“I didn’t grow up eating caviar; it was all very simple,” says chef Walter Manzke of his upbringing in the utopian climes of San Diego, CA. “But my family always had a garden with good quality fruit trees, so I guess I just thought it was normal to have access to fresh produce.”
That type of access is something that served Manzke well throughout his career at the helm of some of the Golden State’s most well-respected kitchens. From his early days as a line chef at L.A.’s now-defunct Pinot Bistro, to his celebrate tenure at Carmel-on-Sea’s L’Auberge Carmel, Manzke has built his name on bringing vibrant Cali flavors to classic French cuisine. At his newly-opened Hancock Park restaurant République, Manzke and his wife Margarita combine Old World preparations with the freshest New World produce in dishes such as Santa Barbara uni and soft-scrambled eggs on toast.
But this ability to bridge Europe and the West Coast didn’t come overnight. Manzke picked up invaluable lessons in the Continental kitchens of titans such as Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià before resettling in California.
Here, Manzke talks to us about the 10 memorable dishes that have defined his cooking style, from Adrià’s precise deconstruction of pan con tomate, to perfectly simple roast chicken at République.
We had peach trees in our garden in San Diego and my mom used them in a recipe that was always special to me. Maybe that’s because the season was so short—you wait the whole year for the peaches, they’re there for a week or two, and then they’re gone. Peach pancakes are pretty unusual but these were phenomenal—the peaches are sliced into the batter and mixed so it’s almost like a soufflé. I still make that recipe to this day. (Photo: une-deux senses)
My first kitchen job was in a BBQ restaurant, where I was just grilling meat and smoking chickens and ribs. Even at that point I still had no idea I was going to be a chef, but cooking that steak on the barbecue with wood grown on the premises was an experience that stayed with me. I’ve always loved cooking on the fire—here at République, we have a wood oven, a wood grill, and fireplace, and we cook almost everything we can that way. (Photo: grillingwithrich.com)
Escargot en croute at La Valencia Hotel (San Diego, CA)
La Valencia Hotel was where I had my first serious kitchen job, and the first place where I saw real cooking going down. I was doing mostly doing very basic prep, but there’s an escargot dish that I learned at that time and still cook now. You take a little dish, put pastry on top, and cook the escargot inside with garlic and butter.
I actually never cooked it again until I went to Church & State [the downtown L.A. restaurant where Manzke was head chef, before opening République], which became very well known for that particular dish. I wasn’t sure if I was going to serve it here because I didn’t want République to be another Church & State, but it ended up on the menu anyway—except here we make the pastry ourselves. (Photo: L.A. Magazine)
Steak frites at Pinot Bistro (Los Angeles, CA)
After three or four years at La Valencia, a friend of my uncle’s said that if I wanted to be a chef, I should go to L.A. and work with this guy called Joachim Splichal. I had no intention of going to L.A. but I was introduced to Joachim over lunch, and when I went back to La Valencia and told the chef I was thinking of moving to L.A. He just said: “Go.”
The first restaurant I worked at was called Pinot Bistro, which had just opened in the Valley. I started as a line cook and I quickly became sous chef. It was a great learning experience—I went from a hotel kitchen where everybody wore the toque and it was very proper and formal, to a kitchen run by Octavio Becerra [now at Acabar], who was much more abrasive and aggressive. It was like playing hockey in the kitchen. That was where I really started to love the business.
Pinot Bistro was my first exposure to classic bistro cooking—things like steak frites, which we serve on our menu here at République. I think we really nailed the French fries. I put a lot of thought into the menu here and it’s still finding its way. I really wanted it to be associated with a bistro, but I didn’t want it to be Balthazar. That’s the restaurant everyone dreams of opening, and it’s such a phenomenal restaurant, but it’s really a textbook brasserie. I want elements of that, but I don’t want to be too associated with my past because a lot of it is fine dining and there’s not a lot of fun in that anymore. (Photo: Darin Dines)
Spicy Spanish-style Snails
I always wanted to go to Europe. After two and a half years at Pinot Bistro, I saved some money and Joachim helped me to get a place at a restaurant called Leonce near Montpellier. It’s not such a famous restaurant—it just has one Michelin star—but it’s very good Mediterranean French food with a heavy Catalonian influence, because it’s near Barcelona.
As well as being a great cooking experience, it was a great way to experience French culture. The family who owned the restaurant took me to wineries and oyster farms, so I saw a lot of culture outside the kitchen. One day, we had lunch with the chef and his mother, and obviously you’re no really in a position to say anything—we just sat down and they put down this big bowl of escargot still in the shell. It was a Spanish preparation, stewed in tomatoes and a little spicy. They were snails that the mother had collected from the yard and obviously they were very, very good. (Photo: spanishrecipesbynuria.com)
Risotto at Alain Ducasse (Monaco)
The whole summer I was at Leonce, I was calling and sending letters to Alain Ducasse—that was the restaurant where I wanted to work. The chef at Leonce kept telling me I should go and work with this guy called Ferran Adrià in Spain, but this was 1995 when no one had never heard of anyone in Spain except Arzak. Eventually, I was invited to go to Ducasse’s restaurant Monaco, where they said I could either keep completely silent in the kitchen and stay for a week, or start work that day and stay for a year. Obviously, I chose to stay for a year.
