At the End of the Manresa Era, Its Legacy Endures Through These High-Profile Alumni

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Eight Manresa alum discuss the fine-dining kitchen and the lessons they learned from the restaurant and its founder

Left to right: Belinda Leong, David Kinch, Avery Ruzicka, Mitch Lienhard, Kendra Baker, Kim Alter, Cynthia Sandberg, JP Carmona, and Nico Delaroque.
Illustration by Lille Allen

Manresa is an iconic restaurant by any standard. If you want to count up the awards, you can start with the three Michelin stars the restaurant has held since 2016, or the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Pacific that owner and chef David Kinch earned in 2010, or the countless other accolades showered on the restaurant and its chef by magazines and food media since the restaurant made its debut in 2002.

If you want to try to articulate how the restaurant and the vision of its founder have indelibly shaped the Northern California dining scene, you could point to the symbiotic relationship Kinch fostered with nearby Love Apple Farms and how it helped usher in a new era of seasonal, ingredient-driven California cuisine built on close bonds between farmers and chefs. Or how Manresa’s presence in the Silicon Valley helped put the area on the map as a fine dining destination in its own right.

But perhaps the real lasting legacy of the restaurant is best measured by the constellation of talented alumni who, after working at Manresa with Kinch, went on to open their own restaurants from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The roster includes James Syhabout of two-Michelin-starred Commis in Oakland, Josef Centeno of Tex-Mex stunner Bar Amá, and Jeremy Fox of Rustic Canyon and Birdie G’s. In a recent Instagram post, Fox shared memories of his time at Manresa and the closeness of the staff who worked in the Manresa kitchen. “These were not just co-workers. We were an instant family,” Fox wrote. “We were there to become the best we could be, but we knew this would only happen if we lifted each other up as well.”

As the restaurant’s decades-long run comes to its conclusion at the end of this year, eight Manresa alumni reflect on the impact the restaurant had on their careers. Through their work, it’s clear they’ll carry forward Kinch’s approach to cooking, creativity, and leadership for years to come.

JP Carmona, co-owner and chef at Routier

Cook, sous chef, chef de cuisine, and pastry chef at Manresa, 2006-2012

JP Carmona
Robert Richards

JP Carmona remembers when he first became aware of an ambitious farm-to-table restaurant nestled among the foothills of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. He’d read about Manresa in Gourmet magazine in 2004 and drove by Los Gatos on his way to Santa Cruz not long after. It wasn’t until two years later that he ended up in the kitchen as a cook. He’d eventually spend about six years at Manresa, climbing his way all the way to chef de cuisine.

When he first arrived, what struck Carmona about the food was its relative simplicity. “He would always quote Alain Passard from L’Arpège as saying, ‘Less is more,’” Carmona says. “I could tell that David [Kinch] was very focused on being ingredient-driven.” Because other fine dining restaurants of the era were more centered on technique-driven cooking, Kinch’s commitment to letting the ingredient drive the menu felt radical. “In the eyes of some people that can be oversimplified,” Carmona says. “But I feel the respect for the one ingredient is what I would take most from Manresa.” That, and the personal connections he made during his time there, he adds, noting that he and Manresa alum Belinda Leong would eventually come together to open Routier in San Francisco. – LS

Kim Alter, owner and chef of Nightbird

Cook at Manresa, 2006-2008

Kim Alter
Adahlia Cole

Kim Alter had nine years of experience working at fine dining restaurants when she landed at Manresa in 2006. There, she found a place that didn’t operate like the other restaurants where she’d worked. Rather than strictness and hierarchy, Manresa’s environment encouraged learning and discussion. Alter recalls picking fresh ingredients from Love Apple Farms, the night’s menu directly featuring those vegetables, and the collaboration between Kinch and the cooks. Rather than following recipes, there were conversations about how best to use the ingredients for the night and how to use all parts of the vegetable or meat. Alter would later take those lessons with her to her own Michelin-starred restaurant, Nightbird.

“I’ve never been in an environment like that, so it just really [established] the roots of me going to the farmers market every day and being very fluid with what’s on my menu based on what is physically perfect, at this moment,” she says. At Manresa, Alter also learned how to work more efficiently and effectively. “Manresa changed how I think about food,” she says. – DD

Kendra Baker, owner and chef at the Penny Ice Creamery and the Picnic Basket

Executive pastry chef at Manresa, 2007-2009

Kendra Baker
Courtesy Kendra Baker

Even after spending two years as pastry chef at Bar Tartine, Kendra Baker, who now operates the Penny Ice Creamery and the Picnic Basket in Santa Cruz, says she didn’t have much kitchen leadership experience back in 2oo7. So it felt to her like Kinch went out on a limb when he hired her as Manresa’s executive pastry chef that year. Looking back on her time at the restaurant, what Baker remembers most is the confidence Kinch demonstrated in his creativity. “He just reveled in the creative process, slowed it down, and soaked it up,” Baker says. “It was super sensual, in a way.”

At first, the level of intensity Kinch brought to menu development caught her off guard. It was a collaborative process, and Kinch was deeply focused on every detail. Even after working at other fine dining restaurants, Baker says she’s never seen anything quite like his freewheeling approach. “It really was over-the-top,” Baker says. Even now she thinks about flavor development in that same tactile way — seeing, tasting, and feeling ingredients to find what’s most attractive. “He really helped to bring that out of me.” – LS

Mitch Lienhard, co-founder of Suited Hospitality

Chef de cuisine, 2014-2018

Mitch Lienhard
Courtesy Mitch Lienhard

After spending a little more than three years at Manresa, what Mitch Lienhard recalls most clearly about the restaurant is how Kinch treated the staff. “Most of what I learned there I would say is certainly cooking techniques, but also how to treat your staff,” he says. Every day, Kinch would walk into the kitchen and greet everyone with a handshake or a pat on the back, and ask how they were doing — a new experience for Lienhard in a high-end restaurant.

