David Kinch: The Toqueland Interview

The Manresa Chef on Staying Grounded, Writing His Book, Being the Subject Matter, and Quitting by Text

David Kinch.  (photo by Eric Wolfinger, courtesy Manresa)

David Kinch. (photo by Eric Wolfinger, courtesy Manresa)

From his restaurant Manresa in Los Gatos, California, David Kinch has evolved into one of the most celebrated chefs in the United States today.  The restaurant holds two Michelin stars, four stars from the San Francisco Chronicle, and David was recently nominated as Outstanding Chef (in the nation) by the James Beard Foundation. It’s a busy time for him:  although Manresa is his lone restaurant, he’s planning a bakery, published his first cookbook last fall, and, along with Cynthia Sandberg of Love Apple Farms, is the subject of the recent documentary The Farmer & The Chef.  David cooked for such influential chefs as Paul Prudhomme and Barry Wine, and consulted to the Hotel Clio Court in Fukuoka, Japan, before moving to the Bay Area.  His first restaurant as chef-proprietor was Sent Sovi in Saratoga, which he opened in 1995 then sold in 2002, the year he opened Manresa.

I hadn’t met David before last November, when he granted me an interview for an upcoming book project. When we connected again last month for a follow up, I asked him if he’d submit himself to a Toqueland interview. Most of this dialogue took place over lunch at Zuni Café, with the remainder conducted by phone the following week.

TOQUELAND: You’ve got just the one restaurant. How tough is that to stick to these days? Do opportunities come your way? Do you constantly have to resist things in order to stay there?

KINCH: There are a lot of opportunities that come my way; none of them really interest me. There’s not one that is a slam dunk. Anything interesting, I’ll entertain. Is it harder just to do one restaurant? No. I like going to work. I like going to Manresa and doing what I do for fifty people a night.

I’ve never really cooked for more than 120 a night. Ever. I’ve never had any interest in it. That’s not why I’m in the business. I’ve always been interested in the bespoke nature of fine dining. I’ve worked in a couple of hotels. They weren’t for me. I don’t know how to do volume.

TOQUELAND: You’re not interested in it or you literally don’t know how to do it?… 

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Highwire Act

Le Cirque’s New Chef, Raphael Francois, on Moving to New York, Auditioning for the Job, and Pleasing All of the People, All of the Time

Le Cirque's new chef, Raphael Francois, moved to New York in January.  (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Le Cirque)

Le Cirque’s new chef, Raphael Francois, moved to New York in January. (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Le Cirque)

NEW YORK, NY — Just a few months ago, Chef Raphael Francois took on a task both flattering and perhaps unenviable when he assumed the toque at New York City’s storied Le Cirque restaurant.  Le Cirque, a New York institution with a rich heritage of great chefs including Alain Sailhac, Daniel Boulud, Sottha Kuhn, and Sylvain Portay, has been engaged in a Sisyphean enterprise since being taken down (shockingly at the time) from four stars to three by Ruth Reichl in 1993.  Since then, in the Times‘ estimation, the restaurant has dipped down to two stars and back up to three during Frank Bruni’s tenure, then down to one star by Pete Wells in 2012.

With that backstory, there would be no shortage of pressure on whoever took over the kitchen next to restore at least some glory to the forty-year-old Le Cirque, and you could almost hear the thundering of white-horse hooves as Raphael arrived in New York City, most recently from Hélène Darroze at the Connaught in London, where he earned two Michelin stars in 2011.  Raised in Belgium and France, Francois has cooked at Le Giverny in Tournai, Chateau du Mylord in Elezelles, Le Sea Grill in Brussels, and Four Seasons George V and Hôtel de Crillon in Paris.  His working relationship with Hélène Darroze began in 2006 when Francois worked with her at her Restaurant Hélène Darroze, and several of her city-based projects.

We recently sat down with Chef Francois to discuss the unique nature of the task before him, and the delicate balancing act required in his position. (Two notes:  In the full-disclosure department, Le Cirque’s legendary ringmaster Sirio Maccioni, recent recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, graciously insisted we join him for dinner as his guests to try Chef Francois’ food; as the meal was gratis, we’ll refrain from detailed praise here and stick to the interview. Also, a special thanks to Toqueland pal Evan Sung for the images.)

