(Originally published February 7, 2014 on Examiner.com).
“Your abilities are a collection of ideas and tools. The more you have, the better you are as a person and the more you have to offer,” Chef Walter Manzke stated while discussing how his experiences growing up and in previous kitchens shaped who he is as a chef today. From growing up in Julian on his parents’ large parcel of land to working with Joachim Spichel, Alain Ducasse, and briefly in a number of other kitchens including Feran Adria’s elBulli, Manzke has amassed a number of tools and ideas that he uses on a daily basis at the recently opened Republique restaurant in the former Campanile space at 624 South La Brea Avenue.
At Republique, Chef Manzke’s notes the food is “very ingredient driven and very straight forward making dishes comforting, recognizable, satisfying, fulfilling. The food is not a lot of technique or garnish. It’s a little bit back to the basics, back to the classics. We do have a lot of new equipment, new ideas, new technology and new techniques to bring it out but it’s just straight forward and simple – ingredient driven.” Manzke continued that Republique cuisine “has a huge influence from bistros of France, which kind of have the same idea so the restaurant is recognized as something. I want it to be recognized as a bistro so you know you can come here every day, and you know you can have something satisfying. Republique’s not a restaurant where you see the latest trend. It’s just about doing things right, well and creating a great atmosphere.”
Walter grew up in Julian in San Diego County on his parent’s large property where his family had a large garden, lots of fruit trees and grape vines for wine. He grew up eating a salad every night for dinner. Through eight months of the year food was grown in his family’s garden so Walter just thought getting food this way was normal. This is how he ate every day he lived at home. He knew what the seasons were because in June he ate cherries until he got sick of them, then he ate strawberries and then whatever next was in season …peaches, plums, and berries. Additionally foraging was also nothing new for Walter, since miner’s lettuce and wild onions grew on a whole hillside of his parent’s property. There are wild turkeys on his parents’ property that he has made charcuterie with. There’s venison too. For Walter, again all of this was just normal.
At Republique, Walter noted there’s another big influence here on how his upbringing affects the menu. At Republique, Chef Manzke stated “a majority of the meat and fish and a lot of vegetables are cooked on a wood fire which is something again really popular right now but to me I knew it my whole life because my parents house is heated by wood; they have a big wood furnace; they heat their house in the winter. Julian is at a high altitude so it gets cold, and snows so their house is heated by wood and in the winter we cook everything on a big fire place with an hearth in it and a grill.” Walter said his family also has a wood burning oven that’s outside. So his family cooks everything outside during the summer and inside during the winter. Walter didn’t have a steak unless that steak was cooked over oak on a wood fire.
At Republique, Chef Manzke also uses oak to cook with in Republique’s wood oven, and rotisserie range top. The last time his parents came to the restaurant, they filled their truck with wood from their property. For Chef Manzke this wood is better since for him, this wood has a better flavor than the wood we can readily get here. He wishes he could get it every day. Chef Manzke stated “..Fruitwoods like peach have a great smoke that is fantastic for barbeque when you’re smoking something directly in the smoke but for these fires here at Republique, you want the wood to burn clean. You don’t want a lot of sparks. The fire needs to be hot and consistent and oak is great for that.”
Back before Republique, in 1993 Chef Manzke started working with Chef Joachim Splichal when Splichal opened Pinot Bistro. Chef Manzke was there at Pinot Bistro almost three years when he I left for Europe where Walter spent eighteen months including a year with Alain Ducasse in Monaco at Le Louis XV. For the first six months with Ducasse, Walter worked unpaid. For the remaining time, Walter made what he refers to as “coffee money.” Though the money of course was appreciated and helpful, it really didn’t matter. It wasn’t about the money. His time spent there was about the learning experience, an experience Walter feels that he should have paid for being in Ducasse’s kitchen.
For Chef Manzke, as a cook spending even just a day in the kitchen of any great restaurant can be a tremendous learning experience. So the year he spent at Ducasse’s Le Louis XV made a lasting impression. Le Louis XV is a restaurant with food from the region. So the food is very Italian with a French chef cooking it. The food is very ingredient driven. In that respect, though chef Mazke wouldn’t say that Le Louis is like what Republique is doing, Le Louis has a similar direction in that Louis’s food is very basic, very high quality, very high executed, very well presented as well as with the best ingredients Chef Manzke has ever seen. At Le Louis XV ingredients were a everything plus everything was done everyday fresh and done extremely well.
Certainly there’s a similarity between the climate of that southern region of France and the climate here in Southern California especially with both regions’ proximity to the sea. In California, both North and South, