Nearly three years ago, chef David Kinch uprooted Manresa from its tiny California town of Los Gatos and dropped it in France. The chef wanted to celebrate the 15th anniversary of his Michelin three-star restaurant through a series of residencies that would pay homage to his staff and to the country where he’d found a font of inspiration. “France was always close to my heart as a young cook,” he says. “My mind was blown when I first went and worked over in Europe—it suggested there was endless possibility and potential. And I wanted my staff, especially my younger staff, to share a part of that.”
A documentary film crew captured the journey. Along with teams from three other acclaimed French restaurants, the Manresa crew recreates and reinterprets the painstaking food that has made Kinch a fine dining icon in America. The film, A Chef’s Voyage, was released in April and stood in stark contrast to what Kinch is doing now. The style of food they cooked and the hospitality they created in the movie has ceased to exist in a Covid-19 world. And yet, through the film (proceeds of which benefit the Lee Initiative, a restaurant workers relief organization) Kinch problem-solves, deals with uncertainty and cares for his employees. It’s these qualities he needs now more than ever, especially because he believes there are only more difficult challenges to come.
“This reality we’re in right now has two different parts, and I really think we’re in the easy part now, which is just surviving through the shelter at home orders,” Kinch says. “The hard part is going to be opening the restaurant back up.”
When the shutdowns first started in California, Kinch and team moved quickly to change from a Michelin three-star experience for 50 diners a night to feeding hundreds of people takeout. They had larders and refrigerators filled with food and more deliveries scheduled to arrive. The early motivation to cook was simply not to let it go to waste. “That would be the worst possible disrespect we could do,” Kinch says. The idea on what to serve almost grew out of a lark that started in late 2016.
In December of that year, the Manresa staff started posting pictures of “Family Meal” on Instagram. In the restaurant industry, family meal is that moment of a hectic work day before service when the team stops to eat together, dining on a meal one or multiple people cook for everyone else. For takeout they wouldn’t try to reproduce what they’d normally feed guests, they’d make the comfort food they’d normally cook for each other. “It captures what we feed ourselves—simple, nourishing, comforting food,” Kinch says. “We’d pretend that instead of doing it for a staff of 35, we’re doing it for a staff of 300.” One night there may be hanger steak roasted potatoes and kale salad and another braised short ribs, asparagus and marinated cabbage.
Over at his newest restaurant Mentone—his ode to the overlap of Italian and French cuisines—he’s serving a limited menu of salads, sides, cocktails, wine and three different pizzas a night. Then on the weekends they’re doing “Sunday Suppers” where they test dishes that would have been—and may someday be—on the full Mentone menu. Because that restaurant has actually never served dine-in customers. It was slated to open on April 1, and Kinch decided to go through with the opening despite the Covid-19 crisis and offer takeout. He’s currently spending most of his time at Mentone, as he feels Manresa is in good hands day-to-day.
Right now, Kinch is focused primarily on survival for his restaurants and those around him. “I have two responsibilities here. First to my team members to make sure they’re healthy, safe and being taken care of to the best of our abilities until this is all over with,” Kinch says. “The second is to our vendors. We’re going to need them when we come back.”
In the world of fine dining, so much work goes into the meal before cooks actually start handling product in the kitchen. Kinch and restaurants like Manresa depend on a myriad of small purveyors that connect them with the very best ingredients possible. And Kinch worries about them. “It’s the small artists and producers, the craftsmen, the craftspeople, the people who engage in producing particular products, because they have a passion for it. Those are the ones that are in real trouble,” he says. He’s already seeing that organic produce is harder to come by and that distribution networks are in shambles.
Yet, this is not the moment that gives him most pause. It’s the world a fully open Manresa comes back to that leaves him uneasy. “People are grasping for human interactions and to be out in public and to be social, but I’m a bit concerned about the scorched earth economic landscape that will be left behind and whether that will break the impetus for going out,” Kinch says. “People are going to change their business models. People will change their mindset on how to operate. And most importantly of all, people’s mindsets will change about what’s truly important.”
Perhaps people won’t want to dine at expensive tasting menu restaurants with money tight or that specialty ingredients will be harder to find if purveyors go out of business. But it’s also true that he’s only looking to fill 50 seats per night there and may fill enough of those reservations each day to survive in the aftermath. At his more casual, New Orleans-inspired restaurant Bywater, he’s hoping what draws people back is the sense of neighborhood they’ve developed there. And as for Mentone, his ode to France, he’s not going to scrap his original vision for the restaurant. Like in the documentary when he had to problem-solve, he wants to find a way to do it his way.
“I have a plan for what I wanted here, and that’s what I’m going to do,” Kinch says. “But I’m not going to respond to a pandemic with a knee-jerk reaction. I’m going to do what’s right for our vision and my team.”