TOQUELAND: Before you came here for this job, had you visited New York City much?

FRANCOIS: Yeah. I had to come to New York for a few events, so I came a couple of times.

TOQUELAND: Had you spent much leisure time here?… 

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Anthony Bourdain: The Toqueland Interview

The Kitchen Confider on Life-Changing Moments, the Nature of Fame, Meeting His Heroes, and New Projects

Anthony Bourdain (photo courtesy CNN)

Anthony Bourdain (photo courtesy CNN)

NEW YORK, NY — Where do you begin when it comes to Anthony Bourdain?  There are no shortage of options, but I’ll start here:  As far as I’m concerned, with Kitchen Confidential (2000) he more or less created the interest in chefs’ lives and the inner workings of professional kitchens that gave rise to the audience (at least in the United States) for everything from books by authors such as Gabrielle Hamilton and newcomers like Michael Gibney to shows like The Mind of a Chef (which he narrates) to myriad other toque-focused entertainments, this blog included.

All of which is to say, I was delighted and humbled that Tony — whom I’ve met a few times over the years — graciously accepted my invitation to do a Toqueland interview. We connected on Tuesday, two days after the wonderful Lyon episode of Parts Unknown debuted, and one day before he took off for China to film an upcoming installment. He’s a busy man, who in addition to all of the above, oversees his own line of books under the Ecco imprint and is developing a food hall in New York City, among many other endeavors.

The interview took place over a leisurely lunch at The Breslin during which we covered a wide range of topics.  He also casually gifted me some news about previously unannounced upcoming projects, featured in our dialogue, below.

I may run some other bits from our conversation next week, but for now, here’s the meat of it:

On How We Got to This Point

TOQUELAND:  OK, so you write, you’ve got the show, you’re developing a food market, oversee your own line of books, among other things you’re involved with in some way or another. And this all started with a New Yorker article that grew into a book.

BOURDAIN:  [laughs] Right.

TOQUELAND:  When you think back to when things started to snowball, what was the tipping point when you really started to understand that your life was beginning to mutate into what it’s become?

BOURDAIN:  About six months after Kitchen Confidential happened. I was on the best-seller list. I signed for the television series A Cook’s Tour.  People were calling and offering me all sorts of wonderful things. But I was still very much working under the assumption that it was all bullshit and it would all vaporize and that I should keep my day job.

TOQUELAND:  When you say “it’s all bullshit,” you mean you didn’t trust it?  Or you thought people were full of it?… 

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TALKING SHOP: Jody Williams (Buvette, New York City)

The Buvette Chef and Author on Her New Cookbook, Loving Vague Recipes, and Why Intentions Matter

Jody Williams (photo courtesy Grand Central Life & Style)

Jody Williams (photo courtesy Grand Central Life & Style)

Jody Williams’ new cookbook Buvette: The Pleasure of Good Food (Grand Central Life & Style; $30) debuts today.  Written in collaboration with Julia Turshen and with an affectionate foreword by Mario Batali and exquisite photography by Gentl & Hyers, the book is a real charmer.  It shares not just a number of mostly simple and high-utility recipes fashioned after the European fare served up at Williams’ West Village restaurant, but also pantry notes and essays on savoring food and drink that help explain the mindset that makes Buvette such a respite from the madness of Manhattan.  With a recently opened Paris outpost and the mother ship on Grove street in a state of perpetual bustle, Jody’s pretty busy these days, but took time out last week to to sit at the long communal table just outside the kitchen door at Buvettte, and chat with us about her debut book.

TOQUELAND:  The book really conjures a sense of place and what this place is all about, largely through you just talking about the food. It’s transporting.  Was it a goal to create a mood as much as to share recipes?

WILLIAMS: I wish I was capable of consciously creating a mood. If there is a mood or a sense of place, it came out of this body of work subconsciously, and it makes sense for me that it would because the food that I’m cooking really is tied to a place.  It doesn’t really change much when I learn a dish in Rome or I learn a dish in France and I bring it back here and try and cook it. I love the culture.  I love the language.  I love where things are from. Maybe that’s why it feels that way.

