It's 10.30pm on a cool Californian evening and I've been at table in the Manresa restaurant for the last four-and-a-half hours. The meal has been a dazzling display of culinary dexterity. Inventive, original and witty, it has encompassed a startling number of global influences, yet somehow remained fundamentally American and utterly coherent throughout its 21 courses.
It's a neat trick to pull off, requiring peerless technique, matchless knowledge and, above all, intelligence. It comes as something of a surprise then to find that the quietly spoken 44-year-old chef David Kinch is neither egomaniacal monster nor tortured genius. A model of West Coast laid-back charm, he resolutely refuses to talk himself up during our two-hour interview.
But that's OK, because there are plenty of other people prepared to do it for him. Anthony Bourdain has said that "This guy is indeed something special," while Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin was so impressed by Kinch's food that he hosted a press lunch for him in New York. Critical reaction has been almost universally ecstatic.
Kinch has been in the restaurant business all his working life, since he began bussing tables at 15 in his home town of New Orleans. Although the money was good, he soon realised that his interests lay elsewhere. "I became increasingly mesmerised with the cooks - they had a free spirit, they were creative, they were working with open flame - and I found myself drawn more and more to the kitchen."
By the age of 17 Kinch was working alongside New Orleans legend Paul Prudhomme, and went on to graduate with honours from culinary academy before moving to New York for a stab at the big time. The young chef was quickly beginning to carve out a reputation for himself, but a meal at Alain Chapel in 1984 during a year's stage in France stopped him in his tracks.
"I remember tasting a dish of roasted pigeon on a plate of peas that had come out of Chapel's garden. It was dynamic, it tasted 'alive'. It didn't dazzle you with technique, even though the technique was perfect; it was the attention to detail that really impressed. That night in my hotel room I ended up putting my head between my hands and bawling my eyes out. Everything I had done and the direction I was heading was wrong."
Inspired by the revelatory meal, Kinch returned to Manhattan to work for maverick chef Barry Wine at the New York Times four-starred Quilted Giraffe. "He was the first self-taught guy that I worked for," says Kinch. "There was newness to his approach, and he was able to teach that. He taught us to question everything, which to this day has kept me passionate about food."
Sent Sovi, Kinch's first restaurant, opened in 1995 in Saratoga, California. The 36-seat bistro served simple French- and Catalan-influenced dishes and proved an instant hit with Silicon Valley's dotcom millionaires. "Those were really go-go times, and we did really well," recalls Kinch. Despite its popularity, the restaurant had its downside. "The kitchen was about the size of a table top, which was really starting to drive me nuts."
Leaning against his custom-made Bonnet range in the spacious kitchens of Manresa, Kinch grins and admits that he may have overcompensated with the back-of-house facilities when he moved his business to the charming village of Los Gatos in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains in 2002, but, he says, "I always viewed Manresa as a natural extension of Sent Sovi. Our philosophy and our approach is exactly the same. We bought the land and the building and we developed the property, so we have every intention of being here for a while."
Three years on, Kinch is surprised how much the additional space and facilities have allowed him to progress. "When I look back at our old menus, I'm just amazed at how we have evolved. I think this restaurant is hitting its stride right now."
Unusually, there is no distinction between appetisers and entrées on Kinch's Á la carte menu. Customers can choose three or four courses - currently priced at $58 (£32) and $68 (£38) respectively - beginning their meal almost anywhere on the list of 14 savoury dishes, which might include the likes of sea scallop with bottarga watercress risotto, shellfish and almond gratin, or twice-cooked duck foie gras, served chilled with citrus-spiced Medjool dates. "We encourage people to start at the top and progress down, as we try to arrange the dishes from the lightest to the heaviest. Some people have a hard time with the concept, but we have our rap down on how to present it."
