Pleasure Purveyor

The Monterey Bay area’s most famous chef—David Kinch—has been planting the seeds of his first Santa Cruz County restaurant all his life

PHOTOGRAPHY BY CRYSTAL BIRNS

It’s a Friday afternoon less than a week before chef David Kinch will take advantage of the annual winter closure of his 3-Michelin-starred Manresa restaurant to fly with his girlfriend and other friends to the Caribbean, and he has been counting down the days until they hit the beach.

In a matter of hours, he’ll be greeting guests in Manresa’s dining room, enjoying seeing his life’s work rock their worlds. But right now, his mind and hands are fully absorbed in the pleasure of cooking itself: Kinch is collaborating with some of his team members to make focaccia and pasta in the restaurant’s kitchen. The bread dough has been fermenting for a day before they add fennel seed and wild fennel pollen from Kinch’s own backyard; the pasta is pigeon ravioli.

For Kinch, the projects are part pure pleasure and part research and development for his newest venture, Mentone, a casual restaurant with seriously inspired food slated to open this summer in Aptos. The intent is an accessible homage to both the Italian-French Riviera and California’s Central Coast—an area that 19th century Ligurian fishermen were drawn to because of its similarity to the Riviera’s climate and topography, and one that Kinch has made a career of interpreting, as well as his home. So these days, Kinch is making pasta every day at Manresa, working on shapes and sauces and getting his chops down. He traveled to Liguria for research in December and was set to return again in March.

“What I’m looking for is that feel, that ambience, that sense that makes a place special and then to interpret it through the lens of the special place that we call home on the Central Coast of California,” Kinch says. Notably, this will be Kinch’s third new enterprise in five years, following his opening of Manresa Bread’s three outlets and New Orlean-sinspired The Bywater, all, like Manresa, in Silicon Valley. Meantime, he recovered from two serious restaurant fires, starred in and won an Emmy for the fourth season of The Mind of a Chef, received a third Michelin star for Manresa and was named one of the Top 10 chefs in the world by his 2- and 3-Michelin-starred peers. And Mentone is not even the last or second-to-last project the 57-year-old chef is thinking about.

Where does the drive to achieve all this come from? Ask Kinch and he’ll say he’s not sure, but suspects it’s his curiosity, and the great, obsessive pleasure cooking gives him in slaking that curiosity and providing a way to deliver exceptional pleasure to others. All this is true, but his success has also been fueled by a profound sensitivity and connection to place and a maturity as a chef that has taken him well beyond accomplished cooking to that last stage in a chef’s education—becoming a superlative manager and restaurant entrepreneur.

“I fell into a rabbit hole and I’m still in it. I love the physical act of cooking.”

AN ODYSSEY BEGINS

The son of an engineer with Gulf Oil, Kinch spent his childhood moving “fast and furious” through the Deep South, but he says he didn’t mind the frequent relocations—and that they may in fact have sparked the lust for travel that would become an important source of inspiration and enjoyment for him. Still, he was grateful they ended with a move from Texas to New Orleans just as he was starting high school.

“New Orleans blew my mind. All of a sudden you’re thrust into this multi-cultured city—the African American experience, the Creole and Caribbean experience,” Kinch says. “New Orleans changed everything for me. It changed me…it changed my outlook on the world. It opened me up to the fact that people are different from me and I loved it.”

An infatuation with music—including jazz, blues and African—first kicked in for him in New Orleans, and the same was true for food.

“What blew my mind was the culture of food: Food was an ingrained part of the pleasure of daily life. They talked about it like I’d never seen anybody talk about food before,” he says. “The food was spicy. The food had personality.”

Kinch started working in restaurants at 15 and got his first kitchen job—in no less than New Orleans’ revered Commander’s Palace— about a year later. He fell hard.

“I found this kind of tribal, subterranean group of people who worked weekends, nights and holidays…And they worked as teams to make people happy,” Kinch says. “I did it for spending money in high school. But once I saw the power that cooking had on me, that was the end of that.” The power was consuming.