How long had you had it in mind to do a book?  Is that something you’d always wanted to do? … 

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Bon Voyage

Boulud Sud’s Executive Chef Travis Swikard on His New Dinner Series, Working with Daniel, and Moving Up the Kitchen Food Chain

Boulud Sud Executive Chef Travis Swikard (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Dinex)

Boulud Sud Executive Chef Travis Swikard (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Dinex Group)

At just 30 years of age, Executive Chef Travis Swikard is already a young veteran of the Daniel Boulud empire, having spent five years with the company here in New York City, first at Café Boulud under Executive Chef Gavin Kaysen and now at Boulud Sud, where he was promoted to Executive Chef in the fall.  On Monday night, Travis introduced a Voyage Dinner Series through which he’ll present the cuisine of a different Mediterranean country or region one night each month. This week explored Israel and the next three dinners will serve up Greece (Monday, May 12); Sicily (Monday, June 16); and the Côte d’Azur (Monday, July 14).  All dinners are at 7pm and the cost is $95 per person, exclusive of tax and gratuity.  Tickets are available at events.danielboulud.com.

We sat down with Travis the morning after the Israeli dinner this week to discuss his career, and the series:

TOQUELAND:  How did you first get interested in cooking?

SWIKARD:  I grew up in between my parents’ houses.  I lived with my mom most of the time and my dad every other weekend.  My dad was a really good cook. I loved to cook with him and cook for my family. I think I was four years old, five years old and my dad was making a steak Diane in the house and he put the cognac in the pan and almost blew up the house.  I looked at him and I said, “I want to be a chef.”

How did you start cooking professionally? … 

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Talking Shop: Sous Chef Author Michael Gibney – Part 2

In Which We Discuss Smoking Breaks, Selling Books, and the Chef as Unattainable Ideal

Here’s part 2 of our interview with Sous Chef author Michael Gibney.  If you’ve not yet read part 1, you might want to click over and check it out before reading this installment.  The book publishes today, and can be ordered here:

Sous Chef debuts today.

Sous Chef debuts today.

On Smoking Breaks

TOQUELAND:  There’s a real rhythm to the book: Obviously service is depicted in a very intense way.  But there are also moments of solitude that create a Yin-Yang effect, like the smoking breaks, time in the office, that description of the kitchen that opens the book. Those become intense in their own way.  And then there are intimate, one-on-one exchanges with the chef or the other sous chef.  The rhythm of the day is very interesting because you’re constantly moving between a kind of solitude to one-on-one to group activity.  Was that something that was deliberate for you or did the day just take you there?

GIBNEY:  Some readers are really pissed off that the chef smokes, or that the narrator smokes. Readers in the online communities. “I stopped reading this because I don’t think chefs should smoke.”  Well, it is a reality.  Many of them do.  But the reason it’s included in the book is to get some of your own space and time, five minutes of freedom of thought that’s similar to going out to the bar after work.  If you’re really stressed or you’re feeling down or you’re feeling really hung over or you’re sick or lonely or whatever it is, that bright light and all the ambient sound and all the people and the clanking of the pots and the heat and the fire is only going to exacerbate whatever negative feelings you’re having, so you do need to step away and clear your head from time to time.

It was important to me to include all of those because they do exist. Sometimes some people go into the walk‑in box and just hang out for a minute and have the cold air blasting on their face.  Some people don’t need that; some people like the intensity.  But the point is that little moments of that sort are, in real life and also in the book, deliberate escapes from that atmosphere.

TOQUELAND:  Some of my favorite verbs in the book are the way guys flick their cigarette butts.  That was such a true thing for me because the least wimpy disposers of cigarette butts I know are cooks. “He rockets it into the middle of the street.”

GIBNEY:  Yeah. “He fires his butt into the gutter.” In the beginning I include this anecdote about meeting Marco Pierre White and it’s true that when I saw him I was, like, “Hold on.  I know this guy.”  It had to do with the way that he carried himself.  And in the bar scene, the narrator sees the three other guys coming up the road and there’s a connection. I don’t know if it’s macho; I don’t know what precisely it is, but there is some sort of confident and finessed way that cooks carry themselves, and that’s included in everything.

