Whatever Crops Up
Carolyn Jung - September 2011
At his refurbished Manresa, David Kinch sets his menu to the seasonal rhythms of Cynthia Sandberg’s expanded Love Apple Farms. Carolyn Jung explores this exclusive and mutually beneficial chef-farmer relationship.
For David Kinch, the natural world has the ultimate say. It provides him calm before the storm, as he surfs the breaks off Santa Cruz before starting a long day at Manresa, his restaurant in Los Gatos, California. It bestows—but sometimes precariously takes away—the delicate herbs, fruits, and vegetables grown on a nearby farm for his restaurant and his alone. And it decidedly informs the way this seasoned chef cooks now, as what’s picked fresh that morning and arrives at his restaurant just hours later dictates exactly what his menu is all about each and every night.
That umbilical relationship is even more tightly entwined now that the organic biodynamic farm moved to a larger swath in Santa Cruz last spring, expanding from two to 20 acres to provide his restaurant even greater abundance. His nine year old Manresa, named for both a medieval town in northern Spain and a stretch of breathtaking beach south of Santa Cruz, also just underwent a $500,000 metamorphosis. To the 1940s historic ranch-style building he added a spacious second dining room, allowing the restaurant to seat up to 70 now. Other spiffy additions include a walk-in wine cellar, hand-blown crystal chandeliers, and a bar and lounge that give guests a comfortable place to await their table rather than mill around in an entryway. The menu format remains the same, with five courses for $115 or a $170 tasting menu of about 10 courses. But diners now enjoy all of that in a much more elegant setting with a new palette that evokes the soothing hues of sand, driftwood, fog, and sea, so meaningful to Kinch.
Yet from the time the hammering and sawing began in earnest in January, so did chatter about what’s really behind the improvements. For four years, The French Laundry had been the lone restaurant in the Bay Area to boast three Michelin stars, until The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, under Christopher Kostow, cracked that lofty threshold last year to join the ranks of Thomas Keller’s flagship Yountville establishment. For five consecutive years, Manresa has been within grasp of that with two Michelin stars. There has been much speculation that Kinch, who just turned 50, is gunning hard for that lustrous third star. He denies that. In fact, he’s emphatic that Manresa’s new incarnation is, well, only natural.
“I don’t lay awake and think about how I will get a third star,” Kinch says, shaking his head. “We’re really hoping customers see this as not some sort of garish star grab, but as a logical step. It’s part of reinventing ourselves and moving forward.”
Although he shrugs that awards are not his thing, Kinch has amassed plenty since he began working in restaurants at age 16, including a James Beard Award last year as best chef in the Pacific region. Raised in New Orleans, he worked at the venerable Commander’s Palace under Paul Prudhomme before staging at Michelin-starred restaurants in France, Germany, and Spain. He went on to become chef of New York City’s Quilted Giraffe, Silks in the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco, and the legendary Ernie’s in San Francisco. In 1995, Kinch opened his first restaurant, the charming Catalan-inspired Sent Sovi, which arguably, almost single-handedly put sleepy downtown Saratoga, California, on the map for discriminating Bay Area diners.
Four years later, having outgrown its cramped kitchen, Kinch started searching for a larger property for a new restaurant. Two deals fell through at the last minute that would have put him in San Francisco. Then, in 1999, he spied a historic building hidden away in downtown Los Gatos. It had been the site of a quaint nonprofit tearoom in the 1960s. As he contemplated the property, he remembered the wise words Keller bestowed upon him after he had dined at The French Laundry one evening, returning the next morning to retrieve a wine bag he had left behind.
“We were having coffee and Thomas asked, ‘Can I give you some advice?’” Kinch recalls. “He said that if I find the right place that I should buy the land and the property. He said that if I’m going to do this for 20 years, then it would be beneficial to have something tangible. I took it to heart.”
With the help of investors, Kinch did exactly that—buying the building and the land, with its off-the-beaten-path locale—that especially appealed to him. “The great meaningful restaurants to me are the ones in the French countryside that are family-owned with real passion,” Kinch says. “You drive three hours, and tucked away on some side street is this Michelin three-star restaurant that everyone came just to eat at. I thought, ‘How cool is that?’”
It’s even more impressive now, because that’s essentially what Manresa has become. Every night in the dining room, there’s sure to be one table of diners from Europe and another table from New York City. All of them ventured an hour’s drive south of San Francisco to this tucked-away spot just to eat Kinch’s refined dishes, including a changeable composition called Into the Vegetable Garden, a stunner that transports whatever’s been just harvested onto the plate, a complex medley of raw and cooked vegetables flavored only with their own natural juices, ethereal potato foam, and “dirt” cleverly fashioned from dried potatoes and roasted chicory root.