“The more you learn about something, the more interested you become in it. Layers start to unfold,” he says. “And I think that’s how I was about cooking—I fell into a rabbit hole and I’m still in it. I love the physical act of cooking.

“I like the beautiful gestures the hand makes. I like the concentration and the focus. On a personal level I like how it makes all my problems and worries go away. Everything becomes what’s in front of me and what I’m preparing.”

But giving pleasure to others was then and still is key for Kinch. “I also would be lying to you if I did not tell you that a great part of this obsession has to do with the gratification you get from making people happy,” he adds.

Still, New Orleans’ cuisine was more tradition-bound than it is today and Kinch didn’t want to make gumbo his whole life. Obsessive reading about cooking led him to the great French masters of the day and their legendary rural restaurants, which elevated the ingredients and cusine of the surrounding countryside.

He dreamed of creating a “great American restaurant” that, like his French idols, offered an extraordinary and unique reflection of its particular locale. So after earning a culinary degree at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, he went on the road to train in kitchens in New York, France, Germany, Spain and Japan.

Meanwhile, his parents moved to California, and on visits and while working a harvest at Mount Eden Vineyards, he became intrigued by the ingredients available in California and the different mindset he saw there.

“In California, in a very general sense, it was more about this certain spirit of freedom,” Kinch says, comparing it to New York. “They weren’t technique driven, but they had all this great product.” Kinch moved to San Francisco, working at Silks and Ernie’s, with a stint in Europe in between. He also attempted to establish his first restaurant in the city, but after it fell through, he started modestly, opening Sent Sovi in Saratoga in 1995.

Soon after, Kinch moved to Santa Cruz, just over the “hill,” as locals describe the stretch of the Santa Cruz Mountains that separates the coastal city and Silicon Valley.

Top Left: executive sous chef Matthew Bowden and chef de partie Natalia Lachova at work;
Bottom Left: Kinch making ravioli; Bottom Right: preparing a course (l-to-r) chef de partie Lucas McMoyler, chef de partie Natalia Lachova, chef de partie Ava Sonleitner, pastry sous chef Courtney Weyl, and chef de cuisine Nicholas Romero

FINDING HOME ON THE CENTRAL COAST

“It’s a lifestyle choice in a lot of ways. Obviously, the beaches get me outdoors, riding my bike, sailing, surfing, the things I like to do,” Kinch says. “It’s filled with bookstores and movie theaters. I can park my car, I can walk downtown. It’s got a little bit of a funky, bohemian vibe.”

During this time, Kinch also got to know the Central Coast’s incredible bounty of ingredients, and local diners and critics were taking notice. But Sent Sovi’s closet-sized kitchen was an impediment to realizing his dream.

On the advice of The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller, Kinch found a building that he could buy, rather than rent, in nearby Los Gatos, and opened Manresa in 2002.

Kinch has created at Manresa as close to perfect working conditions as he can for himself and the other 14–16 chefs and cooks who execute his vision for the elaborate tasting menus the restaurant serves to 50 diners each night.

On a tour of the kitchen in January, chef de cuisine Nicholas Romero is keeping an eye on a live stream of guests in the dining room from an iPad to make sure no course is sent out to a diner who is away from the table. Everyone works with focus at stations covered with sound-softening Chilewich matting; the whole scene is remarkably quiet and calm considering that collaboration is the work style and perfection is always the goal.

But perfection it is: a story told in 13 courses with humor and surprises, including some essence of the Central Coast in every dish. (See details of a meal at Manresa on www.ediblemontereybay.com.)

Kinch’s role in all this is to orchestrate, taste and help plate the courses. In collaboration with Romero, the sous chefs and some of the line cooks, he also develops new dishes, and sees motivating the individual personalities on his team as one of his most important jobs.

As owner, once dinner service starts, he is also out in front, visiting each table and occasionally submitting to selfies or serving finishing sauces, such as the smoky, creamy poblano sauce he spooned over an abalone chowder the night this writer was there.

The front of the house is as important to Kinch as the back—this is fine dining after all, at $275 per seat, and graciousness comes naturally for him.