But it's on the $95 (£53) "seasonal and spontaneous chef's tasting menu" that Kinch really flexes his creative muscles. "The menu is not listed, so the customers put themselves in our hands. It keeps the cooks on their toes, and it allows us to try new things and be incredibly seasonal. We can buy small amounts of ingredients, which guarantees they will be fresh. Tasting menus represent about 35-40% of our sales, so it also helps our margins and our bottom line."
Although the menu can include anything up to 26 courses, Kinch takes pains to tailor it to the individual client. "If two tables next to each other are both having tasting menus, we try to make an effort to give them different things."
The menu begins with a flurry of four or five amuse-bouches, which are served in relays so that a new dish appears while the customer is still eating the last one. "The amuses are so important that we have a whole station for them. They're supposed to throw you a curve ball. There's a little bit of French, a little bit of American, something amusing, something serious. It's to make you think, 'What's coming next?'"
It certainly got me thinking, if the question marks that punctuate my notes for this part of the meal are anything to go by. "Petits fours" of olive Madeline and red pepper jelly were immediately followed by a Spanish churro, given an Italian twist with the addition of Parmesan.
Next, the Japanese-influenced oyster and sea urchin in a sea water gelée; then on to Mexico for a cocktail of lime sorbet topped with hibiscus jelly and a shot of Tequila; and finally back to Spain for a bowl of slow-cooked egg, grated manchego with a sweet onion soup thickened with brioche poured over, a dish inspired by Andoni Luis Aduriz of Mugaritz restaurant.
The dishes, ranging from frozen to tepid, demonstrate the importance of temperature in Kinch's style of cooking. "There's a certain temperature where everything focuses and the flavour profile for specific ingredients becomes round. People like food to be piping hot, but it's not necessarily the best way to eat it."
A glance at any one of Manresa's menus with their array of seafood, including Japanese fluke, bluefin tuna, sea bream and scallops, tells you instantly where the chef's real passions lie. "Meat," says Kinch, "is boring. Fish is what excites me." He sources some from the USA's East Coast, but the majority arrives from the Tsujiki fish market in Tokyo. "California has a tremendous sushi tradition, so the connections are here. You kind of work your way up in the chain with the suppliers. Once they realise you're serious, the good stuff tends to come out from the bottom shelf."
When Kinch does use meat, however, it's a full-on carnivorous feast. A dish billed simply as "confit of suckling pig, braised artichokes" actually includes the roast fillet, braised shoulder, trotter, crackling and a boudin noir. "We make the sausage ourselves. We get two suckling pigs a week and produce everything from that."
During the summer months Kinch sources 70% of his fruit and vegetables from one farm a mile away from his home. "We work with local ingredients as much as possible, but I'm not trying to make some sort of mission statement with my ingredients. I use organic whenever I can, but I know a lot of organic stuff that tastes like crap."
Although Kinch acknowledges the great strides in US cuisine made over the past few decades, he still looks to France as the benchmark. "Every now and then we say, 'We've caught up with the French,' but that's just the spoilt little kid talking. It's about maturity, and we still have a long way to go. France has 250 years. What do we have, 25-30?"
I'm curious to know what keeps Kinch motivated after nearly 30 years in the business. "I enjoy making people happy," he says. "It's still the most exciting thing that happens to me now. The moment that that is gone is the moment I leave this business, because I really have no other reason to be in it."
David Kinch's Career
1977 Commanders Palace, New Orleans, working under chef Paul Prudhomme
1981 Graduated with honours from Johnson and Wales Culinary Academy in Providence, Rhode Island
1982 Sous chef at Hotel Parker Meridian; executive chef, La Petite Ferme (both New York)
1984 Stage at Hôtel de la Poste, Beaune, France, under Marc Chevillot
1985 Chef, Quilted Giraffe, New York
1989 Consultant chef to Hotel Clio Court in Fukuoka, Japan, where he played an integral part in the creation of a contemporary American restaurant
1989-90 Executive chef, Silks restaurant, Mandarin Oriental hotel, San Francisco.
