Into the Garden: My Internship at Manresa

JWU Providence student Cam Sycks (center) with his fellow Manresa chefs.

JWU Providence student Cameron Sycks spent the summer working at Manresa, the Los Gatos, Calif., restaurant owned by chef David Kinch ’81, ’14 Hon. and widely acknowledged as one of the finest restaurants in the world. (In 2015, Manresa was awarded a coveted third Michelin star — making it one of only 5 Bay Area restaurants so honored.)

Kinch’s vegetable-centric, heavily Japanese-influenced cuisine packs a quiet power. Here, Cam tells us what it was like to work in such a focused, influential — and inspirational — kitchen.

I took Plated Desserts with Chef Mitch Stamm, and really enjoyed it. Last fall I started talking to him about internships. It turns out there’s a JWU connection at Manresa: Dan Boccuzzi, who had worked in the storeroom at JWU. Through him I got in touch with chef de cuisine Mitch Lienhard. I applied twice and secured a spot for this summer.

Luckily I got housing through another JWU connection — I took the room of a JWU student named Erin who was spending the summer at JWU Providence. And I drove my car across country to get there (which was an adventure in and of itself).

In Week 2, the chef de cuisine told us to think about tomatoes: ‘In two weeks, I want you to come in with a dish.’”

I got out to California 2-3 days before starting at Manresa. It was crazy from the beginning.

The kitchen is absolutely spotless, as you’d expect, and everyone is really intense — it’s amazing how fast and efficiently they work.

David Kinch came up and introduced himself my first day. Every day he came in to say hi to everyone — he was so friendly and humble.

In the kitchen we worked with people from all over the world. There was a guy from Iceland who tried to teach me Icelandic. (It’s very difficult.) Marc from Canada was only 22 and had already worked in France and Peru — it’s my life goal to be that well-traveled. JJ from Singapore made the most amazing staff meal.

A lot of the stages live in Air BnBs during their stage, although some of them are able to stay in cottages at Cynthia Sandberg’s nearby Love Apple Farms.

Manresa kitchen staff visiting Monterey Abalone Company. TOP photo courtesy of MAC on instagram.

Taking a tour of Monterey Abalone Company. Photo courtesy of MAC.
Manresa kitchen staff at Monterey Abalone Company

I was at Manresa long enough that I was able to work every station. I assisted with the mise en place for most of the stations but I only
worked service for one.

  • Amuse
  • Fish/veg
  • Fish + seafood [fellow alum Dan Boccuzzi also worked this station; he has since moved back to Per Se]
  • Meat
  • Garden [also assisted the meat station]
  • Pastry

The fish station was run solely by Dan. I’m very interested in west coast sea food so I was always observing him.

I started with a certain prep list. Then they’d add in items as I got faster with everything on the list. As time went on, my list tripled. I’d never done so much work in such a short amount of time.

I got really fast with tweezers, but it still took me 4 minutes to plate the 36 components of the iconic Manresa dish, “Into the Garden.”

In my last month at Manresa, 5 new stages arrived, so things got a little less rushed.

A really cool thing at Manresa was getting to work on projects, which everyone contributed to.

In Week 2, chef de cuisine Mitch [Lienhard] told us to think about tomatoes: “In two weeks, I want you to come in with a dish.”

I fermented tomato in rice — which was more of a proof-of-concept than a full dish. We sat around and shared our ideas — it was so cool to see everyone’s concepts. Everyone eats the dish and then offers up their thoughts and critiques.

I loved being able to watch the creation of a dish at Manresa. Mitch will go to Chef Kinch with an idea. They’ll do a trial run and then riff back and forth. From that first idea to a finished dish, it was so cool to see how it evolved.

Another really cool thing we did: We took a field trip to the Monterey Abalone Company, which supplies Manresa with abalone. The farm has 3 million abalone, which can take 5 years to grow to full size. [The red abalone on the cover of “Manresa: An Edible Reflection” is one of theirs.] Abalone is a mainstay of the Manresa menu.

“Family meal” is a tradition in most kitchens where you all eat together before service.

I made staff meal for everyone twice. You’re cooking for the best cooks in the world — it’s a lot of pressure.

The first one I messed up — it was the 4th of July and I miscalculated the burger recipe and they shrank up. They were still good, but I’m glad I had another chance to cook for everyone. The next time I made a lamb stew where I broke down a whole lamb shoulder. It turned out well and I got a lot of compliments on it.

At the end of your stage they ask you to come up with a dish with techniques that you learned in your time there. I knew I had to bring my A game. I was so proud of my final dish: raw oyster, brioche puree, smoked cucumber broth, fermented tomato, sunflower oil, and borage.

At the very end of my stage, I sat down to a full 21-course Manresa tasting menu. It is truly something I will never forget.”

Into the Garden: The iconic Manresa dish photographed by Eric Wolfinger

Manresa at night

“Into the Garden” photographed by Eric Wolfinger // Manresa exterior at night by Nick Vasilopoulos.

At the very end of my stage, I sat down to a full 21-course tasting menu. It is truly something I will never forget.

I’ve never eaten at a 3-star restaurant before so I was not sure what to expect. With each course came new flavors and perfected techniques. It was like reading a biography of Chef Kinch, with each course representing a different chapter in his life or showcasing flavors and techniques that he had acquired in his travels. The progression of flavors was incredible.

It’s hard to choose a favorite course but if I had to, it would be “Into the Garden.” A beautiful arrangement of flowers, micro greens and vegetables is placed in front of you. The server says “the garden, green and bitter,” and walks away.

Now, I knew everything that was in this dish (green garlic custard; herb velouté; raw, pickled and fermented vegetables; thyme oil; crispy micro scallions; potato; broccolini, 15 micro herbs, 5 micro flowers and nasturtium vinaigrette) but had never eaten it all together. I took the first bite, my eyes widened and I fell back against the seat. Everything was so well balanced and so beautifully flavored — and then, just like that, it was gone.

Go Behind the Scenes of ‘Mind of a Chef’ Season 4

Follow Cam Sycks on Instagram. He is also the president of JWU’s Club of Culinary Excellence: Follow them on Instagram + Twitter. Follow David Kinch on Twitter.

Scenes from California days off: Taking in the surf (top) and a San Francisco picnic (bottom). Photos courtesy of Cam Sycks.

Day off: Surfing in Santa Cruz
Day off: San Francisco picnic

Topics: Internships David Kinch