Like so many chefs, Kinch scoured farmers’ markets regularly for his produce. But as chefs waited in line ahead of him and more queued up behind him, all buying the same items, he realized he wanted more than that. He knew that, in order to distinguish his food, he had to start with ingredients that were unlike anyone else’s. That meant growing them to his exact specifications. That meant having a farm to do so. Or as his eventual business partner Cynthia Sandberg so aptly describes: Not community supported agriculture, but restaurant supported agriculture.
Sandberg had already been selling her glorious summer tomatoes to Manresa when she got an unexpected call from Kinch while he was cooking at the Masters of Food & Wine in Carmel with Alain Passard, of Michelin three-star L’Arpege, who has a small biodynamic farm outside of Paris. “David had a revelatory moment,” Sandberg says about Kinch’s time with Passard. “He started talking about wanting to do a farm for his restaurant. He couldn’t see me on the other end of the phone, but I was jumping up and down, waving my arm: ‘Pick me! Pick me!’”
He did choose her, entering into an exclusive agreement six years ago with Sandberg’s Love Apple Farms, named after the original nickname for the tomato. Sandberg never set out to be a farmer. In fact, the 51 year old former trial lawyer once had such a black thumb that she ended up killing all the plants she had landscaped her house with. She took a basic horticulture class at a community college and grew so enthralled that she wound up taking the entire course load there. Then, she started growing tomatoes. She ended up with far more seedlings than she needed, so she sold the rest to her neighbors. Now, her annual tomato seedling sale—with 30,000 seedlings of 100 varieties—has grown into the largest in the state, with folks even driving up and back from Los Angeles in one day just for it.
To accommodate Manresa’s needs, Sandberg tore out her lawn and swimming pool at her Ben Lomond home north of Santa Cruz to create more planting space. Kinch also had to convince his investors to fork over several thousands of dollars to help purchase a greenhouse and half barrel-shaped structure for plants there.
Then last spring, Love Apple Farms moved to a magnificent new spread in the Santa Cruz Mountains, only 15 minutes away from Manresa. The farm took over what was the original Smothers Brothers Winery (yes, those Smothers Brothers). It’s a challenging spot because it sits on a steep hill that had been terraced for vineyards. Sandberg already has built 60 raised beds to grow everything from ficoïde glaciale, a crunchy succulent, to the impossibly thin, intensely peppery rat-tail radish that’s a favorite of Kinch’s. She’s thrilled to be in a warmer climate now, but the drawback is that along with it come more slugs, squirrels, and gophers. Although garlic spray is a common and effective organic pesticide, Sandberg can’t use it because Kinch would detect it on the produce. Instead, interns, who live on the property, pick pests off the plants every day by hand.
Sandberg was fortunate that the property came with a few buildings on it, which can accommodate the chicken-raising, bee-keeping, and compost-making classes she conducts, as well as the once-a-month cooking classes Kinch teaches. After all, she still has to earn enough revenue to make the farm viable. Kinch does not own the farm. Sandberg does, along with her partner, Daniel Maxfield. At the height of summer, the farm provides the restaurant with 300 different herbs, fruits, and vegetables, almost all started from seed. Kinch makes use of every bit, too, from the tiny leaves and immature stalks to the full-grown products and their blooms. The new property allows space to grow fig, pomegranate, pear, Gravenstein apple, and rare citrus trees for the first time. It also gives her ample room for three beehives to produce dark molasses-like honey, additional hens to lay more eggs, and a few more goats to provide rich grassy milk to make cheese. In the future, game hens, lambs, and heritage-breed pigs will be raised here, too.
Many chefs have tried to woo Sandberg away, but she already believes she’s working with the best one possible. Kinch has also been approached by fellow chefs, eager to start their own farms, without realizing just how much work it takes. “They think they can just buy seeds and put them in the ground. They have no idea,” says Kinch, who can be found wandering about the farm regularly in jeans and a down vest. “There are failures, the weather can suck—all these things come into factor. It’s at least twice as expensive for us to grow our own produce. But it’s also twice as satisfying.”
His friend, Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin in New York City, is one chef who fully understands that. Ripert visited the original Love Apple Farms for an episode of his Avec Eric television show, and even received some precious seeds from Sandberg to grow the incredibly sweet but thorny morelle de Balbis, or litchi tomatoes, which she discovered from Passard’s gardener. “The farm brings a level of intense creativity to David’s food. It makes him playful in that he’s always experimenting with new herbs and vegetables,” Ripert says. “Now, it’s true that David and Cynthia sent me some seeds to grow. But I’m embarrassed to admit we planted them incorrectly, and they failed.”
That’s fine by Kinch. After all, Michelin inspectors notwithstanding, he seems pleased with what nature and a lot of hard work have wrought. “I always dreamed of having my own restaurant. And I always wanted to have the best restaurant. I didn’t know where I would end up. But I certainly like where I have.”