The Chef as Personal Goal

TOQUELAND:  The chef character in the book is presented as this almost perfect professional. Maybe more than almost any real chef is.  He’s an unattainable ideal.

GIBNEY:  Some people would disagree with that.  Thomas Keller, for example. There’s no cursing allowed at Per Se, and people aren’t going on smoke breaks. I mean, they still do have different versions of it, but in his mind this is probably a shabby kitchen that we’re talking about in the book. So there are certainly higher ideals.  This particular chef, the first thing he says is something vulgar and immature.  So in other people’s eyes it might seem like there are chinks in his armor but his finesse is ubiquitous: he’s the best butcher, the best baker, he does this perfectly, he does that perfectly.  And that is the idea:  Whether or not it’s actually true of that person, wherever you’re working — unless you’re not satisfied with where you’re working — you have respect for the chef, that’s the sort of pedestal that you put him or her on.

The physical inspiration for this particular chef is a guy who was my first sous chef gig, a guy that I worked with seven or eight years ago.  And he did look that way and I looked up to him so much.  I learned loads from him about how to think, how to invent things, the sort of confidence to have.  And now, I probably have learned many more skills, and I wouldn’t look at him the same way that I did at that age, but at that age, that person was that way for me.  That’s true for just about every chef that I’ve had in my life. I just look at that person as what I want to achieve.

I think that’s the attitude you need to have in order to put up with the work that you have to do. You have to idolize the people who are better and more experienced and higher up the food chain than you are.  And the chef is as high as it gets.

Adventures in the Publishing Trade

TOQUELAND:  What was the process of finding an agent and then selling the book like?… 

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Talking Shop: Sous Chef Author Michael Gibney – Part 1

Our Newest Chef-Scribe on Dual Disciplines, When to Break Out the Second Person, and Maintaining Relationships

Sous Chef Author Michael Gibney

Sous Chef Author Michael Gibney

“The kitchen is best in the morning.  All the stainless glimmers.  Steel pots and pans sit neatly in their places, split evenly between stations.  Smallwares are filed away in bains-marie and bus tubs, stacked on Metro racks in families — pepper mills with pepper mills, ring molds with ring molds, and so forth.  Columns of buffed white china run the length of the pass on shelves beneath the shiny tabletop.  The floors are mopped and dry, the black carpet runners are swept and washed and realigned at right angles.  Most of the equipment is turned off, most significantly the intake hoods.  Without the clamor of the hoods, quietude swathes the place.” *

So begins Sous Chef, the debut book from Michael Gibney.  Subtitled “24 Hours on the Line,” this memoir turns a day in the life of a New York City toque into the stuff of high drama and introspection, and not incidentally packs an awful lot of detail about the kitchen life into its 240 pages.  It also successfully walks the second-person highwire, using that unusual format to great effect.

In my humble opinion, the book catapults Gibney instantly into the very small club of chefs who are as adept at the keyboard as they are on the line.  (Unsurprisingly, he has devoted time to both pursuits, cooking at such restaurants as Tavern on the Green and Governor, and graduating Columbia University’s MFA writing program.) It’s an exceptional, commanding piece of work and I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially to readers who enjoy what’s on offer here at Toqueland.  Its official publication date is tomorrow, Tuesday, March 25, but you can hop online right now and order it up, and I suggest you do just that.

I should mention that I’m not saying any of this to hook up a buddy.  When I began reading the book, I hadn’t yet met Michael.  We did, however, have a chance encounter at an after-hours Christmas party in December, when I was mid-read.  And, after our interview for this site, I jumped at the invitation to dialogue with him publicly at The Strand on April 14.

In the meantime, here’s part 1 of our recent interview, with part 2 to follow later this week:

TOQUELAND:  Which came first for you as an ambition:  Writing or cooking?

GIBNEY: I don’t think either of them really came first for me; they’re both things that I happened into.  I’ve always been interested in creative things.  I went to school for painting. I was originally involved in theater, set design.  I’ve just been allured by all the different sort of creative disciplines.  And I’ve enjoyed reading my whole life.  When I was 16 I had to get a job and I got a job at a restaurant and started doing that, and I took to it.  I enjoyed it.  But I still had other things in mind. I suppose they’ve always existed simultaneously for me.