1990-92 Stages at Schweizer Stuben, Wertheim, Germany; L'Espérance, St Père-sous-Vézeley, France, and Akelare, San SebastiÁ¡n, Spain
1993 Executive chef, Ernie's restaurant, San Francisco
1995 Chef-proprietor, Sent Sovi, Saratoga, California
2002 Chef-proprietor, Manresa, Los Gatos, California
Critics' comments "Of all the restaurant meals I ate last year it was the one I enjoyed 5,500 miles away from home which most clearly points the way forward for gastronomy in Britain for 2005. It was those 26 courses prepared for me by chef David Kinch at Manresa in California: the seemingly never-ending platelets of ingredients, sensitively prepared to their best benefit."
Jay Rayner, the Observer (UK)
"I'd go miles out of my way to eat whatever Kinch wants to cook. At a time when most Bay Area restaurants have settled for boring sameness, it's gratifying to know that an hour's drive south of San Francisco one chef is taking risks."
Caroline Bates, Gourmet
"While Kinch may be classically trained, his combinations are pure California and speak of the region, the climate and the sensibilities found in the Santa Cruz mountain area… [he] has created an innovative menu that could best be described as French Laundry South."
Michael Bauer, San Francisco Chronicle
"Like a star working off-Broadway, David Kinch commands a stage far from the San Francisco spotlight and waits for the crowds to come to him. What they find are dishes made with a scientist's precision, an artist's passion and influences from both Spain and France. In the two years since Manresa opened, Kinch has refined his creative forays into food worthy of a pilgrimage."
Josh Sens, San Francisco Magazine
550g strawberries, hulled and lightly crushed
115g white onions, thinly sliced
115g red bell peppers, thinly sliced
150g cucumber, peeled, seeded, thinly sliced
1/2 clove garlic, crushed
5g tarragon leaves
50ml balsamic vinegar
50ml extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
For garnish Strawberries, hulled, cut in fine dice
Chives, finely minced
Red bell pepper, cut in fine dice
English cucumber, peeled, seeded, cut in fine dice
2tbs almond oil
Place all ingredients in a bowl, mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. The next day, purée in a blender and season with salt and pepper. If it is too thick, you can thin with water.
Allow to chill thoroughly.
For the garnish, gently toss all the diced vegetable and fruit with almond oil. Mound in the centre of a soup plate and top with some chervil sprigs. Pour the gazpacho over the garnish when serving.
Fatty Bluefin belly with Yuzu
500g centre-cut bluefin tuna (preferably with a piece of the belly flap intact)
1tsp black sesame seeds, toasted
Sea salt, to taste
2tbs shiro dashi (white soy that has been fermented with dashi)
1/2tsp grapeseed oil
2tbs chives, finely sliced
1 shiso leaf, finely chopped at the last minute
1 yuzu or Japanese citron (we substitute Meyer lemon in California)
For garnish 6 shiso leaves (perilla)
Maldon salt or a granular Japanese sea salt
Place the tuna on a very clean surface. Place a non-reactive metal bowl on ice at the ready. With a sharp knife, remove the tuna skin. Using a teaspoon, gently scrape the tuna flesh off the skin and remove the sinew. This takes patience and a gentle hand. You do not want any sinew or foreign matter in the tuna. You do not want to bruise the flesh, but you do want to maintain the fat in the flesh as you work. Place the flesh in the iced bowl as you work. Some parts of the tuna will be fattier than others. If you work carefully you will have a purée of the tuna with a beautiful texture. Carefully fold it together so it is homogenous.
Season the tuna at the last moment with the sesame seeds, salt, shiro dashi, grapeseed oil and chives, by folding everything in with a spoon. Add the chopped shiso to taste. Add some fresh yuzu juice and just-grated peel to taste. It is important that you get just a hint of the yuzu in the tartare and not a dominating flavour.
Shape the tuna into quenelles with two spoons and place on a shiso leaf. Garnish with Maldon salt or equivalent and serve immediately.