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How a Devastating Fire Made Manresa a Better Restaurant

- David Spiegelman / Wagstaff Digital
David Spiegelman / Wagstaff Digital

David Kinch found the life-work balance he needed, the resources to open more restaurants, and the spark that got Manresa three Michelin stars.

On July 7, 2014, Manresa chef David Kinch stood outside his Los Gatos restaurant, faced some TV cameras, and considered how his life’s work had been ravaged.

“We’re devastated,” he said. “Our restaurant burned down.”

His Silicon Valley restaurant had just suffered more than $2 million of damage from an early-morning, two-alarm fire. He had no idea that it would take the rest of the year for him to reopen Manresa, which he did on New Year’s Eve.

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But when asked if Manresa would be back, he didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely,” Kinch said. “I think we’re going to be a stronger and better restaurant.”

What made him say this, when so much was uncertain?

“I guess I had to convince myself,” Kinch says now with a little laugh. “But I also had this entire staff. I had people I was responsible for, and that was important to me. And what else was I going to do?”

There was no way at the time to know that he would take Manresa, which had kept two Michelin stars since the San Francisco Bay Area’s Michelin Guide launched in 2007, to even greater heights by earning three Michelin stars less than a year after the restaurant reopened. Sometimes, of course, it takes the most jarring circumstances for the best things to happen. But what’s even more remarkable is that Kinch maintained these three Michelin stars in 2016 and 2017 while simultaneously running new restaurants and finding the life-work balance he now realizes he needed.

“I think the fire was a big catalyst for us,” Kinch says. “We came back cooking with a real sense of purpose. I think we were renewed. I was renewed on a strong personal level.”

Before the fire, Kinch was overweight and overextended. He endured 17-hour days at Manresa. His physical and mental health were disasters.

“I was that chef the way chefs are, sleeping at the restaurant,” he says.

I ask if he still sleeps at the restaurant sometimes.

“I don’t do it all,” he says. “And you know what? The restaurant got better, because perhaps the decisions I’m making are happier decisions. They’re more lucid decisions. They’re more pragmatic decisions because I’m not killing myself here at the restaurant. My health became an issue.”

After the fire, Kinch got himself into physical shape. He lost "a ton of weight," paying close attention to what he was eating and drinking. His weekly routine now includes riding his bike and going to spin class. He has a trainer. He enjoys the perks of living near the beach in Santa Cruz, surfing and sailing on his days off.

- David Spiegelman / Wagstaff Digital
David Spiegelman / Wagstaff Digital

And, as he did on the fourth season of the Anthony Bourdain-narrated PBS series The Mind of a Chef, Kinch drives into the wilds of California, to places without cell service where he can avoid the “flotsam and jetsam” of the Internet. There are also hours every morning when his staff knows not to contact him unless Manresa is on fire again.

“To a certain point in the morning, the time is mine,” Kinch says.

This is when he goes outside, or thinks quietly at home, or reads. He also reads every night. He recently finished Andrew Friedman’s Chefs, Drugs, and Rock & Roll and has been in the middle of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Anka Muhlstein’s Balzac’s Omelette, and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Kinch, whose Manresa cookbook came out in 2013, has ideas for books he wants to write in the not-so-distant future, both fiction and nonfiction.

He’s also traveling the world about a week every two months: cooking as a guest chef at revered restaurants, visiting markets for inspiration, and doing things he would have never done before, such as breaking his rule about not leaving during the summer (when Manresa is especially busy). He’s already broken that rule twice this summer for personal reasons: to attend a family wedding in Massachusetts and cook at a friend’s birthday in Guadalajara.

Recently, he’s been thinking a lot about the next phase of his life, about searching for a new “purpose.”

“I am going to make every effort possible to not die in a kitchen,” Kinch says.

He’s 57. He’s been working in kitchens since he was 16.

“You can do the math,” he says. “I love coming to work every day. I love my métier. My legs hurt. At the end of the day, my legs hurt.”

Kinch has lots of ideas for his life after Manresa, but he also realizes he has a restaurant that remains at the peak of its powers and he’s going to keep riding the wave for a while. Manresa is a restaurant with a sense of place, a restaurant that couldn’t exist anywhere else.

“Everything that we do, whether its service, ambiance, or food, it’s not only representative of who we are but also where we are,” Kinch says.