They’re both things that I appreciate for similar reasons, and things that suit me well, particularly the cooking because I think the lifestyle and the work ethic and the attitude and the respect that go into cooking are marvelous.  And then writing because it’s a chance for you to collect your thoughts about things, share them with people more readily.

TOQUELAND: A lot of people who end up cooking professionally didn’t really take well to school. I’m always a little surprised when a chef is a great writer because at some level — this is an over‑generalization — there seems to be an incompatibility between the two lifestyles and disciplines. When you were growing up, what kind of student were you?

GIBNEY:  I think I was a good student. I got good grades.  I was in the National Honor Society.

But I understand what you’re saying because there are in the cooking community loads of people who couldn’t spell but they were really good at creating this one thing and that was where their intelligence resided. Strangely, in cooking there are also kids who have only a high school degree, some who don’t even have a high school degree, who are still incredibly intelligent in a particular way; not just intelligent in a cooking way, but intelligent in a way that you would expect that they had gotten a rock star degree somewhere.

People go this route because they don’t necessarily excel in other areas. They get bored or don’t have interest in other areas of study, but I think in order to be a great chef, you have to have this thirst for knowledge and this ability to learn a lot of stuff.

TOQUELAND:  Not just food.

GIBNEY:  Yeah, not just food.  Or, even if it is just food, within that category there are so many subcategories like science and history and physical kinesthetic ability and technique.  So you need to have a level of learning to be a good chef.

Writing Sous Chef

TOQUELAND:  Tell me how this book came to be. Did you write the book on spec (i.e., without a publishing contract)?

GIBNEY:  I finished the book then got an agent, having written the book.

TOQUELAND: How long did that take and what your schedule was like?… 

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Anita Lo: The Toqueland Interview

The Newly Crowned Three-Star Chef on Learning to Love the Camera, the Hazards of Labels, and Asking the Right Questions

anita_headshot

Anita Lo (photo courtesy Annisa restaurant)

Anita Lo, who’s been presiding over her own restaurant, Annisa, since 2000, studied French Literature before turning toward the professional kitchen and cooking at such landmark New York City restaurants as Bouley and Chanterelle.  As readers probably know, she recently received three stars from The New York Times for the first time in her career.  Over the past few years, Anita has also published a cookbook, Cooking Without Borders, and appeared on two of television’s most popular culinary competition shows:  Iron Chef (on which she defeated Mario Batali) and Top Chef Masters.  We recently caught up with Anita at her home in the West Village, where she was rehabbing from knee surgery, and discussed a variety of topics:

TOQUELAND: Can I ask about the knee? Is it work‑related?

LO: I think just being a chef is hard on the body.  Everyone’s body is different but my knee didn’t take very well to it.

TOQUELAND:  Had it been a longstanding thing?

LO:  It had been degenerating for many years.  I think just standing on your feet all that time and running up and down stairs carrying heavy things is not good.

TOQUELAND:  Do you think that’s an aspect of the kitchen life that people who get into the business young don’t appreciate until they’re in it?

LO:  Oh, yeah.  Absolutely.  I mean, that article in the Times with Mark Peel? Ouch. But anyone you talk to that’s my age and that’s been in the business as long as I have, has injuries.

TOQUELAND:  Is this something nobody tells young cooks? It seems like something that doesn’t come up. I guess when you’re young you don’t think you’re ever going to have problems like that, no matter what you do.

LO: No, you don’t. Even if someone tells you.  It’s hard because someone has to lift it, but if it’s something heavy, I’m like, “Get help.  Two people should do that.”

The Intersection of Entertainment and Promotion

TOQUELAND: What was the experience of your book, Cooking Without Borders (written with Charlotte Druckman), like?  Was it something you thought a lot about doing throughout your career?

LO: I had been wanting to do that book for decades.

TOQUELAND:  That very book?

LO:  Actually, the original concept was going to be a little more academic.  I wanted it to be a book about American cuisine and multiculturalism.  Of course, no one would buy that.

TOQUELAND:  Did you try to sell that book?