That was in 1995 and it was a great time to be there. It was extremely strict; very long hours, lots of discipline, but it was an incredible kitchen and experience. That period had a big impact on my career, especially all the Mediterranean flavors. It was more or less an Italian restaurant done by a French chef (although I’m sure the Italians would disagree with that) because it’s right on the border near Italy.
One thing I’ve always loved and done is risotto. To see it done in a three Michelin-star restaurant—very simply, but with absolute precision and attention to detail—was very inspiring for me. It’s a type of cooking that needs to come back. We’ve gone through the Ferran Adrià-era of flair and excitement, we’ve gone through the Noma phase of everything being organic and natural, and now it would be great it we see a return to simple but precise cooking. (Photo: montecarlodailyphoto.com)
Creamy polenta with everything from the rabbit at Patina (Los Angeles, CA)
I could’ve stayed on longer with Ducasse but after a year I was broke, I missed my family, and I wanted to back to the U.S. I felt like I owed it to Joachim, and I wanted to work at Patina. I started working back at Patina as sous chef and ended up as head chef over the course of six years.
Suddenly, I had access to all these luxury ingredients—truffles and caviar—that I’d seen in France. It was a fantastic experience. There was a lot of pressure at Patina because of the clientele—one of the things I learned there was how to handle a demanding customer. Patina had three different tasting menus—one that was all seafood, one that was all vegetables, and one that was a mix. And then there was an a la carte menu! There were also a lot of very regular customers who didn’t even want to look at the menu. I learnt to juggle a lot, but I thrived under the pressure—it was that sports-team environment where you turn pressure into a positive thing.
I remember my time there with a dish that that was slightly unusual for Patina but really shows how simple and ‘small bistro’ it was when it opened. It was one I learned from Joachim, and he called it “creamy polenta with everything from the rabbit.” It’s a really simple polenta dish with Parmesan, rabbit loin, and this ragu made out of all the part of the rabbit—including the kidneys and the liver—but that was one of my favorite dishes that he ever showed me, and I still serve it every once in a while. (Photo: theyellowtable.com)
Pa amb tomàquet at El Bulli (Roses, Spain) / deconstructed lobster tacos at L’Auberge Carmel (Carmel-on-Sea, CA)
In the middle of my time at Patina, Joachim sold the company and the restaurant underwent a big renovation. It closed for two months and I went to El Bulli for a few weeks. At that time, Ferran Adrià had just become recognized by the mainstream. He was working on a lot of crazy ideas, and that was fantastic to see. Until that era, everyone did things in a certain way—everything was rigid and structured—but Adrià was really challenging the status quo, and he looked at everything in a different way.
From El Bulli, I took away the idea of deconstruction, which is such a brilliant idea. I always laugh when I see it done incorrectly, and the dish is just spread all over the plate and called “deconstruction,” when what Adrià actually did was pretty brilliant. While I was there he was doing this version of pan amb tomaquet—a dish that everyone in Spain knows and loves and eats everyday. It was tomato sorbet, with a little, hot baked bread roll that had been injected with garlic olive oil using a syringe. It’s all the familiar flavors, but it’s totally new.
I actually did a riff on it when I finally left Patina and moved to L’Auberge Carmel. It was this very high-end, fine-dining restaurant, but I tried to lighten things up a bit with this take on something I always had when I visited Mexico—lobster tacos and tequila. So I did an ice-cold shot glass with Mexican salsa essence; a really fine, fried potato chip; a spoon of lobster and avocado; and then a shot glass of lime sorbet and tequila. That dish was very much inspired by my time working in Adria’s kitchen. (Photo: eatinout.com)
Charcuterie board at Church & State (Los Angeles, CA)
Mussels were one of my signature dishes while I was head chef at Church & State, as was the charcuterie board, which I serve a version of here. Right now it’s mostly pates and terrines—I want to do dry cured stuff, but it’s very difficult to get around the health department. I’m working on that. Most people buy some salami and put it on a board, but I made everything on the board, including the board itself! That makes it unique—whether it’s good or bad, it’s mine. (Photo: thrillist.com)
Roasted chicken at République (Los Angeles, CA)
There’s just something that happens when chicken is roasted on the spit; it’s just perfect. There’s no secret spice, there’s no secret technique. It’s not cooked sous-vide. I do put it in a brine and dry the skin for a day, but it’s mostly just about turning it on a fire. I think [at République] we ended up with the best-selling dishes from Church & State—mussels and fries, tarte flambée, steak tartare, frisée lardon salad, and roast chicken. They’re not the flashiest, but they’re my signature dishes, and the ones that people can identify with the most. (Photo courtesy République)