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David Kinch of Manresa
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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

Big Fish

Los Gatos chef David Kinch is the best in the South Bay. So why does he call himself 'anti-success'?

By Stett Holbrook

CHEF DAVID KINCH is excited. About a chicken. His restaurant, Manresa, is booked solid. The reservation list for this Saturday night includes one of the restaurant's investors, members of a wine appreciation club, a contingent of visiting Southern California culinary enthusiasts and a table of local chefs who've come to eat and learn from Los Gatos' culinary maestro.

Kinch, who wears a short-sleeve white chef's coat and a half-week-old beard, looks like a leaner, more severe John Denver. On the job, he has an intense, focused demeanor. His custom-designed kitchen could double as a laboratory. Not only is it clinical-clean, but the state-of-the-art equipment, such as the medical water bath for slow poaching and the exotic French-made stove, All-Clad pots and hanging copper pans, makes Sur La Table look underequipped.

Kinch presides over the humming kitchen and the staff of nine cooks like a conductor in the fever pitch of performance. Instead of sheet music, he works off the dinner tickets spread on the counter before him. He keeps time in his head as he synchronizes the execution of each dish, coaxing and prodding his cooks in the staccato, abbreviated patois unique to each professional kitchen.

"T for four mackerel. ... Fire the eggs, please. ... Three fluke all day. ... Fire table 30."

After calling out a few more orders, schooling his cooks ("Less jelly. Everything in proportion ... a little bit less pepper on the foie, about three or four grains") and instructing the waitstaff how to position food before diners ("Serve this plate at 11 o'clock"), he turns his attention back to the chicken.

For top-flight chefs like Kinch, chicken doesn't usually elicit the thrill of, say, tuna belly or fresh matsutake mushrooms, but like virtually all the ingredients that enter Manresa's kitchen, this isn't an ordinary bird. Nor is Kinch an ordinary chef. After cooking for more than 26 years in celebrated kitchens around the world, he still revels in making good food.

But About That Chicken ...

The chicken Kinch is so excited about was raised on a farm in Pennsylvania. The only other chef who gets chickens from that farm is Alain Ducasse, cheftain of a culinary empire that stretches from New York to Paris. Kinch has stuffed about $80 worth of fresh black truffles under the chicken's skin. It's wrapped in parchment paper and the truffles show through like bruises. The dish is called "chicken in half-mourning" because of its contrasting black and white shades. The chicken poaches at a low temperature for more than 90 minutes. At this lazy pace, the earthy, seductive truffles will perfume the entire chicken by the time it's done.

Before carving the chicken, he sends out the whole bird in an orange Le Creuset pot so it can be presented to the table and the diners can take a whiff and share in Kinch's exuberance. Once back in the kitchen, he carves the steaming chicken, inhaling the heady aroma. He snatches a piece of meat and puts it in his mouth, floating away in a brief reverie amid the clatter of the kitchen. As juices pool around the chicken on the cutting board, he hands me a bite.

"Isn't that ridiculous?" he asks.

Ridiculous as in crazy good. It's extraordinary, dripping with juice and exuding the essence of black truffles.

After he's plated the dish and it's been sent out, he asks one of the servers how it was received.

"How are they doing out there? Are they happy?"

"Oh, yes," says the waitress. "They're happy."

Nobody Does It Better

In an era of overexposed, TV-mugging, product-endorsing celebrity chefs who do more booksigning that sautéing, Kinch is a chef's chef. He is not yet a household name outside circles of chefs and food lovers, but he continues to quietly, passionately and happily distinguish himself with his singular cooking style.

And his cooking is unlike anything else in Silicon Valley. While his food has strong French, Catalan and Japanese influences, his style is more personal than geographical. From his hulking, handmade French "suite" of ovens and flameless cooking surfaces, Kinch creates a confident, sometimes playful, cerebral brand of cooking that pierces the heart of flavor of each ingredient.

Kinch breathes the rare air of a culinary planet inhabited by a small number of talented chefs. The cooking wizards of Spain, Ferran Adria and Andoni Aduriz, are fellow travelers. Thomas Keller of the French Laundry is in the club. I suspect the avant-garde Homaro Cantu, creator of edible photography and proponent of laser cookery at Chicago's Moto, would have a lot to talk about with Kinch over drinks.

Food critics trip over each other to shower him with praise. Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for the London Observer, pronounced his 26-course meal at Manresa (they were small courses) the best meal he had in 2004. San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer called the restaurant "French Laundry South," a flattering comparison to what many consider one of the best restaurants in the world. London's Restaurant magazine just named Manresa one of the Top 50 restaurants in the world.

And Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of New York City's Le Bernardin, a restaurant that just received another four-star review from The New York Times, was so impressed with his meal at Manresa that he invited Kinch to cook for him and a small group of journalists in Le Bernardin's private dining room.