Manresa’s most iconic dish is Into the Vegetable Garden, a meticulously assembled, constantly evolving, indelibly beautiful medley of leaves, flowers, shoots, and stems that’s resplendent and crisp and bitter and sweet and transcendent. The latest iteration resembles a pea pistou. There are raw elements along with sets of ingredients that are prepared differently. The dish involves tweezers, yes, but it would be wrong to call it avant-garde. This is about letting the ingredients speak, about showcasing the bounty around you without manipulating it unnecessarily.

- David Spiegelman / Wagstaff Digital
David Spiegelman / Wagstaff Digital

For Kinch, what delights him when he visits restaurants around the world is finding that marriage of “exceptional cooking and perfect seasoning.” That’s an increasingly rare thing, he says. Kinch is much less interested in highly rated restaurants where “it feels like eating mise en place.” He’s been to enough molecular-gastronomy places where it’s “more about, ‘Look what I did,’ as opposed to letting food speak for itself.”

“For me, maybe I’m just an old man now, but a well-made sauce, perfectly roasted meat and fish, that’s stunning,” Kinch says. “And you can do that in a contemporary fashion. I am not describing something that is old-fashioned or over-the-hill.”

At Manresa, Kinch creates tasting menus with flavor combinations that you can’t even imagine until you dine at the restaurant. Perfectly cooked amadai (Japanese tilefish) on the night I visit might be best described as bouncy: It’s firm yet supple. The crispy skin adds wonderful texture. Maybe you won’t be surprised to discover that Kinch, who’s been heavily influenced by the flavors and pacing of Japanese kaiseki meals along with European cooking, uses koji to amp up umami in the dish. But pairing the fish with a ham-stuffed morel is an unexpected twist that’s at once luxurious and comforting.

Manresa is full of surprises: savory petit fours to start; dishes that are enhanced with marigold gelée and dandelion pesto; fermented oils and purées that you might not see but that add to the “intangibility” of dishes. Then there’s the pure brightness and sweetness of perfect produce, like snap peas the restaurant prepares with lightly cooked king salmon, shaved cured salmon, and fermented black truffle in a tour de force of freshness, finesse, and funk. The best things in life, it turns out, really do involve balance.

After the fire, Kinch found a business partner, Andrew Burnham, and the resources to start opening up places where he’s not going after any Michelin stars. He opened Manresa Bread to create an opportunity for “an incredibly talented employee,” Avery Ruzicka, who will soon debut the third outpost of the thriving bakery that’s milling more than 90 percent of its flour. Kinch also has The Bywater, an oyster bar and watering hole inspired by the food he ate and the experiences he had when he was a young cook getting his start in New Orleans. A typical day for Kinch will involve him driving into Los Gatos in the late morning and spending time at Manresa, Manresa Bread, and The Bywater. He still likes to work the pass during dinner at Manresa, but he’s no longer tied down to one place for his entire day.

Next up for Kinch is “a casual project, Italianate in scope,” he says. “Hopefully, it will be open at the end of the year. It’s going to be on the other side of the hill around Santa Cruz.”

This new restaurant in Aptos, where the partners include a former Manresa maître d' and a former Manresa sous chef, is another way for Kinch to keep his talent close instead of losing valued employees. Over the years, Manresa’s kitchen has employed chefs like Jeremy Fox, Josef Centeno, and James Syhabout, all of whom went on to open their own critically acclaimed restaurants. Manresa alum Jessica Largey is close to unveiling Simone, one of the most highly anticipated restaurants in L.A. On one episode of The Mind of a Chef, Kinch discussed how he knows he should have opened more places to keep his staff interested.

“When we had the fire, there was one restaurant,” Kinch says. “I wanted to expand, but how I was I going to expand? All of a sudden, I’m, like, 53 years old, I’m working in one restaurant, it can’t get any bigger, and I just felt like I was a dumb cook. I couldn’t figure out how to be a chef and take advantage of what we had built.”

A big step was realizing he didn’t need to and shouldn’t try to create everything himself. Before the fire, every chef de cuisine at Manresa had been promoted from within the restaurant. Kinch expanded his search. He hired Mitch Lienhard, who previously cooked at Saison, Grace, and Alinea, as Manresa’s chef de cuisine. Together, they led the kitchen team that got Manresa three Michelin stars for the first time. The restaurant’s new chef de cuisine, Nicholas Romero, also came from outside the Manresa ecosystem.

