Since Walter Manzke took over the stoves at Church & State, the downtown bistro in the old National Biscuit Company building, almost exactly a year ago, the restaurant has become a haven for bistro fans, cooks on their days off and anyone who loves pigs ears. At first Manzke seemed an odd choice for bistro cooking. The San Diego native had cooked at Patina, L'Auberge Carmel, and most recently at Bastide.

But Manzke not only reinvigorated Church & State, he managed a kind of culinary alchemy. With his wife Marge Manzke (Bastide's former pastry chef) serving, Manzke has created a bistro that is at once comfortably retro, technically masterful and utterly modern. As an object lesson, consider that the chef cooks the eggs for his classic salade frisée aux lardons in an immersion circulator perched on the pass of the small open kitchen.

Read our Q & A with Manzke after the jump, and check back tomorrow for Part 2, and for Manzke's recipe for cassoulet. Just the thing now that there's snow on the San Gabriels.

Squid Ink: So what's your favorite ingredient to cook with?

Walter Manzke: My favorite ingredient is the most basic. It's sea salt. It's an ingredient that you add to almost everything. Its amazing how good salt, good quality sea salt, adds something to everything you cook. It's sparse in desserts. Even when it's over-used and it's on the salty side, it has a pleasant taste–not a sharp, chemical taste.

SI: Any particular kind of salt?

WM: I love lots of different kinds of salts, but mainly I use grey salt from the northern part of France. It's very unrefined, so you have to dry it. It has the taste of the sea, very fresh, very concentrated, very clean. And even by itself it has a pleasant taste. Iodized salt is the worst. Even kosher salt, any of those refined salts, when you put it on any ingredient and compare it to really great sea salt, the food tastes better as itself. So a carrot tastes better, a tomato tastes better, chocolate tastes better. I use that exclusively. Here I don't use a lot of crazy salts, but I love the Peruvian salt, the Himalayan salt, the smoked salt from Denmark.

SI: Is there anything that you won't eat?

WM: Anything off a truck. L.A. seems to get caught up in these trends, when one person has great success with something and then no one can come up with anything new so they just copy it. And the most ridiculous one seems to be the truck. I mean it was maybe cool when the first person did it, and it fits the economy because it's cheap to operate and all that, but I think it's everything that takes away from the purpose, the enjoyment and the passion of eating. I think part of eating is relaxing and enjoying food; it's sharing, it's having wine, it's being in an ambiance that's not your home. I mean maybe you'd eat it once, but I don't see how you can go back again and again to eat anything off a truck. If you're coming out of a club at 2 in the morning and you need something to eat, I mean, yeah.

SI: Have you eaten at one?

WM: I've eaten authentic Mexican food [from a truck]. But I would much rather go to a taco shop and sit down.

SI: Who's been the most influential person in your cooking life?

WM: Alain Ducasse. I was very lucky to be there [Louis XV in Monte Carlo] when I was. It was at the time when his company was growing and maybe as a chef he was growing and changing. He was still at the restaurant every day and very involved. It was an unbelievable experience: the discipline, the attention to detail, the focus, the competitiveness, everything about it. It was a time in my career when I looked at everything differently. You understand what the restaurant business is about, what cooking is about, the passion, the importance of ingredients.

SI: What's your favorite cookbook?

WM: I think that's also Alain Ducasse. His Grand Livre De Cuisine. That's kind of a tough question though, because I have a huge collection of cookbooks. It's starting to slow down, although I still buy a lot of them. But after being married, I have more restrictions on how many cookbooks I buy now. Kind of like the knives. I haven't bought any knives in the last couple of years. I have thousands of dollars worth of knives too. I haven't counted how many books I have, but several thousand.

SI: How many knives do you have?

WM: Thirty? Forty? One of them I spent $2,100 for. Yeah. The one I use every day I bought when I was at Patina. It's Masamoto. A lot of them are Masamoto.

SI: What's your first culinary memory?

WM: I guess it would be something about my mom. She was a good cook. She used to have these peach trees. For a lot of people in America, that's not reality now. You go to a farmers market or you go to Safeway or you buy peaches at the wrong time of year. I remember having pancakes for breakfast. There's a recipe she has from Germany that's just an awesome recipe. It was all done by hand, the egg whites were whipped by hand, and she would take the peaches and blanch them in water to peel them and cut them up. I really remember that. I guess my mom was smart enough not to buy peaches from the supermarket in December.

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