“It pleases me when people have an exceptional guest experience and they talk about coming back to the restaurant or visiting one of the other restaurants,” Kinch says. “It’s very, very important to me.”

The first year Michelin launched its San Francisco guide, in 2007, it awarded Manresa two stars, even though the location is deep in the South Bay, an honor Manresa held until an arsonist caused more than $2 million worth of damages, shuttering the restaurant for nearly six months.

“I was very one dimensional, just thinking about the restaurant 24 hours a day, living and breathing the restaurant,” Kinch says of the time before the July 2014 fire. “The restaurant burnt down and I kind of burnt down.”

But what could have been a true disaster became a valuable opportunity: a period of reflection helped Kinch bring more balance into his life and proved a turning point for his business.

“This process of finding balance has made me healthier and in a better place as a person but I think has also made the restaurant much better—I think the restaurant is better than it’s ever been,” Kinch says. The Michelin inspectors agreed, elevating Manresa from two stars to three, their highest honor, within the year.

The time for reflection also made Kinch realize that he had the bandwidth to explore ideas he had for more casual concepts.

“I realized that if I wanted to do it I could do it, and delegation— finding the right people, finding the right business partner, Avery—allowed me to take the plunge,” he says, referring to Avery Ruzicka, the star Manresa baker who with Kinch in 2015 launched Manresa Bread’s first brick-and-mortar retail outlet, in Los Gatos. The bakery also now offers its naturally leavened sourdough breads, baked with freshly housemilled flours, at locations in Los Altos and Campbell.

Importantly, opening the new businesses allows Kinch to reward senior staff and keep them in the family.

“I have a lot of people, very talented people who have been working for me for a long time,” Kinch says. “At some point there’s a time when I have to decide how I’m going to continue to challenge them or compensate them appropriately, so the best thing I can do is create opportunities for them.”

The Bywater followed in 2016. “What I wanted to do was to open up a place where I felt happy, that brought back great memories, and I kept returning to New Orleans, where I learned about food, where I learned about cooking and I fell in love with this métier that I do,” Kinch says. “Those were simple times but it was also the time that I was the happiest.”

Right: Kinch relaxing at Café Delmarette near his home in Santa Cruz; Bottom Left: the dish Into the Garden

“I’m fascinated by the Mediterranean and the Riviera because they so closely resemble what we have here in California. I’m going to explore that similarity.”

THE FUTURE IS CASUAL

With Mentone, the new restaurant Kinch is opening this summer in Aptos, he is returning to exploring the ingredients of the Central Coast, just as he does at Manresa. But this time, the menu will be more in line with what he cooks at home, the format much more casual and the prices much more accessible. It’s also his first restaurant in Santa Cruz County, where he’s now lived for more than 20 years—longer than anywhere else in his life.

“This is a project from my own heart. It’s also on my side of the hill, so I plan on spending a lot of time there,” says Kinch, who when in Santa Cruz has until now gotten his pizzas at Bantam and his macchiatos at Cafe Delmarette, 11th Hour Coffee or Verve. Birichino, Soif, Mutari, and the Live Oak and Downtown Farmers’ Markets are also spots he likes to support.

“Manresa is very specific. It’s a gastronomic restaurant…it’s an idea factory. But you know nobody eats like that all the time. I don’t eat like that all the time,” Kinch says. “We want people to come to [Mentone] on a Thursday night. We want them to come on a Tuesday night.”

Mentone is the Italian name for the French city of Menton, which sits right on the Riviera’s French-Italian border—a reference to the fact that Mentone’s menu, rather than being strictly Italian or French, will reflect the border-straddling regional cuisine of the Nice to Genoa coastline. “I’m fascinated by the Mediterranean and the Riviera because they so closely resemble what we have here in California,” Kinch says. “I’m going to explore that similarity.

“It’s going to be fun,” Kinch adds. “There’s going to be a really great pizza oven. We’re going to be doing a lot of pastas. Our king is going to be pesto, the great Ligurian sauce made by hand with a mortar and pestle.”