LO:  I tried to sell that to an agent and I couldn’t even get an agent.  And then I had an agent and we were trying to sell it to a writer.  At this point it had gotten a little more watered down, but the writer said, “Why don’t you write something on Asian street food?”  I was, like, “Are you listening to me at all? You’ve got to be kidding me.  There’s no way I’m going to write something like that. You just missed everything I was trying to say about multiculturalism and identity and what it means to me.  You’re part of the problem.”

TOQUELAND:  So eventually this mutated into ‑‑

LO:  A cookbook.  I think I got my message across, at least in the intro.  At the end of the day writing a cookbook, for me, was about having a promotional tool for the restaurant.  Everything’s about the restaurant.

9781584798927

Lo’s first cookbook debuted in 2011.

TOQUELAND: This dovetails with something else. I’ve only met you a few times, and I hope this doesn’t seem like an odd question to ask, but do you consider yourself shy?

LO:  I’m absolutely shy.

TOQUELAND: You strike me as a little bit shy, which I don’t think is a bad thing.  You’re not a show-boater.  You don’t have a shtick.  And yet you’ve done television a few times.

LO:  It’s part of the job.

TOQUELAND: Is it an unnatural thing for you?… 

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Kitchen Time Machine: Jonathan Waxman, Part 2

The Chef Discusses American Food Pioneers, the Perils of Celebrity, and the Camaraderie of Chefs

Jonathan Waxman, Yosemite National Park, January 2013. (© 2014 Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

Jonathan Waxman, Yosemite National Park, January 2013. (© 2014 Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

In case you missed it over on Eater, Part 2 of my interview with Jonathan Waxman–the first in a series of conversations with iconic New York City food personalities–was posted earlier today.  In it, Waxman discusses the changing nature of the relationship between chefs and the media, how he “got street cred without earning it,” and reveals an unlikely  guardian angel from his early days in Manhattan.  (In part 1 of the interview, Waxman discussed the history of Barbuto restaurant on the occasion of its Tenth Anniversary.) Please click over and have a look.

Andrew

 

TALKING SHOP: Charlotte Druckman, Part 2

More Highlights from Our Conversation with the Author of Skirt Steak

Charlotte Druckman's Skirt Steak, just out this week.

Happy Friday, everybody!

Here’s part 2 of my conversation with fellow scribe Charlotte Druckman, whose new book Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen, debuted this week.  Part 1 can be found here.

TOQUELAND: How did Skirt Steak come about? Do you remember the moment when the idea popped into your head?

DRUCKMAN: I wrote an article for Gastronomica, which was something I had been thinking about. .. there is a famous essay that art historian Linda Nochlin wrote at the end of the ‘70s called “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” And it’s rhetorical.  It’s supposed to get you annoyed.  And it was sort-of the anti‑feminist’s feminist’s art-historical essay, because she kind of said, “Let’s stop looking at the differences between how men and women paint, and let’s look instead at what our institutions are doing to present a story of men or women, and in history what opportunities have been opened to women.”

I worked at Food & Wine, and I really loved working there. .. I remember how much care went into picking the Best New Chefs but how there was always [just] one woman on the cover, possibly two [out of 10].  And you know, you’re in this office with these incredibly smart women who would like to support women, so why aren’t these chefs being found?  And I started to think, “What if you took that approach that Linda Nochlin used and stop thinking about it as, ‘who cooks better,’ but ‘let’s think about what the underpinnings are.’”

TOQUELAND:  That’s interesting.

DRUCKMAN: I thought it would be awesome to talk to women chefs about this, but to do it in that same way where it’s not like everyone’s going to give you a sob story.  There are going to be some great epic moments of sexual harassment, obviously, but it’s not going to be about that.  Because I don’t think that’s the real problem at the end of the day.

TOQUELAND: Without getting too specific about it, was it easy to sell it?

DRUCKMAN: No. It was really hard to sell it because no one had heard of what I was trying to do, which was to write a communal memoir, if you will, that has a strong narrative voice but isn’t about me.  Everyone now wants—especially if you’re a food writer—for it to either be about you or wants it to be about one person dishing.

TOQUELAND: Was it was easy to get interviews?… 

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