Chef David Kinch: Partnership of Restaurant and Farm

01 Jul, 2012

In the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area you will find Manresa restaurant. Helmed by world-renowned chef David Kinch—whose unique interpretation of California cuisine has garnered significant attention—Manresa has received two Michelin stars for six years in a row. It was named in the Zagat Survey of 2012 as one of the top five restaurants in the Bay Area. Kinch himself was nominated as 2011 Chef of the Year by GQ magazine, and he received the 2010 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in America: Pacific region. The list of accolades and awards goes substantially onward.

The flavors expressed by Chef Kinch tap directly into the rich flavor heritage of the local area—a practice he has espoused for many years. Specifically he is embracing what is known as terroir—defined traditionally as the flavor reflection in crops (originally wine grapes) of a particular region.

“I became interested in terroir while learning about wine through visiting really great restaurants in France at a young age when I was cutting my teeth as a fledgling cook,” Kinch told Organic Connections. “I started to understand the concept of terroir with regard to wine, and I realized you could apply the same concept to food.

“I have a theory that there are two common denominators to the world’s great restaurants. One is that the cooking is reflective of a certain individual; it reflects the unique vision of a chef, an owner—or many different people.

“The other is that it’s reflective of where the restaurant is. If a restaurant were out in the countryside of France, no matter how good it was, you couldn’t pick it up and drop it down in midtown Manhattan. Restaurants being a function of where they are is kind of the concept of terroir. It is a reflection of the soil and location that’s mirrored in the wine—and I think you can do the same thing with restaurants.”

The Farm

Chef Kinch’s terroir approach is forged through a “farm-to-table” relationship that enables him to serve produce of the local area at its peak of flavor.

Back in 2002 Kinch had been utilizing locally and artisanally farmed ingredients for Manresa, when he began entertaining the idea of growing his own produce. This led him directly to a grower with whom he was already familiar—Cynthia Sandberg of nearby Love Apple Farms—and with whom he would ultimately form an exclusive partnership.

“Cynthia supplied tomatoes to me for one summer and they were really fantastic,” Kinch said. “I thought, ‘Well, this is great, I have a tomato grower in season for the next couple of years.’ After that first year of getting to know her, I had this concept that I would start to grow my own vegetables and cause a degree of separation from other shops. I began talking to growers that I knew, asking them if they could help me. I asked Cynthia, and she immediately offered herself and her services to start a small farm because it was something that she’d always wanted to do.”

“I’d been getting a lot of good press for my tomatoes,” Cynthia Sandberg told Organic Connections. “I’d appeared in Sunset magazine and in a lot of newspapers and radio shows. One of the interviewers told me about this restaurant in Los Gatos that had just been named one of the top restaurants in the world. When I was dining there on my first occasion—having the most amazing meal of my life—David Kinch came out of the kitchen and introduced himself, because somebody had told him that I was a local tomato grower and he likes to source locally. That ultimately led to our partnership.”

The exceptional flavors that have brought such repute to Love Apple Farms’ produce were certainly no accident. Early on, Sandberg implemented biodynamic principles—the farming methods originally evolved by Rudolf Steiner in 1924—which emphasize the natural interrelationship of soil, plants, animals and insects. In addition to the obvious benefits to the land and produce itself, the difference in taste between crops produced with these methods and those grown in “conventional” industrial agriculture is quite significant.

“It’s a subtlety of taste—and probably some people would even claim nutrition—that, in my opinion, is all about just taking extreme care of the soil and paying close attention to what’s going on in the plant and animal life on the farm,” Sandberg explained.

“It’s fantastic,” Kinch agreed. “It’s a long process that continues to this day, and the soil keeps improving every year. You amend it, you work at it, it gets better and better, and the product that grows gets better and better. The quality is excellent—and it’s close by. In addition, you have this intangible element: Cynthia and I are working toward the same goal with the same vegetables.

“But it comes back to this terroir aspect. The fact that I use vegetables that are grown nearby the restaurant by Cynthia, who is growing them with the knowledge that they’re going to be used in Manresa down the road, contributes to this intangible terroir—the reflection of where we are that we’re trying to pursue.”

As part of that pursuit, Manresa’s menus are changed daily to highlight the best produce available from Love Apple Farms. This produce is prepared and served on the very same day it is harvested, bringing the highest possible flavor experience to Manresa’s clientele.

The Menu

Recent examples from the menu include sea bream and assorted shellfish, sashimi style, with olive oil and chives; a garden green soup, with stone-ground mustard cream and multicolored purées; hazelnut praline with celtuce, quince vinegar and winter mushrooms; thinly sliced wagyu beef, dried tuna and black tea bouillon; and a dish called “Into the Vegetable Garden . . . Their Natural Juices,” which incorporates various elements of a plant at different times of its life—roots, stems, seed, flowers, buds, leaves and shoots—as well as edible “dirt” made from roasted chicory root and dried potatoes.

Choosing from either a six-course menu or a tasting menu decided by Chef Kinch, guests can view a list of up to 60 assorted ingredients that might be available from the kitchen that day. All vegetables, several fruits and many other provisions come directly from Love Apple Farms, and Kinch sources his meats from the finest California purveyors. Every ingredient coming into the kitchen meets Kinch’s strict standards.

The partnership between Kinch and Sandberg is an ever-evolving process. “Every day our farm is dedicated to growing as many fruits, herbs, vegetables and edible flowers as we can think of on our 80 acres,” Sandberg said. “In the height of summer we’ll grow about 300 different cultivars for David. We’re sowing and transplanting, harvesting, thinning, weeding, mulching, fertilizing, and lovingly caring for all these plants that we then harvest for him several times a week and deliver to the restaurant.”

“There’s a lot of product that grows there,” Kinch continued. “Of course there are the seasonal items, things that we’ve grown every year. There are also products that haven’t worked out in the past, so there are some that we drop. Then there is experimental product. On a day-to-day basis we have live Google documents where we can check from the restaurant what’s available at the farm and what needs to be used up. The farm can see at our end what we need, what we’re going through, and how we’re changing it on the menu. I use that method, as well as physical walks through the farm, to decide how we put things on the menu.

“We plan about two or three seasons ahead. We sit down with seed catalogues. We talk about past success and failures. Do we want to try something new? Do we want to bend the amount that we grow for the restaurant? Is there something we particularly like that we want to grow more of and use more of because we’re excited about it? And so on.”

With all the attention being paid to the dining experience, Manresa is influencing other restaurants to source locally or to start growing their own produce.

“David was one of the pioneers in this regard,” Sandberg said. “He’s had so many restaurants and chefs follow his lead that there is now a huge interest in fine restaurants either sourcing locally or taking it to the next step—like David has—and actually creating their own farm or garden. It’s a developing trend and it’s going to be a continuing trend.”

“I think the benefit is the quality of produce and the fact that you have control of that,” Kinch concluded. “I don’t get up on a soapbox about it—I don’t preach; I don’t have ‘mission statements’ at the restaurant. I like to think that the proof is on the plate. Manresa has become very vegetable-centric—vegetables take front and center on a lot of dishes at the restaurant. I think people see the value of the relationship and I allow that to speak.”

For further information on Manresa, visit www.manresarestaurant.com.

To learn more about Love Apple Farms, visit www.growbetterveggies.com.

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