Take one look at the eclectic décor of famed Bay Area restaurant Manresa and it’s easy to see that Chef David Kinch has an eye for design. A long-time friendship with Steelite International America President John Miles has helped broaden his horizons when it comes to service-ware (a drool-worthy international travel schedule doesn’t hurt either), so a collaboration between with the chef and manufacturer was a natural fit. Steelite’s new Koto collection—a stunning series of textured chocolate and copper plates—is the fruit of that friendship.
Kinch recently took a few minutes away from the kitchen to chat about his inspiration, thoughts on his first go at serviceware design, and his advice for budding chef-designers.
Antoinette Bruno: Tell me about your collaboration with Steelite. What sparked your interest in serviceware design and how did you begin working with the company?
David Kinch: Well I’ve been friends with John Miles for several years now, since we opened up Manresa. Our plateware is fairly eclectic. We’ve mixed and matched a lot. John asked me if there was anything I was passionate about in regards of design and the answer was yes, so we started working together on what that meant.
AB: What was your inspiration behind the Koto collection?
DK: The inspiration was, of course, from frequent travel to Japan and also trying to get an understanding of how they matched specific vessels to specific dishes. I found this fascinating and wanted to try to utilize some of those factors into what we do at the restaurant. I also wanted to try and work to take presentation to another level, as opposed to plain white plates. Plain white plates are frames to a canvas, but in Europe and the U.S. we are seeing a lot of off-white and organic shapes and local potters being involved. With Steelite the idea was to be able to do this but in a productive fashion with the numbers that Steelite could produce.
AB: You’ve spent a good amount of time in Asia. How do those experiences influence this line?
DK: I tried to do a versatile collection: we wanted a soup bowl, a flat bowl, and also a rice bowl, which you don’t always see in Western cuisine, but is easily utilized in Western cuisine. I’ve always liked the hand-crafted experience, the imperfections, the beautiful imperfections of each plate being a little slightly different. My question for John, and his designer Andrew, was if there was a possibility that we could make each one slightly different but not interfere with the mass production. Through trial and error they figured it out. If you look at the texture, the pattern, you will see indentations, as if each one is hand-made, even though they are made in a factory.
AB: Can you describe the process you used in executing this collection? Our readers would love to get a sense of the step-by-step process.
DK: When I first went to Steelite I approached them with several catalogues of artisanal products to look through. This was a really fun project. Even for John, who has been everywhere and seen everything, there were a lot of things he hadn’t seen. For me what was important was that it wasn’t overtly Japanese or Asian but that it kind of played homage or hinted at a Japanese context.
From there, they came back to me with samples from different firing lines, from a factory in England, I believe it was. This was the first time I’ve done anything like this, and I found it to be incredibly exciting.
AB: Many chefs and restaurants own a primarily white plate collection. How do you think this line fits into other serviceware collections? How can chefs creatively plate using a variety of styles, plates, and colors?
DK: I think it fits in well. White is a component of the Koto collection also, either on the outside or inside. Our contrast works well with a white plate collection—if a chef or restaurant is looking for a sort of eclectic feature. Chefs aren’t just buying one collection anymore. People aren’t just buying one plate.
AB: Black is an interesting color to plate on. Why did you choose this for the base of many of the plates?
DK: I can plate anything on black, but I wouldn’t exactly call this black. There is an incredible warmth to the glaze, a real nice warmth to it. You could mistake it for ceramic, with the different textures and the iron ore accent rim. There is a long way from just describing it as a black plate collection; it is a very warm color, an appetite-enhancing color.
AB: Which piece is your favorite from this collection?
DK: There is a shallow bowl, a pasta bowl, with the glaze on the inside. You can serve almost anything on that, from amuse to dessert.
AB: Describe your style as a designer.
DK: This is my first time, so how would I know yet. I helped design pieces I like.
AB: So it’s sort of like a little piece of you?
DK: Yeah, I think so.
AB: Has this experience influenced your style as a chef, or your cooking in any way?
DK: No, but it certainly makes me want to try it again. I had a tremendous amount of fun.
AB: What do you see as the future of restaurant service-ware?
DK: The more I eat out, the more I see people bringing more eclectic design into the restaurant. I like the idea that people are incorporating more off-white colors and organic shapes, and the idea that people are supporting local artisans. People are starting to realize it’s not only the food or the service, but also the plateware the food is served on is important.
AB: What advice do you have for young chefs who are looking to branch into design as well?
DK: Find a company as great as Steelite to work for. I’ve always taken pictures and sketched things I’ve found appealing; in the last few years it’s been great to be able to take photographs instantly of things you find appealing. And you should like things or not like things according to yourself—develop your own style.
AB: What is on the horizon? What new projects are you working on?
DK: Well we just finished the renovation at Manresa, and Love Apple Farms just finished the expansion, [so] I am working to continue integrating it into the restaurant. I’m also working on a cookbook. It’s coming out in 2013, and I’m very excited about the book.