Features & Columns

David Kinch releases
'Manresa: An Edible Reflection'

'Manresa: An Edible Reflection' is a love letter to a region,
expressed through the language of food
refuge David Kinch Photograph by Dina Scoppettone

Twelve years ago, David Kinch ran a Saratoga bistro so small that regulars could talk to the chef from the maitre de station. The dream kitchen he built for Manresa in 2002 seemed overambitious at the time but now looks cramped. More than a dozen culinary microsurgeons stand elbow-to-elbow, staring down a complex assortment of tasting menu courses. One member of a two-person pastry team pops open a plastic container and tweezes a spindly herb sprig beside a tumble of round objects, squints, then moves it to the plate's other side.

"Oh, Chef's here," General Manager Esteban Garibay says with just a hint of surprise. Kinch slipped in unnoticed from several days of guest-judging Bravo's Top Chef in Hawaii and is darting between two stations at opposite ends of the massive stove in the center. He landed at SJC after a five-and-a-half hour flight, headed straight to Los Gatos and tied on an apron. "It's normal," Kinch says with a shoulder shrug.

He'll head next to the New York City Wine & Food Festival, and "we'll be back to cook dinner later this week." Jet setting became the new normalcy when the now 52-year-old chef was plucked from obscurity eight years ago with a write-up in London's Restaurant magazine, which this year rated Manresa the United States' seventh-best restaurant, just behind Thomas Keller's The French Laundry.

Somehow, the latter aughts' most fussed-over culinary innovator had cut the written exam, graduating to his profession's stratosphere without autographing cookbooks for every souvenir-seeking foodie who appeared at his kitchen door. He's about to correct that oversight, in a big way, with the public debut of Manresa: An Edible Reflection (Ten Speed Press) next week.

Already trending in Amazon as a pre-release best seller, the much-anticipated 336-page hardcover has been in the works for two years and evidences Kinch's fanatical attention to nuance, teamwork, soulful artistry and unconventional thinking. Enthusiasts of our region will be warmed by familiar sights, from the Pacific's luminous turquoise waves where Kinch gains his inspiration to the natural terraces of Love Apple Farms and the Santa Clara Valley town where diners arrive for a destination meal.

Manresa BOOK OF LIFE: Chef de cuisine Jessica Largey calls each dish an artistic creation with a short life. ‘It’s eaten and it’s gone forever.’ Photograph by EDan Pulcrano

Intensely personal but not self-indulged, the book distinguishes itself from the current crop of bound tomes of food porn, recipes and personal promotion that are the currency of the modern celebrity chef. Never egomaniacal or overly chatty—he's no Guy Fieri or Anthony Bourdain—the introverted Kinch has characteristically let his work speak for itself. An Edible Reflection focuses on the ecosystem of influences that binds his cuisine to the people, plants, animals and sea that surround him. It's a love letter to a region, expressed through the language of food, much as Ansel Adams, Jack London, John Muir or the 19th-century California plein air painters paid reverence to Northern California's mountains, vegetation and coastline with photography, literature or impressionist brushstrokes.

He says he called the book a reflection because it speaks to "not just to who we are, but to where we are." A particularly inspired touch is a bound woodcut by Northern California artist Tom Killion, showing the Santa Cruz coastline from the Pogonip preserve. I remember when Killion's prints decorated the brick walls of The Swan restaurant in Santa Cruz, before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Some of the dishes in the book were shot on one-of-a-kind ceramic bowls from Iwasawa Oriental Art in Los Gatos, a 30-year institution. There are photographs of a curved mountain road, some abalone shells, a redwood tree's bark, and the Bonsai tree and candle-filled fireplace at Manresa's entrance. Visual cues like these make Reflection not just the first major book by a Silicon Valley chef but a work with the region's DNA stranded through its pages.

Would Kinch's oeuvre command as much attention had he remained in the A-list kitchens of Manhattan and San Francisco, rather than abandon them to explore Catalonia's backroads and the Chardonnay caves of Saratoga's Mt. Eden vineyards? Farm-to-table just couldn't have achieved this level of expression in those cities—nor in London, Miami or Las Vegas. The recipe required a locale on the cusp of a sun-drenched, year-round boutique farming and aquaculture region slammed up against Silicon Valley's deep pockets, where Kinch attracted patient investors willing to bankroll his dream and enough diners able to spend hundreds of dollars for a meal.

Timing didn't cooperate, however, as Kinch struggled after 9/11 and the dotcom implosion. Throwing in the towel may have been the logical business course. A restaurant consultant would have told him to simplify the menu and become a chop house, but Kinch persevered. "I was going to die trying," he says. "It was a labor of love. I wasn't going to quit."

"It's been an incredible journey," Kinch says. "The book is our story."

Manresa FARM TO STUDIO: San Francisco photographer Eric Wolfinger staged shoots on Manresa’s off days for a year-and-a-half. Photograph by Eric Wolfinger

Try This at Home

Manresa chef de cuisine Jessica Largey edited the recipes and converted them into uniform measurements, giving up her days off to prepare dishes for the photo shoots that took over Manresa's kitchen and dining room for a year and a half on its down days. She says about 80 dishes were photographed, and each contained five to 15 sub-recipes. "It was a lot of recipes," she says.

Many of the recipes are a bit ambitious for a home cook without professional tools and a staff of assistants. "Even if you can't create the dish at home, maybe you can use the components," the 27-year-old chef says. "They more or less stand on their own."

She enjoyed the process of documenting Manresa's evolving menu, noting that each dish is an artistic creation with a short life. "It's eaten and it's gone forever."

"The dishes in the book are immortalized now," Largey says. "It's nice that something captured that."

The book contains a section on Manresa's new cocktail program, which began two years ago when the restaurant added a bar. Largey says the "ingredient-focused" approach to mixology "starts with the produce and then matches a liquor to it." The kitchen staff produced syrups and infusions for Beverage Director Jeff Bareilles, also Manresa's sommelier. "He says wine is so easy now. 'I just open the bottle and that's it.' Now he has to create things. It's a really great challenge for him."

Nothing Like New York

The one thing I found odd about the cookbook was the seemingly out-of-character selection of Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin to write the introduction. (His Manhattan restaurant once handed me an ill-fitting wool blazer on one of the hottest days of July before I could have lunch there.) Tucked in a Los Gatos alley that's accessed by passing a bank's drive-up windows, Manresa is the opposite of New York-style pretension and formality; one of the book's signature photographs features a bug-eaten chard leaf on page 15.

Kinch calls Ripert "a great old friend of mine" whom he credits with bringing Manresa to the attention of the international culinary gods while it was still struggling. "Eric came here to eat. He invited us to cook lunch for a bunch of influential writers in New York. He opened up the restaurant. It was our first introduction to the national media."

The international acclaim, fully-booked weekends and high prices have put Manresa's cuisine beyond the reach of local diners who could once enjoy Kinch's preparations at a village bistro. Manresa hasn't entirely abandoned its populist roots, however.

Last Saturday morning, Largey was peddling brioches and baguettes prepared by head baker Avery Ruzicka at the Campbell farmer's market, part of the Manresa Bread Project that seems to be going somewhere.

Kinch also promises that Manresa fans won't have to wait a decade for his next book. He isn't ready to discuss it yet, only hinting that "something's in the works already" and it will be "sooner rather than later."