“This is a real dirt-farmer dish,” says chef David Kinch as he prepares a swamp-colored gumbo for his New Orleans party. “There’s a ton of greens in here—lettuce, watercress, mustard greens, even carrot tops,” he continues as he loads this gumbo z’herbes with mounds of smoked ham, pork shoulder and andouille.
At his restaurant Manresa, an hour south of San Francisco, Kinch is known for elegant, delicate, vegetable-driven dishes. In fact, he demands such high-quality produce that he contracted Love Apple Farms, a nearby 22-acre biodynamic plot, to supply him with ingredients grown to his exact specifications. Today, however, this vegetable genius, this mastermind of culinary balance and restraint, is tackling a style of cuisine associated with none of these things. “Cooking New Orleans food is a fun challenge for me—I want to celebrate these dishes that I know and love so much, but give them a more ambitious vegetable character,” he says. “And a bit less of that ‘mo’ betta’ spice, fat and salt.”
Though Kinch has worked in northern California for two decades, he considers New Orleans his home. “I seriously wonder if I’d have become a chef if I’d lived elsewhere,” he says. The son of a civil engineer, he was an “oil brat” who moved to New Orleans as a teenager in the late 1970s. After bussing tables at a restaurant, he decided he wanted to become a chef. “I was just fascinated by the cooks—they worked with open fire, they worked with their hands,” he says. “I was young and impressionable, and I was swept up into the restaurant tribe, this profane group of people who worked hard and played hard, all for the satisfaction of other people.”
Barefoot, unshaven and sleepy-eyed, Kinch has been up since 4 a.m. preparing for a party at the home of Jill Dupré and Josh Mayer, a friend of his since 10th grade. Kinch comes back to New Orleans often with his girlfriend, food blogger–turned–jam maker Pim Techamuanvivit, to stay with Dupré and Mayer for Jazz Fest. “Josh is one of my oldest friends,” says Kinch. “And it doesn’t hurt that his house is a few blocks from the Jazz Fest fairgrounds.”
Kinch is six feet tall and has the barrel-chested physique of a fisherman or truck driver. His hands, however, are incredibly deft. As he casually prepares the chorizo, he talks about his first real kitchen job at one of New Orleans’s most famous restaurants, Commander’s Palace, working for legendary chef Paul Prudhomme. “The first week I was there, Paul called me over. He had a salad that I’d made. He said, ‘Did you make this?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Are you proud of this salad?’ I took the plate from his hand, and I went back to my station to make it again.” Kinch laughs loudly. “I still use that line in my own kitchen.”
Today’s dishes wouldn’t seem out of place at Commander’s Palace, but they’ve been retrofitted from the inside, like a Cadillac DeVille with a Prius hybrid engine. Instead of bolstering his dirty rice with pork and chicken livers, as is traditional, Kinch flavors it with eggplant. New Orleans cooks thicken gumbos with roux—equal parts fat and flour—but Kinch uses greens. “They give my gumbo this amazing, creamy texture. And there’s virtually no fat in the broth.”
When guests start to arrive, Kinch heads out to man the grill, returning with a platter of fat oysters that he drizzles with a chorizo butter. For all the butter, spice and pork, the dish is surprisingly light on its feet. “That’s the lime juice and lime zest,” says Kinch. “They bring the dish into harmony.”
A cooler full of awe-inspiring Gulf shrimp, each one nearly the size of a banana, has been procured with the help of local chef John Besh. Kinch begins to prepare his version of a New Orleans curiosity called barbecue shrimp that is not grilled, smoked or served in a barbecue sauce. “No one knows why it’s called barbecue shrimp,” says Kinch. “Josh, do you know?”
Most local cooks drown the shrimp in a spicy, buttery Worcestershire-spiked sauce. Kinch instead drizzles the shrimp with an Italian-style bagna cauda, a warm mix of olive oil, garlic and anchovies. Even the women in cocktail dresses eat the oil-dripping monsters over the garbage, sucking out the best bits from the head.
This being New Orleans, there’s a jazz musician on hand who gives a performance after the gumbo, but before the dancing. With the cooking done, Kinch relaxes and shares stories of being a young, food-mad, music-loving teenager in New Orleans. Of seeing Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters perform, of a near-death experience in a grimy nightclub. Then he disappears, reemerging with dessert: chicory-flavored beignets that combine the chicory coffee and doughnuts at the iconic Café Du Monde into perfect little triangles.
The dish inspires Kinch to reminisce. “The reason I left New Orleans and moved to New York was because I thought I’d have a better chance of getting to France, which was where all the world’s great restaurants were,” he recalls. “And then, when I got to work in France, I was most impressed at how eating well was ingrained into everyone’s lives. At the time, I was thinking, Why can’t any place in the US be like this? Only later did I realize that there is a place like that in America—and it’s New Orleans.”
David Kinch’s first cookbook, Manresa, is out in October 2013. His restaurant is located at 320 Village Ln., Los Gatos, CA; manresarestaurant.com.