Anthony Bourdain, bad-boy chef turned tell-all author, attended the meal and declared it a "wildly creative but well-thought-out meal. Beautifully presented‹surprisingly minimalist, very, very tasty. ... This guy is indeed something special."

Staying Put

It is tempting to view Kinch as a big fish in a small pond. After the critical success of his restaurant Sent Sovi in Saratoga, which he ran with former partner Aimee Hebert from 1995 to 2001 and has since sold, he could have taken his technically daring, inventive cooking to a bigger stage in San Francisco, Los Angeles or elsewhere. Instead, he settled on a former residence on a side street in downtown Los Gatos. As someone who's worked in Paris, New York City, New Orleans, San Sebastian and San Francisco, he says he no longer needed the bright lights of a big city.

Opening in the summer of 2002, after Sept. 11 and the dotcom implosion, made the first couple of years tricky. The restaurant still isn't full every night, but it's on strong footing now, and Kinch has become particularly fond of his little pond in Los Gatos.

"This is something I've been working toward for 20 years," he says. "It's nice to be the provincial restaurant. The South Bay has been really good to us." He lives in Santa Cruz, surfs in the morning before his long days and nights and has fallen in love with area's unique terroir, a French term that means sense of place. In Kinch's mind, a great restaurant must reflect the passion and personal vision of its chef and reflect its location. Manresa does both. The casual but elegant décor, the native plants growing in the front courtyard, the relaxed style of the waitstaff and above all else the ingredients on Manresa's menus are all evocative of Manresa's place in Silicon Valley and its proximity to the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.

"This restaurant is a reflection of where it is," Kinch says.

And Kinch's passion for food, premium-quality ingredients and making people happy permeates the restaurant. Quaint as it might sound, cooking to make people happy is what drives him. That and pleasing himself.

"I do it because I still like to," he says. "I don't want to work in hotels. I don't want three restaurants. I don't want to do 500 covers a night. I don't want to be on TV. None of this interests me. Call me anti-success...but I just want to cook in my restaurant with my crew in my beautiful kitchen and make people happy."

Dirty Girls and Flavor Hedonism

Cooking with local, seasonal ingredients has become almost dogma in Northern California restaurants. Serve tomatoes in winter or corn in the spring and prepare to get spanked by food critics. Kinch showcases local ingredients like artichokes, sardines, salmon, strawberries, avocados and Dungeness crab on his menu.

"The menu is dishes and/or flavors that I like," he says. "I get antsy with the menu. I get bored with it, and I change it."

His main produce supplier is Joe Schirmer, owner of Dirty Girl Farm in Santa Cruz. On one of their first meetings when Kinch was still at Sent Sovi, Kinch called him into the kitchen to demonstrate why he liked dandelion greens, a product Schirmer wasn't particularly enamored with. Kinch quickly sautéed up the bitter greens along with some bacon and duck confit. Schirmer quickly became a convert.

"It was so amazing," Schirmer remembers. The bacon and confit didn't overpower the greens but perfectly accented it, he says.

Since then, the two have become surfing buddies. Unlike most of his customers, he says Kinch visits his West Side Santa Cruz farm often, picking out what he wants and then putting it on the menu that night.

"He's pretty dialed into what comes [in season] and when," he says.

Since most restaurants get their produce from the same purveyors, Kinch has sought out small-scale, sometimes backyard suppliers to distinguish his cooking and further root his restaurant to its terroir. The eggs for his signature egg amuse bouche, a slow-cooked soft-boiled egg opened up at the top and filled with sherry vinegar whipped cream, maple syrup and chives, come from a woman who lives atop Kennedy Road in Los Gatos. She also supplies Kinch with duck and goose eggs.

His peaches and apricots come from an old-school farmer, George Novacovich in Saratoga, who grows rare and delicious Blenheim apricots. And much of his citrus is grown by Gene Lester, a backyard hobbyist in Watsonville whom he tracked down after reading an article about the heirloom and hard-to-find citrus varieties he grows. Kinch carted some of Lester's fruit with him to New York for the dinner he made at Le Bernardin.

But Kinch's first priority is taste, and if that means flying in fresh tuna from Tokyo's Tsujiki fish market or chickens from Pennsylvania, so be it. He uses organic produce when he can but flavor comes first.

"I'm not going to buy organic for the sake of buying organic," he says with a defiant air. "There's a lot of shitty-tasting organic produce out there. I'm not interested in that. We're interested in the hedonistic aspects of flavor."

Dish Math

Hedonistic is a good way to describe a meal at Manresa. The menu is brief but conceals worlds within. There are three- and four-course menus ($58 and $68, respectively) and the $95 chef's tasting menu puts you in Kinch's hands. He selects nine or so small courses as well as a parade of starters and desserts. A hundred bucks may sound like a lot to spend, but it's really not when you consider the astounding quality of what's set before you and the craftsmanship behind it. The multitude of dishes, small, quivering gems, are movements in an edible symphony, part of a glorious, if dizzying, whole.

