I N T E R V I E W
Chef David Kinch and his partner Aimee Hebert welcomed me to Restaurant Sent Sovi earlier this fall with an wonderful warm tomato & creamed corn salad and even warmer smiles. One of the best kept secrets of Northern California, tucked away in the very quaint village of Saratoga and hailed as a "jewel of a restaurant." With seating for 40 in the dining room, David and Aimee take special care to see that guests enjoy their unique European-inspired food and their personally-conceived decor. David tells me they polished the sparkling copper walls themselves ....
Interviewed by Stasia Droze
Tell me about the special corn and tomato salad on tonight's menu. It was delicious and very beautiful.
DK: It's very simple. Actually this was one of the dishes on our opening menu when we opened up a year ago. The restaurant opened on Bastille Day last year. We just celebrated our first year anniversary. The dish proved to be so popular during the summer and fall of last year, we started getting calls very early this year: " When are the corn and tomatoes going back on the menu?" So it came back by popular demand and it's a very simple dish. Because it's simple, what makes it really special are the quality of the ingredients that we get. They just really really shine in this very simple dish. We grow the tomatoes ourselves or they are grown specifically for us and, at any given time, we have anywhere from 9-14 different varieties of tomato on the plate -- sizes, shapes, the way they're cut. It's just very simple: marinade at room temperature or slightly chilled with the warm creamed corn dumped on top. One of the contrasts of the dish that I think make it really special is the fact that you have the cool tomatoes and the hot corn. It's very interesting.
And the varieties of basil ...
DK: We're using four different basils tonight. We have a cinnamon basil, a Thai basil, or what we call here an anise basil, then there's a purple ruffle and a sweet green basil. And that will change as we get into September, other basils more late harvesting, later bearing ... and the tomatoes later bearing will change.
I have about five varieties at home. I have a fair size herb garden at home. We have a forager who works for the restaurant on an almost full time basis. She just goes around to various markets. She also farms an acre and a half of land up in Bolinas up north in Marin County that supplies us with things. She also has about half an acre of tomatoes planted in Portola Valley just north of us here.
Is that "Dirty Girl" produce?
DK: No. "Dirty Girl" is two women, Jane Freeman and Ally Edwards. They have a plot just north of Santa Cruz on the coast and they have a small organic farm. They work it all by themselves. We buy almost everything they have. They have different varieties of what they have. Their stuff is just spectacular. All our lettuce greens, our beets, our carrots. The carrots are amazing. They just look so ordinary, but they're really the most amazing carrots you've ever tasted in your life. We put them with the shank.
So it's just a matter of a couple of phone calls and setting it up. You may have noticed our menu is very tiny. There's about five entrees, about seven appetizers. We laser print in the day. Usually we find out what we're going to get the next day because the menu is so small. The people who supply us with these things are so close, it allows us to take advantage of what we have. If we run out of something, we can change the menu, if we get something spectacular, we can change the menu. We just make it work for us.
And do you get all your produce locally?
DK: Most everything. Everything possible.
Green market ...
DK: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Like I said we do have a forager who works for us.
You've worked in New York. Do you notice a difference in the produce in New York vs. California?
DK: You know, the produce that we had in New York was really spectacular. It was very very good. The restaurants I worked at in New York were really really single-mindedly dedicated to quality also. And I think in New York the vegetables just seem to cost more. It's more seasonal in New York. You have a more definitive winter, fall, spring and summer on the east coast. Here in California, our climate is so Mediterranean, as opposed to temperate. We just have this long slow growing season around the clock. Plus the immediacy of being so close. I'm not in San Francisco. I'm down here in the Santa Clara valley, which is historically some of the richest farm land and orchard land in the United States. So there's more of an immediacy here. And I think that's part of the charm.
Did you choose Saratoga for any particular reason?