Kinch’s intent is that the pesto be the best, most classic example of the sauce possible, made only with a mortar and pestle, using the same seven ingredients it is traditionally prepared with—basil, salt, olive oil, pine nuts, parmigiano-reggiano and a Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese. The hope, he says, is that “a Ligurian person from Genova will taste it and start crying because they think they’re at home.”

Just as at Manresa Bread, the flours for the pastas and sourdough pizzas will be freshly milled. And like Manresa, Mentone will feature local seafood, likely in dishes like cioppino, a tradition on both the Central Coast and in Liguria.

Before purchasing the property at 174 Aptos Village Way, in the new Aptos Village mixed use development, Kinch and his business partner, Andrew Burnham, had been looking for the right Santa Cruz location for three or four years. They were about to close a deal on a downtown Santa Cruz space when it fell through.

Aside from the exceptional ingredients it offers, and the fact that it’s his home, Kinch sees the Santa Cruz area as an attractive place to open a restaurant because of its sophisticated, well-educated and well-traveled potential customer base. He also believes that Mentone’s healthful Mediterranean cuisine will be particularly attractive to local diners.

Chris Sullivan, a former Manresa assistant manager as well as a manager at both The Bywater and Manresa Bread, will serve as Mentone’s general manager.

So what’s next for Kinch? He says one dream is that in his retirement, he’ll be back in the kitchen, cooking in his own small restaurant in the Caribbean or the South of France.

For now, he’s writing a cookbook that will share the pleasures he gets from cooking with home cooks (see sidebar above) and he’s still contemplating an idea for downtown Santa Cruz.

“I think that I have one project that’s near and dear to my heart—people who know me really well can figure it out,” Kinch says.

Asked if it would be a music-related venue, he said he could neither confirm nor deny. But for now, Kinch is very, very happy with the projects he already has going.

“I love what I do. Every day I try to do the best I can—I try to have a positive day and I remain curious,” Kinch says. “So that is why I’m in this rabbit hole. It’s a drive to continue to learn, to be the best I can possibly be, to realize I am not perfect but there is nothing wrong with trying.”

Kinch at Home : A new cookbook is on the way

David Kinch’s love of cooking doesn’t stop when he leaves Manresa at the end of the night and luckily for home cooks everywhere, the star chef aims to share the gratification he receives from cooking for those he loves through a new cookbook written with them in mind.

“On my days off, nothing gives me greater pleasure, nothing gives me greater joy, than to continue to cook,” Kinch says. “I do it for my loved ones, I do it for my family and I do it for my friends. And on occasion that means we have a rip-roaring dinner party.”

Kinch’s first cookbook, the best-selling and critically acclaimed Manresa: An Edible Reflection, published in 2013, contains fascinating essays by Kinch and Christine Muhlke about his philosophy and inspirations and ravishing photography by Eric Wolfinger. But the recipes were designed for producing dishes exactly as they were made at the time by the professional cooks in Manresa’s fine-dining restaurant kitchen—making them a stretch for home cooks.

With the new cookbook, Kinch and his writing partner Devin Fuller, a former Manresa team member and a longtime guest at the dinner parties he throws for his personal friends, are aiming for attainability.

“I want the book to be accessible. I want people to look at the recipes and feel they can do every single one,” Kinch says. “I don’t want it to be daunting, I don’t want it to be challenging and I don’t want it to be overwhelming.”

Still, he doesn’t want to be “patronizing” by suggesting that the recipes, which will include rice dishes and egg dishes that he likes to cook for himself and guests, will be easy or take no time to make.

“Great cooking, like anything worth doing, requires a little bit of effort and a little bit of understanding,” Kinch says. “I want to teach people some basic skills and show them some simple recipes that will stay with them and enrich their lives.” — Sarah Wood

An evening at Manresa

David Kinch and his team at Manresa set the tone for something unique and altogether transporting as soon as you cross the curb from the street.

A path winds past a sign that advertises not just the name of the restaurant but, very discreetly, in much smaller letters, the name David Kinch. Yes, it’s discreet, but you’re firmly in celebrity chef land here.