“No matter what position you’re in, he made you feel valued: porters, dishwashers, down to the glass polisher or a stage, somebody who’s not even working for the restaurant, he made them feel welcomed,” Lienhard says. “He has a saying: ‘Happy people make happy food.’ That saying, particularly, is how I try to run any of my operations at this point now.” – DD

Belinda Leong, owner at B Patisserie

Pastry chef at Manresa, 2009-2010

Belinda Leong
B Patisserie

Before becoming San Francisco’s kouign amann queen, Belinda Leong worked her way through some of the world’s most rigorous kitchens. After eight years at Gary Danko, she took off for Europe, completing stages at acclaimed restaurants including Pierre Hermé in Paris, Bubó in Barcelona, and Copenhagen’s Noma. When she came back, Leong says she was focused on landing a job at one place in particular. “Manresa was the only one that was really on the radar for me,” Leong says. It was close to home, but it was also, in her eyes, of the same caliber as those where she’d worked abroad. She joined the team as pastry chef in 2009.

Leong says she would have spent longer at Manresa if she weren’t already itching to open her own bakery. But even today, she values the experience of working under the pressures of Kinch’s farm-to-table ideals, which included tweaking the menu daily depending on what had been brought in from the farm. It helped Leong learn to incorporate more savory flavors into her desserts. “I wanted to go out of the box of my style, and Manresa, I knew, was different,” she says. “I liked the challenge.” – LS

Avery Ruzicka, partner and head baker of Manresa Bread

Bread baker at Manresa, 2011-2014

Avery Ruzicka
Kevin Painchaud

Avery Ruzicka met Kinch at New York’s International Culinary Center (formerly known as the French Culinary Institute) in 2010 and, after being impressed by his cooking and leadership, she took a food runner position at Manresa to get her foot in the door. “The reason I wanted to work at Manresa had to do with the energy and the curiosity that David has,” she says. Ruzicka would also work mornings in the kitchen, eventually improving the bread program, which didn’t have a dedicated bread baker at the time. When an opportunity arose to sell her bread at the local farmer’s market, Ruzicka jumped at the chance with support from Kinch. It was dubbed the Manresa Bread Project; she would take over the kitchen Saturday night to bake bread, then borrow Kinch’s Volvo to take it over to the market. There was no clear goal of opening a bakery at the start, but it naturally evolved into Manresa Bread.

Now, having opened the fifth Manresa Bread bakery, Ruzicka reflected on that first meeting and watching Kinch cook. “It was a combination of cooking with total precision, but also just joy of the product, the integrity of it, and the curiosity of it,” Ruzicka says. “It’s a lesson that one can return to, and I myself have. ‘What is at the center of what we do? Why do we do what we do?’ I think David is a really good example of, if you’re going to have an esteemed career in the food world, you’ve got to have these core reasons you want to be there.” – DD

Nicolas Delaroque, owner and chef at Maison Nico

Chef de partie at Manresa, 2011-2012

Nicolas Delaroque
Patricia Chang

What Nicolas Delaroque most remembers from his time at Manresa is learning about food philosophy and holding discussions around food. Every week, two cooks would pair up for a food project, and on Sundays they would share the results with the team and host a talk about their work. These discussions would cover the cooking process, or a technique a cook had read about and worked on for the week. “It was very new to me; I had never worked in a kitchen that was doing this kind of side project for cooks to be involved in, with creativity or research,” Delaroque says.

Delaroque appreciates how Kinch worked with employees. Kinch navigated being the owner and chef at Manresa, while still being friendly with the staff and cultivating strong team bonds. “There was always a continuous push to be better at what we do with our craft, but his approach to bring you there was not like some other Michelin-starred restaurants,” Delaroque says. “Obviously everybody still has to be focused, but he was a genuine good spirit in the whole kitchen.” – DD

Cynthia Sandberg, owner of Love Apple Farms

Manresa farm partner, 2005 to 2016

Cynthia Sandberg
Love Apple Farms

In 2005, Kinch reached out to Cynthia Sandberg with the idea of turning Love Apple Farms into Manresa’s exclusive vegetable purveyor. With that began an 11-year working relationship that involved Kinch and Sandberg collaborating on the vegetables Sandberg would grow for the restaurant. Together they would walk the farm, with Kinch formulating recipes using the upcoming produce. During his travels, when he came across a vegetable he liked he’d bring Sandberg seeds and ask her to grow it. “Manresa gave a lot of credibility to a true farm-to-table relationship,” Sandberg says. “David, he walked the walk and he talked the talk, and that was special about him.”

What stands out to Sandberg about Kinch’s approach to cooking is his habit of taking “the vegetables in all of their many forms” and using the plants at various stages of maturity. An example would be the fava bean plant, she says. He’d use the leaves, the flower, the young pod before the beans could be shucked, and the fava bean itself. Other dishes would employ the seeds of a vegetable or the root, parts chefs wouldn’t normally use. “Manresa’s cooking was different: It spawned and helped promulgate this idea that California is something special. It pulled Michelin all the way down to the South Bay,” she says. – DD

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