DK: Aimee and I chose Saratoga because of the space. We looked at many. We looked at dozens and dozens of spots. A lot of them were in San Francisco and there were some in the wine country up north in Napa and Sonoma. And the East Bay. But when we walked into the spot that's now currently Sent Sovi we really fell in love with the intimacy and the potential of the flowers on the patio. We kind of walked in and we just had that feeling -- this is it, this is what we've been looking for. With everything else there was something fundamentally wrong. We didn't have a lot of money to do it, it was really shoestring.
You're very busy.
DK: We're busy all the time. Tonight's typical.
I notice that you cook a lot with fruit. Is there something about fruit that inspires you?
DK: I like fruit personally. As far as desserts are concerned, I personally don't have a huge sweet tooth. I lean towards trying to incorporate cheeses in desserts or desserts that have a lot of fruit in it. I think that's just more of a personal preference. I'm not afraid to use a little bit of fruit in savory dishes also. I think it works. The connotation, too, of Santa Clara Valley also -- it was the nation's fruit orchard for 100 years. There's still alot of great orchards here. There's still 100-year-old walnut orchards and cherry orchards and apricot, still scattered throughout what is now Silicon Valley. Twenty years ago none of that was here.
Do you seek out special sources for dairy products?
DK: Yes. Right now currently I'm using both a butter and a cheese from Egg Farm Dairy, which is Charles Palmer's project in upstate New York, I think it's in the Hudson River Valley. Charles Palmer of Aureole in New York. We've dug a little bit deeper, there's a couple of dairies out here. They're not as competitively priced and the quality is the same and they are organic, which is a very difficult thing to do in dairy.
But we are using this butter from Egg Farm Dairy and I think it's truly spectacular. It's very very French in character and quality and that's what I like about it.
What about France inspired you? Who did you studyunder there? And how was it different from Johnson and Wales?
DK: It's very different from Johnson and Wales. I spent two different periods in France. I spent most of 1984 in France and just recently, in 1991, I went back. Did a couple of stays. Always in Burgundy. I spent a couple of very short stays in Paris, but it was really nothing to speak of, just a week here, a week there. But I spent some extended stays for several months in Burgundy both in Beaune and in Vézeley. I also spent the harvest of 1991 working in a small domain in Sancerre doing some cellar work.
The thing that I find most attractive about France is not only the food and the restaurants and the wine, the thing that I admire most about the French are the clients and the people themselves and their love for the table. They make time to eat. It's very admirable. They're not afraid to eat food that's so called bad for you. They're not afraid of dairy, they're not afraid of high fat items like foie gras. And they eat it. Everybody eats it. They eat a breakfast, they eat a lunch and they eat a dinner. They have a certain sense of moderation. They don't eat too much food. They don't seem to snack too. They eat on a regular basis and I think this regularity has a certain ... you don't see a lot of overweight Frenchmen. That might be changing a bit now. But you used to not see a lot of them. They just knew how to eat. And they appreciate the table. They're not afraid to drive two hours to a restaurant. And they're very very picky and very very discerning and things had to be a certain way. This I found very very attractive.
It's something you see happening in America. In my mind, if you send out something wrong to some people in France, people continue to send it back until you get it right. But I think what happens a lot in America, and again this is a generalization, but I think a lot of times something will come out and it's not what the person expected or it's not prepared the way they like it. They will eat it, but they'll never go back. They won't say a word. They'll say thank you, yes everything was lovely, but they'll never go back to the restaurant. It's just part of the difference. Their (the French) approach to food in general is very admirable and that's what I like about it.
Who did you study with in France?
DK: I worked at the Hotel de la Poste in Beaune with Marc Chevillot. He no longer owns the hotel, this is back in 1984. I worked for Marc Meneau . He has a restaurant called L'Esperance, three stars. It's in St. Pere-sous-Vézeley, a small village in the Yonne, which is technically a part of Burgundy.
How was that training different from Johnson and Wales?
DK: Work ethic. They work very very hard. We worked lunch and dinner. We worked six days a week. Weren't paid very much. The reason why you did it, the reason why you were in these very very hard situations was to learn. You weren't there for anything else. Everybody pushed everybody to be good because the attitude was: if you screw up, or you slow us down, then it reflects on me because I'm not here for the money. I'm here so I can tell people I worked at this restaurant and it's going to aid me in my future plans. And if you send out something that's crap, then people won't think as highly of this restaurant, so you're really hurting me. That's just shocking. I loved that. I thought that was great.