The walk continues around the front of the building through trees and plantings that evoke a Japanese garden, slowing you down. Inside, the colors are neutral and muted, continuing the calming motif. But the enthusiastic greeting from the warm front-of-the-house staff suggests that like Kinch, they’re as excited about the pleasures ahead as you are.

When they take you to “your” seat, they mean it—there is no turning of tables here so it is yours for the night. And if you get there on the early side, before the seats have filled, it may seem like there is a server for every table. And that would not be far off—there are typically 14—16 staffers taking care of 50 diners.

The night this writer and a guest were there, we started with a Champagne suggested by sommelier Jim Rollston, a Marc Hebrart rosé, and an old-fashioned cocktail, probably the best we’ve ever had, of either.

Manresa staff members (l-to-r) sommelier Jim Rollston, general manager Jenny Lun, Kinch, pastry sous chef Courtney Weyl, and chef de cuisine Nicholas Romero

But while the wine—and beer—pairings continued to be superb, Manresa is about the food, and it definitely commanded center stage.

Kinch likes to tell a whimsical story with his tasting menus through 12—14 amuse bouches and small courses. The intent is that dishes stand alone for themselves, but remain interconnected, often expressing the local region and season with humor and surprise.

The surprises started with the first taste, petit fours that looked like dessert arriving early but were actually savory black olive madeleines and red pepper pâte de fruits that would circle back on themselves at the end of the night in an almost visually identical, yet sweet, guise of chocolate and strawberry.

In between, normally unassuming local products were elevated to something extraordinary, thanks to the sheer perfection of their quality, the complexity of their flavors and the unexpectedness of their accompaniments, such as squid and mackerel served with a near-black grilled onion jus; sunchokes were similarly transformed with caviar and a roast chicken jelly. Seafood and meats more associated with luxury, such as geoduck clams, oysters and sweetbreads, received intriguing treatments with sea lettuce consommé and coffee-seasoned potatoes, respectively.

Picking up an irreverence that connected it all and kept the obvious (and highly successful) quest for perfection from getting pretentious was the intact claw on a squab leg beautifully roasted with endives and served on a plate illustrated with an Alexander Calder mobile—the bird seeming to literally thumb its claw at preciousness. And the pairing of an abalone and artichoke chowder with a deliciously tart mixed-fermentation farmhouse/saison beer called Mercy Mercy, produced in collaboration with Santa Cruz’s Sante Adairius, struck a casual note among the mostly French (and always excellent) wines that accompanied the meal.

Roasted squab on a plate featuring an Alexander Calder mobile

Nearly halfway through the courses, Into the Vegetable Garden—an inventive take on a salad that has been on the restaurant’s menu since the beginning, in ever-changing form—was a palate-enlivening explosion of color, taste and texture. Like tiny bowls left by garden nymphs, raw Brussels sprout leaves anchored in a bed of roasted shallot mayonnaise held spicy, vibrant edible flowers, delicate greens, crispy cooked sprout leaves and other elements.

From there, the meal turned back to an offering from the sea—delicate Dungeness crab with romanesco and koji butter, and after four more courses, it was suddenly dessert.

In keeping with the adventurousness of the savory courses, the first dessert elegantly brought together a tart and creamy kaffir lime ice cream and sweet notes from a deep orange squash purée and a pistachio crumble. Another dessert lusciously and gracefully combined fennel with pears and chocolate.

But it was admittedly hard to focus on the desserts after a cheese course that came just before. Surely hedonism at its finest, the dish consisted of a delicate heap of thinly sliced, grassy Pleasant Ridge Reserve raw cow’s milk cheese topped with a generous mound of black Perigord truffle slices that Kinch himself shaved from the fungi at our table, with an instruction to eat it with our fingers.

As you might imagine, by the time the sweet version of the petit fours that started the night were delivered to us—along with chocolates, granola, other sweet treats and our personal menu to take home—the evening had lasted five hours. But it had been so engrossing that we were shocked to see the time.

It was a meal like no other we’ve ever experienced, and will surely stay with us for a very, very long time to come. Just don’t ask me what our favorite course was. It’s impossible to choose. —Sarah Wood

Sweets for the end of the evening
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