In which we continue our interview with Walter Manzke of Church & State. The chef talks about what he would have done if he hadn't been a chef and gives his take on the bistro trend. Oh, and he weighs in (a little) on life at Bastide, which is set to reopen soon in yet another incarnation. And check back later today for Manzke's recipe for a traditional cassoulet.
Squid Ink: If you hadn't been a chef, what would you have been?
Walter Manzke: Probably an architect. Something creative for sure, something that has to do with building something. I love analyzing things and designing things. My father was an engineer, my brother is an engineer, and so we have building things in our blood. I'm sure it would be something like that, whether it was building houses or building cars.
SI: And yet your food isn't overly fussy. You aren't elaborately plating things. Of course you're doing bistro food.
WM: A good design of anything is clean and has purpose. I think that's a good question that you don't have on your list.
SI: What's a good question?
WM: You were talking about my food not being fussy or complicated. I think it's a real problem that chefs are faced with–the pressure to be creative. I really felt that a lot more at Bastide than here. At Bastide there was so much pressure to create something that was beyond anything anyone had ever had. And it's great if you can achieve that, but it doesn't necessarily make it good. I think the pressure from the public and the press for chefs to do that is steering everybody in the wrong direction. I mean, it's really a tough challenge. The best things you ever eat are some of the simplest. If you have a great piece of fish with a sauce, and a great glass of wine with it, you can create a flavor combination that you'll remember when you wake up the next day–and two weeks later. But when you create something that's complicated and visually appealing, that maybe blows your mind when you see it, you may not remember it after you actually eat it. I think good ingredients are destroyed a lot of times because of over-working. It's unfortunate that a lot of menus have become like sales tools. You can't just put “fish” and “butter” on menu.
SI: Well, you did that at Bastide for awhile.
WM: That was the idea. You know, what would be the greatest course you could have with a glass of white Burgundy. It's easier to achieve here, because you have these parameters as an excuse. You can say, it wasn't my idea to serve steak with French fries. But it's really the truth. If you think of that as an example, if you think of a steak, there's honestly not much of a better way to eat it than with French fries. If you have perfect meat, perfect Bernaise sauce, perfect French fries, I guarantee that not too many people who can think of a better flavor combination than that. You can use better quality meat, you can use sea salt, you can fry the potatoes in better fat, use better equipment, better technique. That's elevating the dish, but it's not changing it. That's really the problem with all of this, you're forced to add ingredients that are taking away from the dish.
SI: Who do you think is the most interesting chef working in L.A. right now?
WM: Hiro Urasawa. I think he's great. He's at the top of the restaurant scene in L.A., he's got his 2 Michelin stars, but he's got a lot of passion and he's not into the media hype. He's a cook before he's a chef.
SI: So do you think this bistro trend will last?
WM: Well, there are two ways of looking at it. As a trend, I don't think it will last, especially given the way trends go in L.A. But bistro as a concept? Of course it will last. If anybody at any time does a bistro right, there will always be a need for it. I don't think it will ever go away. It's a tradition that's already hundreds of years old and it's not going to go away, especially if you do it correctly. The problem with a lot of bistros is that they don't follow those parameters. I think what really ruins it is a bistro that serves a hamburger, a bistro that serves pasta, a bistro that serves risotto. Because then you're using the bistro as a name and doing something that it's not. No matter how good a burger you make. What Thomas Keller is doing? I don't think that's a trend. He does it classically. I don't think this will die off. Downtown being a hot place is more likely to die than the bistro itself. As long as the quality is there and as long as you keep up with the modern techniques and modern ideas and modern ingredients, there's no reason why it would die. It may not be trendy, but it'll still be there.
SI: So when you as a chef need creativity, where do you find it?
WM: You mean here? There's not a lot of it. I maybe stretch the boundaries a little bit, but it's very much within the parameters of the French cooking of a true bistro. Not a great place for vegetarians, not the best place if you're on a strict diet. But if I try and cook for everybody, it would ruin it for the other 99% who want to have a bistro. I cook a lot of things sous vide, I cook the modern way. But it's still escargot and mussels and steak and fries.