From Manresa to the New Mentone, David Kinch Looks Ahead After Another Fire
The chef reopens his three-Michelin-starred Los Gatos restaurant and reveals details about the Riviera cuisine he’ll serve in Aptos.
Chef David Kinch was out of the country in July, on a trip in Guadalajara where he cooked for a friend’s birthday and saw the unveiling of some new artwork. After a busy night of service, he was relaxing with a cigar and a glass of tequila when he heard some news that upended his summer.
“I got the call at about 1, 1:30 in the morning,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a joke at first.”
The phone call was from Jenny Yun, general manager of Kinch’s three-Michelin-starred Manresa in Northern California. Yun told Kinch that the Los Gatos restaurant had been damaged in a fire.
Once Kinch realized this wasn’t a joke, his mind started to swirl. The fire seemed suspicious. The blaze happened on July 16, four years to the month after Manresa had suffered more than $2 million in damage from a devastating fire. That 2014 fire was determined to be arson, and the perpetrator was never found. July 16 was also four days after Food & Wine published an article about how that first fire ended up making Manresa a better restaurant. Like the 2014 fire, the second one started outside Manresa.
“I thought that it was too odd of a coincidence, after a national article coming out about us coming back better than ever after the fire, to have another fire in almost the exact same location almost exactly to the same day four years later,” Kinch says.
Everyone involved in Manresa was relieved when the fire department and police department determined that this second fire was accidental. This was, indeed, just an extremely weird coincidence, a fire caused by a bag filled with dirty, somewhat oily kitchen linen that was left outside and spontaneously combusted on a hot summer day.
“The camera footage shows the bag starting to ever so slightly smoke and then smoke a little bit more and then smolder,” Kinch says.
The bag catching on fire after smoking for about two hours resulted in a blaze that caused close to $1 million in damage at Manresa.
“The good news is that both the fire department and police department said to me that I should count myself extremely lucky that it’s accidental and that it wasn’t arson,” Kinch says. “Because if it was arson, that would be troubling.”
There were other factors that have made Kinch feel lucky during this difficult time. Manresa was closed when both the 2014 fire and the more recent fire struck, so nobody was hurt either time. In 2014, the damage was much more severe and Manresa didn’t reopen until New Year’s Eve. This time around, Manresa will reopen on Wednesday, September 19. The July 16 fire has no doubt cost Kinch time and money, but he knows things could be worse.
“My main concern was the wellbeing of the staff and their inability to work for an indefinite amount of time,” he says. “Fortunately, the insurance company helped us out significantly. That helped ease our pain.”
Employees have been paid during the closure, and the restaurant has received some compensation for loss of revenue.
“There was no doubt that we were going to reopen,” Kinch says. “Hopefully we won’t have this conversation a third time.”
Last Friday, Kinch and his staff were reloading their kitchen with pans, plates, and ingredients. The hot water for the dishwasher had been turned on the night before, and the kitchen crew was getting ready to spend the weekend prepping dishes. There was new carpet and new paint at Manresa, and the dining-room staff was arriving at noon to adjust lighting and arrange tables and chairs. Kinch plans to put up some new pieces of art.
“I still feel like we have a lot of relevance and that we have a lot to accomplish,” says Kinch, who spent much of the summer cooking at home.
Manresa is a restaurant that cooks seasonally, of course, so it was sad for Kinch to have his restaurant closed for a large portion of the summer. But he realizes that there’s still time to showcase some of the summer’s remaining bounty. About half of the menu he will reopen with is new.
For the next six weeks, Manresa’s iconic "Into the Vegetable Garden" dish will focus on tomatoes.
“Love Apple Farms is going to be supplying tomatoes to us,” he says. “We’re going to make a complete tomato and fruit dish where we celebrate diversity, color, size, shape, different cultivators, the complexities and variety of tomatoes.”
Knowing Kinch, this dish will be sweet, savory, crisp, soft, and a lot of other things simultaneously. Also knowing Kinch, the inherent flavors of the tomatoes will be the driving force.
“It’s a fancy tomato salad,” he says.
Beyond everything going on at Manresa, Kinch is a chef with expansion on his mind. Kinch, who also operates The Bywater in Los Gatos and Manresa Bread in Los Gatos and Los Altos, will open an all-day-café outpost of Manresa Bread in Campbell this fall. Along with the loaves and pastries that partner/head baker Avery Ruzicka is known for at her other outposts, the Campbell restaurant will serve breakfast sandwiches, grain bowls, toasts, seasonal dishes, beer, wine, and cocktails. Kinch and Ruzicka like that this location is across the street from what was Manresa Bread’s first farmers-market stall.
Kinch is also working on Mentone, a restaurant in the Santa Cruz County town of Aptos that he plans to open early next year. Mentone is the Italian name for the French Riviera town of Menton, which is on the French-Italian border.
“My partners and I all essentially have fundamentally French culinary backgrounds, and this is our first foray into our interpretation of not necessarily an Italian cuisine, but of a Riviera cuisine stretching between Nice and Genoa,” Kinch says. “It’s not really French. It’s not really Italian. But it’s going to be Mediterranean-based, stretched across the border. It won’t be fancy. It won’t be the refined palaces, the jet-set cuisine.”
Mentone will have a Neapolitan pizza oven where Kinch will develop four or five different pizzas with house-milled flours featuring local grains. Kinch will use a lot of California ingredients at Mentone and might top a pizza with housemade mortadella, but he also isn’t averse to importing culatello that he wants to serve as an appetizer. There will be local wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains and also wines from Provence along with amaros, pastises, and cocktails.
Mentone will cook meat and fish over coals. It will serve its version of a classic Niçoise salad. It will be a place where Kinch uses chestnut flour and chickpea flour. It’s a restaurant based around the freedom of knowing that you don’t have to be just one thing. You can be a little Italian and a little French. You can be European but also Californian. You can be a chef known for fine dining who purposefully makes everyday food food like gnocco fritto and a green goddess little gems salad.
At Mentone, Kinch is planning to have pastas, barbecued oysters, a tomato-based abalone bisque, chicken wings “in kind of a Bomba style with chile and tomato,” and a panzanella salad with fresh peaches instead of tomatoes. He’ll prepare hearty dishes like lamb Bolognese. He might play around with cioppino, the classic San Francisco seafood stew that’s based on a specialty from the Ligurian coast.
“I might have to wait for crab season on that,” Kinch says.
He’s got some other work to deal with in the meantime, but that’s fine. One thing that the fires at Manresa has taught him is that finding balance in life is crucial. You don’t have to solve everything all at once. You just do what you need to do on any given day, whether it’s taking time for yourself or focusing intensely on the important tasks in front of you.
Kinch does all this knowing that life can be full of disasters and insane coincidences but also that human beings are resilient and that restaurants are places that make people happy. He does it because he still loves going to work and because he values the people who work alongside him and because he appreciates his guests.
On Wednesday night, the dining room at Manresa will be full and Kinch will be in the kitchen.
“I’m not going anywhere for the next couple weeks,” he says. “I’m going to be at Manresa.”
Manresa, 320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, CA, 408-354-4330