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Coming out of its shell: a california chef keeping it close to home.

Abalone is an underdog in the world of seafood. For starters, it is essentially a giant snail; its only edible part is the muscle referred to as the "foot," which an abalone uses to attach itself to rocks on the ocean floor. Abalone meat has a propensity to toughen when cooked if not handled very carefully, and requires significantly more prep work than fellow mollusks clams, squid, or mussels. Due to a severe decline in population from overfishing and changing oceanic conditions, they can also be hard to get and expensive. Most abalone served now is farm raised, since diving for wild abalone is seasonal, limited to only certain areas, requires permits, carries a small bag limit, and can be dangerous.

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Abalones are also very slow growing. They will grow, on average, about 1 inch per year for the first few years, but the rate of growth slows after that initial period. For red abalone, the largest species of abalone in the world, it can take 12 years to grow to about 7 inches in shell length. Then it can take an additional 5 years to grow to 8 inches and then 13 years to reach 9 inches. For this reason, most farmed abalone going to restaurants are between 3 and 4 inches, yielding only about 4 ounces of edible meat--not a very hearty portion for a main course.

With all of abalone's downsides, for a chef to want to serve it regularly on a menu it must be pretty special, right? Yes. It is. As with any ingredient, careless or thoughtless preparation can turn abalone into a forgettable or a disappointing meal. However, when given some extra attention, abalone's the unique texture and flavor are unparalleled and make it well worth the effort.

Chef David Kinch's cooking has been deeply influenced by the plentiful offerings of California, including abalone. Chef Kinch offers six recipes showcasing all the best abalones have to offer.

To define David Kinch as a California chef passionate about cooking with local ingredients is only skimming the surface of who he is and what he does. While Kinch loves California cuisine and ingredients, he defines his style of cooking as personal and reflective. Kinch is not like other chefs who focus on local and sustainable foods; it is not a trend or culinary point of view he has decided to adopt. It is simply the way he has come to enjoy food and eating, which is the essence of how he cooks.

Since opening Manresa in 2002, he has sourced the best ingredients to showcase his cuisine. This desire for the best is what drove him to create a partnership with Love Apple Farms, a mere 12 miles away. Kinch stresses that working with the farm was a "qualitative decision." He would never use a product simply because it is local, but being so close and so involved with the farm allows him a measure of control over what is grown and the quality of that product. He dedicates time at the farm growing dozens of experimental crops and gauging their success. Some crops not doing well enough might get another shot with different soil or sun conditions, while others will be filed under the heading of "what just doesn't work." Regardless of the number of successful crops, working with the farm has turned out to be a winning situation that produces exactly the kind of high-quality ingredients Kinch insists on. Sometimes Kinch even finds inspiration for new dishes by simply walking around the farm grounds and taking in the sights and smells of everything growing around him.

The focus on local doesn't push Kinch into a small world of flavors and ingredients. He explains that California cuisine is hugely influenced and defined by the Pacific Rim and all the great migrations to the state. This mix of influences has become part of the food at Manresa. Specifically, Kinch has always been fascinated by Japanese cuisine. He is impressed by the minimal use of fat in Japanese cooking and the ability to cook with very few ingredients while still coaxing out a purity of flavor in the finished dish. Capturing these flavors at Manresa is not something Kinch takes lightly. For example, dashi is the foundation of Japanese food and key to creating umami, so Kinch took a great deal of time and care to create the dashi he uses. He found that in order to get the right conditions for the development of glutamic acids in a proper dashi, he had to start with bottled soft water. It is a relatively small detail that makes all the difference in the world, and the kind of perfection that Kinch embraces.

Choosing abalone as his theme for this feature was a natural decision for Kinch. Not only is it an iconic California ingredient he already works with at the restaurant, it is symbolic of what he tries to do for his diners. Many view abalone as rare, expensive, and difficult to work with, but Kinch takes these somewhat negative factors and turns them around. He likes to work with these perceptions or prejudices and offer abalone in ways that make it accessible.

Serving abalone also goes hand in hand with Kinch's passion for sustainability. He explains that abalone is a mythological California coast ingredient. Back in the 1930s and '405, surfers would use a crowbar to fish out spiny lobsters or abalones and then cook them over a beach fire. It was a "California clam bake." Of course, times are different now--wild spiny lobster and abalone are strictly controlled. While red abalone can be taken in certain areas of California under very specific guidelines and with proper licenses, black, white, pink, and flat abalones are protected species and cannot be taken at all.

Abalone is in the mollusk family, and only about one-third of the animal is the edible foot muscle. It takes three to four years for the abalone shells to reach about four inches long. In searching for the best purveyor of farmed abalone to supply the restaurant, Kinch tasted all around California. "Some farms grow abalone just for the shell, while others are focusing on export," he explains. Kinch eventually found a company with a strong sense of sustainability (they harvest all the kelp and other seaweed used to feed their abalones, among other measures) that raises great abalone, and it has turned into a 15-year relationship.

For all his love of and work with abalone, it is both ironic and symbolic that when asked, Kinch couldn't really recall the first time he had abalone. He guessed it was probably at a Chinese restaurant but couldn't remember any specifics about the preparation or flavors. It certainly did not capture the essence of any of the three words Kinch uses to describe abalone: textural, versatile, and marine. But abalone is certainly not an easy ingredient to work with. Producing the right texture and employing the right techniques are two challenges when working with abalone. "Great abalone is soft and tender but still a bit chewy. That is the beauty of it." Kinch takes the time to rest the abalone in a lukewarm water bath for a few hours, then chill it overnight to relax the muscle. Kinch explained that some might take a quicker route to tenderizing abalone and freeze it, as this will break down the water and cell structure. The problem with that, though, is that "anything more than a light quick freeze can also turn the texture to mush. With abalone, everything is about tenderizing and maintaining the flavor and textural integrity."

Kinch's passion for how he cooks and dedication to ingredients has kept him firmly rooted at Manresa, instead of turning his success into a series of other restaurants, books, or a television show. With more than a decade at Manresa, however, Kinch now feels he may have the time for a few new ventures. When asked what's next for him, Kinch shared the news that his first--and some might say long-awaited--cookbook, Manresa: An Edible Reflection, will be released this October.* The book will tell "the story of Manresa, through recipes, photos, and stories." In a perfectly timed moment, he also shared the cover for this book: a beautiful closeup shot of an abalone shell.

* Manresa. An Edible Reflection (Ten Speed Press, on sale 10/22/2013)

David Kinch Manresa * Los Gatos, CA
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Title Annotation:Manresa: An Edible Reflection
Publication:Art Culinaire
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jun 22, 2013
Words:1404
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