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Interview with Laurent Manrique

Aqua, San Francisco

What's your favorite new ingredient?
Very recently I've been into all the influences from Middle Eastern and Moroccan cuisine, like cumin, saffron, cardamom, charmoula. We make a tuna tartare using the same preparation you'd use for Moroccan lamb tartare, with dates, cumin, harissa, fennel pollen and coriander.

What's the most versatile spice?
Black pepper.

What's the most underused spice?
Piment d'Espelette. I think too many chefs think it's just a red pepper powder. It's spicy-hot but it has a lot of flavor. I season fish and meats with it. I use it in the cooking process and also raw at the end. The difference in flavors is very distinct.

What items should be in every pantry?
Garlic, salt and pepper. I use gray sea salt.

What's your favorite knife?
I'm old-fashioned. I like K Sabatier knives for just normal slicing and chopping. But I'm very intrigued by all the Japanese knives, especially since we use lots of raw fish and we need a delicate blade. You really need to be steady with a knife before you can use them. It's like a saber for a samurai. I also like using ceramic knives for any raw food preparation, especially pineapple or mango or even Boston lettuce, because the blade won't oxidize and brown foods.

What's your favorite pan?
I like a good cast-iron sauté pan. You can find them in most kitchen stores. They're great for fish, meat, vegetables. Of course I like copper for the uniformity of the heat, but dark cast-iron pans are my favorite. They're the kinds cowboys used over a campfire. A chef could go crazy finding the best, sophisticated pan, but I just prefer this.

What's your favorite place to buy equipment?
I don't have any specific place. I travel a lot and I'll just buy things and see how to import it. Recently, I was in Italy and found some new espresso cups and ceramic spoons so I bought them for our new café in San Francisco. They're made by a German company but are distributed in Italy. They don't sell in the United States but you can buy them in our café.

What's the kitchen appliance you wish for most?
For my kitchen at home I'd want a Molteni oven, but it's too fragile for the restaurant. I'm not one of those chefs—my kitchen is not a lab. I respect chefs who want to do that, but that's not my style. I still want a stainless steel bowl and whisk to beat my eggs. In the next 20 years, chefs are going to be so equipped, they won't know what it is to beat an egg.

What's the best restaurant dish you ate in 2005?
I own a vineyard in Spain and all the young chefs are talking about Spain and molecular cuisine, but I just had the best rib-eye steak at a restaurant near the Finca Allende winery in Rioja. As a chef you learn that steak has to be cooked very fast, but it was cooked over wood and at a low temperature. It was so simple. It was served with potatoes roasted with olive oil, and no sauce.

What's your favorite sushi place?
Sushi Sam's in San Mateo [California]. The great masters of sushi say simple is best, but the cook there tries to introduce spices and sauces that aren't necessarily Japanese. He'll use raw and fried garlic, and he'll use black pepper like a steak au poivre but with hamachi—that was beautiful. He still respects the delicateness and finesse of the fish and respects the cuisine.

What restaurant would you want to eat in once a week?
My mother's kitchen—she lives in Gascony. She's a great chef.

If you were going to open a fast-food place, what kind of food would you serve?
A great sandwich place. I think this country is very creative with sandwiches. So I'd make great sandwiches with great ingredients.

Are there any dining trends you see on the rise?
I think northeastern Europe is going to have a lot of talented chefs. Eric Ripert [of New York City's Le Bernardin] and I recently went to Scandinavia and found some really interesting things happening there. But unfortunately, chefs are losing their regional identity—it's the same thing that's happening in the wine business. People are losing their roots, their originality, their identity. It's very interesting to see chefs inspired by their roots and putting a modern twist on tradition. But you're even losing that. If you go to South Africa, New Zealand or New York City, you see incredibly designed restaurants, very hip restaurants, but the food starts to all look the same. The wine looks the same. But look at cars—they way they build cars is the same. This is dangerous.

From whom would you most like to take a cooking class?
I admire Jacques Pépin for his classic techniques. I just love how precise he is when he ties a chicken, when he fillets a fish. I just enjoy watching him on TV.

If you had $10 to spend on any piece of equipment, what would it be?
Always the paring knife. We never have enough. I see too many cooks peeling vegetables with a slicing knife. They use the wrong tools. It's called a couteau d'office (office knife) in French. It's useful to do all the small tasks. It's very precise. The first thing you're taught in schools is how to use them. But now you see young chefs who think the bigger the knife is the better it is. I would give $10 to each of my cooks and say, "Buy a paring knife."

What's your favorite cookbook?
Jean-Louis Palladin's cookbook [Cooking with the Seasons]. He was such an incredible chef. He was so advanced for his time—in terms of technique, precision, even the artwork in the book. It's a piece of art.

Have you ever backed a young chef?
I never backed anyone in terms of helping them open a restaurant, but I've sent a lot of sous-chefs to New York City and Europe since they give so much up for us. I send them to Alain Ducasse and to Eric Ripert to stage. My chefs did that for me, so I owe it to the young generation. They work so hard for such low pay, you become a mentor to them. You owe them guidance and help for the future. I don't believe in the chefs who want to keep their employees for themselves and aren't happy for them to grow. That's the wrong mentality.

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