Do you think you benefitted more from your training at Johnson Wales or abroad?
DK: Johnson Wales was a nice fundamental. I went to Johnson Wales directly out of high school. I worked for a couple years in a kitchen and went right to Johnson and Wales. I graduated from Johnson and Wales and I just dove back into working. I graduated from Johnson and Wales in 1981, that's a very long time ago. For the past 15 years, the major bulk of my experience and the experience that has been the most formative has been after Johnson and Wales. Johnson and Wales was great in a business aspect and laying down a foundation. But there's really no substitute for experience.
Besides French cuisine is there anything else that inspires you?
Yes, Spanish food. I think Spain is great. Very underrated, untouched. There are many regional cuisines, very very different from elsewhere.
Have you brought that into your menu?
DK: Absolutely, "Sent Sovi" is actually a Catalan name. It's inspired from a Catalan language cookbook.
What does "Sent Sovi" mean?
DK: It's very archaic. It's very archaic Catalan. Most Catalan speakers don't recognize it. But it was taken from this book called the "Libre de Sent Sovi" and linguists seem to feel it meant "sweet taste," which makes perfect sense if it was taken from the title of a cookbook.
I worked in the Basque country for half a year. In San Sebastian.
Anything on the menu currently that reflects your Spanish -- Catalan interest?
DK: The monkfish dish. We had salt cod. We run salt cod all the time. We just don't have salt cod on the menu right now. We had a rabbit dish with fava beans and it was thickened with a purée of fried bread and hazelnut, which is very very old-fashioned Catalan way of thickening stews. It is called a picada. We've been using picadas a lot. And a little bit of cocoa in it. Ground almonds and hazelnuts. Mortar and pestle work for a very long time by hand. It just added a nice grainy texture to the sauce. We were using that quite a bit. We're going to do a duck dish with a picada when we come back from our short break -- the first couple days of September.
During your break will you eat out?
DK: I'm going to visit my grandparents who live in Philadelphia. They're getting up there in years. I'm going to spend some time with them. I'll probably go out and eat one night in Philadelphia before flying back.
Do you normally cook at home?
DK: I like to eat out.
Do you have a favorite restaurant?
DK: No, I move around. I don't eat out enough to ... if I'm going out to try new things and see what people are doing, I usually just move around, see what people are doing.
Where will you eat in Philadelphia?
DK: I think we're going to go to "Striped Bass," but I don't know for sure. I think it was Esquire's restaurant of the year two years ago. It's funny, I called two months ago and they called me today to confirm, to reconfirm five days before my reservation. So they must be very busy.
We were in France in January for two weeks. We just ate. We just drove around and ate. We'll probably do that again. We'll probably go to northern Spain, probably go to Catalonia. If not this year, then next year because there's a lot of things happening there. There's a lot of young Catalan chefs and the chefs are doing some really marvelous things right now. And people don't tap into that. There's the usual French guys. We trying to look for something a little bit different. I'm looking for something a little different.
And do you experiment at home a bit?
DK: I spend so much time here. If it means experimenting and trying something new, I'll do it here. Most of my time is spent here.
When you do cook at home, what do you cook?
DK: Something very simple. We have a nice big barbecue with the gazebo out in the back yard by the garden. So we'll do some barbecue, we'll make some salads. With the nice garden. We have a bunch of Farmer's Markets around this area. So we just keep it really really simple. Right now I'm just eating tomatoes.
We're going to do an all-tomato menu in September, including dessert. Whole tomatoes poached in a very strong ginger syrup and then they're squeezed into little balls and we coat it with an aspic made from some sauternes we serve that about the size of an ice cream scoop. So we're going to put this in a bowl and a scoop of vanilla ice cream with it. It really works.
What will the tomato entrees be?