“I’d be a fool not to take advantage of his experience,” Kinch says of Romero, who’s been marveling at California’s produce after moving from Chicago, where he cooked at Smyth, Grace, and L20. “I’m not afraid to learn. I’m not afraid to ask questions or find out if there’s a technique or a product or something that can be contributed that’s coming from outside and hasn’t been within our world before. I’ll evaluate everything, and my job is to determine, again, whether it’s a reflection of who we are and where we are.”

- Eric Wolfinger
Eric Wolfinger

Kinch was recently in France for two weeks, where he cooked with three-Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alléno. He’s energized when he collaborates with other great chefs, so he does it often. In September, he’ll host dinners at Manresa with three-Michelin-starred Belgian chef Gert De Mangeleer. In October, Kinch will cook at Restaurant Ikarus in Salzburg.

But some old habits die hard, and Kinch was at first resistant about spending as much time as he did in France on his recent visit. He had some time in between events, so his original plan was returning to Los Gatos for four days before going back to Paris. Romero and Manresa general manager Jenny Yun told Kinch not to be an idiot and insisted he stay in France.

Kinch bought a plane ticket for his wine director Jim Rollston, who recently celebrated four years at Manresa, and they bonded while tasting a lot of Burgundy. With all his newfound time in France, Kinch made some restaurant reservations. In Paris, he enjoyed dinner at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée, where Ducasse is doing something “really kind of revolutionary” with a meat-free “naturalité” menu that avoids dairy products and sugar as much as possible. Kinch was dazzled by the charcuterie at Arnaud Nicolas, where Nicolas “is completely redefining how charcuterie’s being made in the 21st century. The guy’s a genius.”

Kinch takes out his phone to show me pictures of Nicolas creations like a poultry-and-foie-gras pie.

“The only fat in it is the foie,” he says. “But it’s tender, it’s juicy. You can tell when it was cooked that no liquid or fat left out on the top. All the juices and all the fats are in the interior.”

Then Kinch raves about a meal he had outside Paris, at Flocons de Sel in Megève.

“Just absolutely amazing, a top, top three-star experience,” Kinch says. “But local product. Nothing fancy. Just perfect cooking, perfect, and exceptional seasoning. Which is what it’s all about.”

At Manresa, Kinch has excelled at the highest level of fine dining, but he’s got less rarefied ambitions as he thinks about the next chapter of his life.

“I’m not worried about a legacy,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of chefs out there who are obsessed with their legacy. Who gives a shit? The world decides your legacy. Your work defines your legacy, not you being proactive and trying to create it. I have a lot of people tell me I could never leave the business. I talk to them about retiring. Thomas Keller laughed at me when I said that.”

But Kinch is resolute about not spending the rest of his life at Manresa.

“I want to write books,” he says. “I want to sail and I don’t want to, like, weekend-cruise sale. I want to create an adventure. There are things that I want to do in my life that I haven’t had the opportunity to do because I’ve worked enough for two lifetimes.”

This isn’t about regrets. This is about understanding that there’s still time.

“I feel I have other creative processes in me,” he says. “I do want to find the time where I’m going to step away. Is that going to be five years from now, six years, eight years? I don’t know. But it’s going to happen.”

All this said, he’ll likely keep cooking.

“Why can’t I have a restaurant where I feed 18 people the same menu, like a dinner party, and only do it on Friday and Saturday and do it on a small island in the Grenadines?” he says. “Where I’m cooking in flip-flops and cut-off shorts. You know, that sounds very appealing.”

What’s also appealing is the idea of traveling more and celebrating the feeling of losing yourself, just enjoying the idea of lag.

“For me, when you travel, you’re going to have lag,” he says. “You’re going to get off the plane. You’re going to sleep. You’re going to pop up at 4 o’clock in the morning, and the best thing you can possibly do, at least for me, is go to the market.”

It’s this tremendous feeling, being alone in a foreign place, with nothing on your schedule for a while and no reason to be upright beyond the fact that your mind and body are confused. You are physically tired, groggy, maybe a little out of sorts. But you are also very much awake.

“Inspiration is not necessarily eating a dish somewhere, even though of course it can be that,” Kinch says. “But it can also be seeing a product, seeing a different color. It’s the smell of the market. It’s the culmination of a lot of things."

Manresa, 320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA, 408-354-4330

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