Superlatives tend to swarm around David Kinch. Before closing in early 2023, his signature restaurant of 20 years, Manresa, had boasted three Michelin stars since 2016 and first made San Pellegrino’s “Top 50 Restaurants in the World” list in 2012. The Pennsylvania native has GQ Chef of the Year and James Beard honors on his resume, and penned a 2013 cookbook, Manresa: An Edible Reflection, that made the New York Times bestseller list.
Why all the accolades? Because Kinch’s distinctive take on contemporary California cuisine incorporates European technique and traditions, American ingenuity, and a huge focus on California’s bounty. Though he’s stepped away for the time being from providing the kind of over-the-top culinary experience that Manresa offered, Kinch continues to wow diners at The Bywater, a casual restaurant in Los Gatos inspired by New Orleans culture, and Manresa Bread, an artisanal bakery with five locations around Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. He’s also the creative force and owner of Mentone, a casual French-Italian eatery in Aptos.
Where do you live? I live in Santa Cruz.
Why there? Because it’s a coastal town, and it’s small. On my days off I can park and walk or ride my bike. It’s a college town. It’s a surfing town. What’s great about it is that the Santa Cruz Mountains separate Santa Cruz from Los Gatos, so I have a really nice differentiating line between my professional and personal lives. I climb the hill at Summits, which is about 2,000 feet above sea level, and I slowly feel my personal life melting away. As I descend into Los Gatos I enter my professional life—and vice versa. To me, it’s a great sense of balance that allows me to continue to do what I love but also enjoy my time away from the restaurants.
[Plus,] my first job in California was working at Mount Eden Vineyards. I’m a great lover of wine and you will always find me making the argument that the Santa Cruz Mountains make the best red, and the best white, in the state of California.
Who or what is your greatest California love? My answer to that is the most boring answer of all: the weather. Growing up on the East Coast and then spending a good part of my life in New Orleans, I count my blessings in January, February, and March out here in California. When I’m playing golf or going to the beach, everyone else is going through wintertime. California has made me soft.
What is the biggest misperception about Californians? That we’re all surfers.
What is the stereotype that most holds true? That we’re all surfers.
What is your favorite Golden State splurge? That is a tough one. I like exploring. For me it’s always finding a new place to stay overnight, a new restaurant. The state is so big and there are so many different landscapes, so many different places you can go to find unique and interesting personality-laden places. That whole act of exploration is what I like the best. I will go pretty much anywhere. I love exploring the coast—I will go north or south. I have a great time visiting friends in Marin County and exploring the Sonoma Coast.
Time for a road trip—where are you going? Big Sur. Taking the slow road down, maybe stopping for lunch in Carmel, and going down and spending the night where you can hike, you can surf. There are a couple of really funky places to eat down there. It’s always invigorating, and the drive itself is really inspiring. It’s just a perfect piece of coastline. One of my favorite things to do is take people who are visiting the United States [down there]. They are always blown away.
If you could decree an official state culinary experience, what would it be? It would have to be grilling—cooking over a barbecue or on a grill outdoors. Partly because the weather is so fantastic, but there’s a lot of great products that lend themselves really well to the grill—salmon and all the different fish that come out of the Pacific, and of course we are the nation’s garden with all the vegetables that we have. To me, the official culinary experience would be grilling, watching the sun going down, and drinking a bottle of great California wine.
Best California song? “California Soul,” by Marlena Shaw. It’s easy to sing along to and it always makes you move. Do you know it? Find it. It’ll become part of your playlist, I assure you.
How would your California dream day unfold? First of all, I’m not working. I’m waking up, I’m walking downtown to my favorite coffee shop in Santa Cruz, and then I’m going to the beach. I’m either on the beach, on a surfboard, on a stand-up paddleboard, or on a sailboat. I’m outdoors, I’m feeling the wind, I’m feeling the sun. I come back in and if I have a little bit more time in the day I’ll visit a bookstore or a record store. I will invite friends over to watch the sunset on my porch while having a cocktail. I’ll grill and eat and share the experience with family and friends. I’ll drink some great California wine. And then I’ll go upstairs to sleep…so I can wake up and do it all over again.