DK: We've got a couple things working. We're going to do a braised swordfish with tomatoes and capers, add the creamed corn and tomatoes.
Do you get your seafood locally? DK: Yes, out of Half Moon Bay. There's a small company that has three boats. They go out. So all the fish is local. They broker fish also. The best fish I've seen come out of the west coast.
So how long will you have your tomato menu?
DK: We'll probably do it for September.
Do you have any cookbook favorites?
DK: I'm reading a lot of Spanish books right now. A lot of Spanish cookbooks. A lot of Catalan recipes. Michel Brau has a great cookbook out now. Marc Vayrot has got an interesting cookbook because he uses a lot of different herbs, a lot old archaic heirloom wild herbs, which is really really interesting. That's kind of a bent that we've been following. So I've been reading their books.
What's the best meal you've ever had?
D: There's been a couple. Marc Vayrot in January. This past January. It was really truly spectacular. I thought it was very very well conceived, well thought out. About nine courses. Truly spectacular restaurant in a truly spectacular setting. Just outside of Annecy, on the lake, a little place called Veyrier-du-lac. It got it's third Michelin star about a year ago. He's a bit of a nut. He's pretty obsessed with the way things ought to be and doing it his way.
But, you know, the food doesn't have to be the best I've ever tasted. It can just be good. But what I really admire is that obsessiveness, or just being focused on being what you want to be and achieving what you want to achieve. And I was very envious of this place. I just thought it was spectacular.
What is your first memory of food?
DK: My grandmother's cooking, my mother's cooking. Pennsylvania Dutch food. My grandparents. Lancaster County. My grandmother. My big German grandmother. She made chicken pot pie with saffron noodles. Roast smoke pork and sauerkraut. Everybody drinking beer. And 40 people. Just she cooking alone for 40 people.
Did you love her food? DK: Oh yeah. It was just great. I can taste it now. Both grandmothers were great cooks.
Do you ever cook the things they used to feed you?
DK: A lot of that stuff is day long, time consuming, stir the pot slowly kind of thing. I don't do that on my day off. I'll eat that food. There's a neat little German restaurant in San Francisco I like called "The Suppenkueche." It's on Hayes and Octavia, I think. Down in Hayes Valley before it starts to climb the hill. They have an ever-changing array of maybe eight or ten German beers on tap. Spectacular. Best beers I've tasted in the US. Super fresh, out of the tap. The real thing. Pine tables, no tablecloth, benches. You sit down, the food's very simple, very straightforward, great complement to the beer. Actually when my grandparents came out to visit a couple years ago, I took them there. They just loved it. They couldn't believe it.
Do you have a favorite tool in the kitchen?
DK: Love my knives. I've had my knives forever. I've had them for 12 years and they haven't broken. They've dropped off tables. They're just comfortable. Really really comfortable.
Will we see a cookbook from you anytime soon?
DK: Maybe ... I want to be very natural about it and present our food and the restaurant's food in the best possible light, but doesn't everybody who writes cookbooks? What's going to make us special? Restaurants that I really admire, and restaurants that I think are really good are restaurants that have a sense of place and of the time and place that they are.
Like you ask me what is my favorite restaurant and I tell you about this place Veyrier-du-lac, it's two miles from Annecy. You can't pick that restaurant up and move it. There's something special, something unique. A labor of love, not overly consulted. It might be a bit quirky. And those are the restaurants that I like to be in, ones that are unique. You go in and you've got the wife out in front and the chef, the husband in the back or vice versa, or as a family. It doesn't really matter if the food is not the greatest food in the world. It's an experience. That's what we wanted to do and that's what I admire most, that other people do. A restaurant, a place to go eat that is reflective of their personality and their talent and abilities. And that is what I want to do too.
I love the restaurant's copper walls.
DK: The copper was here believe it or not. It was the color of chocolate. Hot chocolate. We rented all these buffing machines on a day last June when I think it was 104 degrees. My mother and father were down helping out. Unbelievable. They still talk about it. The copper buffing day.
The restaurant is absolutely beautiful.
DK: Thank you.
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