is oxygenated correctly. The chemistry needs to be just right—the pH of the water has to be exactly monitored. This is what you have to do if you want to do it right.”

It’s possible that many happy diners have decided, after enjoying their first meal at Manresa, that they’d like to stay. For Burnham, that dream came true.

“I remember thinking, ‘There is no other place like this. There is no other place I’d rather work.’”

Burnham has one of the best second-career stories ever. In his early twenties, he was a successful hedge fund analyst on Wall Street. He was making a lot of money, and he was unhappy.

Then a personal tragedy forced him to do some soul-searching. Burnham had always known that he loved cooking and loved people enjoying a meal.  So he quit his job and enrolled at the French Culinary Institute. After graduating, he headed to wine country and wound up staging at Cyrus, in Healdsburg. He worked his way up the food chain there over the course of three years, during which time he visited Manresa and set his mind on the place.

While in California, Burnham had the time and resources to check out other restaurants. While he appreciated and respected what they were doing, they left him cold.

“I was very impressed with the technique,” he recalls. “My reaction to the food was, ‘Wow, how did they do that?’

“But my reaction at Manresa was immediately understanding that the chef’s ultimate goal was the joy of the meal. Each dish was there because it’s what he wanted you to be enjoying. It wasn’t there to show you how great a chef he is.

“It’s not like the chef is working to achieve three Michelin stars. I don’t think David has ever cared about that. A lot of other fine dining establishments, it’s like the food has a lot of ego in it.”

Burnham envisions the Bywater as a local watering hole that, from the back of the house to the front of the house, operates with the discipline of a fine dining establishment.

“Taking that same level of serious approach to what we do,” he says, “whether the table averages $30 or $300.” He is aiming for an unpretentious place where, from the line cooks to the dishwashers, “everyone knows how to do their job right.”

25 Tomatoes

25 Tomatoes

Garden Beignets

Garden Beignets

The Arpège Farm Egg

The Arpège Farm Egg

Sea Salt & Vanilla CarameL

Sea Salt & Vanilla Caramel


 

Kinch and Burnham did not have to look hard to find the man to execute their vision for the Bywater. Burnham and Chef David Morgan have been friends since the two met at Cyrus, when Morgan, then 20 years old, was on staff and Burnham was staging his way up the ladder to his new career.

After Cyrus, Morgan bounced around a bit, as young chefs will do, eventually landing in New Orleans.

Morgan is half Cuban and, not incidentally, a musician, and it was music that led him to NOLA. “I used to play drums in the high school band,” he says, “and ever since then I’ve wanted to go to New Orleans.”

In the Crescent City, Morgan got a job as chef de cuisine at John Besh’s Restaurant August cooking contemporary French with a local twist. He was loving the city as much as he’d hoped—living in working-class Gentilly and getting to know his neighbors, hanging out at the funky bars that pulled restaurant people, and sopping up the food.

Though he was having fun, Morgan did not hesitate when his friend reached out.

“When Andrew called and asked me if I’d be interested, I pretty much knew right away,” he says. “Number one, it takes me back to California and the Bay Area, and that’s where I wanted to be.”

It was not just for the surf (like Kinch, Morgan is an avid surfer and all-around waterman). It was the work. At this moment in time, for people very serious about food, this is where it’s at.

“Everyone is really pushing hard, really pushing each other in the Bay Area,” he says. “I want to be inspired, not just by the people I work with but also by the restaurants where we eat when we’re not working.”

 

Some weeks away from opening (these things can be fluid in the restaurant world), Burnham and Kinch are still experimenting with concepts that will help them create the lively bar scene they intend for the Bywater.

They’re contemplating ideas like a “rolling tab,” where patrons can buy a drink or order a dish in advance for a friend. They’re discussing cocktails for the table and dishes designed to share.

They’re working with Chad Arnholt and Claire Sprouse of San Francisco’s Tin Roof Drink Community, a consultancy behind such hip spots as Trick Dog and ABV, and Food & Wine Magazine’s pick for Best New Mixologists of 2015.

And over the summer, Kinch has been working on an element of key importance to a great bar: the music. He’s making the mixtapes himself.

“There’ll be some blues, some jazz, some New Orleans music, of course,” he says. “Basically all fun music. All happy music.

“Bywater is going to be a happy place.”

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.