Kinch thinks deeply about food, reads volumes of cookbooks in English and French and travels to taste and learn new techniques. Over the years, as his cooking style has matured he's pared down his cooking, stripping it of extraneous, flashy gestures in favor of primal elements elegantly presented. Although it may not look like it on the plate, Kinch has a simple cooking philosophy that is both minimalist and, as he calls it, dynamic.

"A dish isn't complete when I can't add anything else to it—but when I can take nothing else away," he says, an approach that succeeds or fails on the quality of ingredients. "You go out on a limb with that. There's no place to hide."

This minimalism is best represented in his fish and shellfish dishes, where the impeccably fresh ingredients carry the dish instead of elaborate sauces or architecturally imposing presentations. Japanese fluke is a case in point. The sashimi-style, unimpeachably fresh fish is fanned out in the bowl and drizzled with white soy sauce, a dribble of sesame oil and a sprinkling of chives. That's it. The richness of the fish is followed by the higher-toned notes of the soy sauce and onion bite of the chive. It's delicious and utterly complete.

Or take the Spanish mackerel. The fish is beautifully blistered outside and snowy sweet inside and rides unadorned atop a ruby mound of salmon roe. The jewel-like eggs burst upon contact with the tongue, oozing a warm, fatty liquid that had me closing my eyes with pleasure.

By dynamic, Kinch means he wants his food to do something other than sit on your plate. Many of Manresa's soups, for example, are assembled at the table. The broth is poured over the ingredients so the dish is at its gustatory peak in front of you, a fleeting moment of taste that's ripened just for you.

"Five minutes later it's a different dish," he says.

Raised by Giraffe

Kinch's style was forged during the four years he spent at New York City's influential Quilted Giraffe, a restaurant that amazed and confused with its high-style, aggressively creative approach to cooking that peaked in the 1980s. While derided by some as overpriced and less than good (sashimi pizza, anyone?), the Quilted Giraffe spawned a generation of young chefs like Kinch who looked at ingredients and cooking in new and unconventional ways.

Barry Wine, a lawyer and self-taught cook, was the restaurant's chef and owner, and Kinch cites him as one of his mentors. The two still meet for sushi occasionally when Kinch is in Manhattan.

"When the Quilted Giraffe started, [no one else was] taking ingredients and cooking them in a new way," says Wine, who is now a restaurant and hotel consultant. The restaurant combined cuisines, ingredients and techniques that had never shared the same plate before.

"David was one of the first chefs to get exposed to that. He was a very good student. ... He understands food. He has great respect for food and flavors." Kinch says Wine taught him to look at ingredients in new ways, lessons he still draws on today.

"An apple is an apple, but what else can it be?" he asks, holding up an imaginary fruit. Asking those questions, he says, "is where the great ideas come from."

Asking those questions has definitely resulted in several great dishes. Foie gras and cumin caramel flan is a dish so good you wonder why you haven't had it before. The richness of the goose liver melds perfectly with the creamy, caramel-topped flan, and the sprinkling of the earthy cumin keeps the dish from sliding into desserthood. Ridiculous.

Or take Kinch's rendition of "surf and turf." Instead of the tired steak-and-lobster combination, a pairing that is more about rote overconsumption than flavor, his version combines beef and shellfish in the guise of a sirloin and oyster tartar, a combination that's only possible if you step well outside the culinary box.

In the Weeds

Back in the kitchen, the tickets are piling up. Kinch likes to space out the orders to give the kitchen time to prepare the labor-intensive dishes, but the dam has broken, and they're "in the weeds."

"We're backed up. No more fires!" he barks at the floor staff, a command that means all orders will have to wait until the current round of dishes are finished. Some of the servers take a nervous step back from Kinch.

Kinch says he doesn't like open kitchens, because the better parts of his personality don't shine when he's slammed like this on a Saturday night.

The pressure cooker of a busy kitchen is notorious for eliciting abuse and vitriol from the mouths of chefs. Kinch is calm but firm as he rights his ship.

Fifteen minutes later, the rush has passed, and the cooks relax a bit.

The night starts to wind down. As more orders trickle in, talk behind the line turns to what the crew is going to do after work. Kinch appears to have a good rapport with his cooks, a staff he says he trusts "implicitly."

Kinch and a few cooks are headed to the Black Watch for drinks after work. One of the younger cooks, who's going to San Francisco to hear a DJ spin, gets a good-natured hassle from Kinch for not joining the boys on the town.

After sending out a round of plates to a table of VIPs, Kinch asks their waitress, "Are they happy? Are they digging it?"

Yes, they are. Very, says the waitress. And so is he.

"That's still what gets me off," he says. "It's people saying, 'You know, this was really, really good. I had one of the best meals of my life here.' That still makes it all worthwhile. If I lose the drive or the passion to make people happy or the thrill that I get cooking and making people happy, then that's the day I leave the business."


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From the March 30-April 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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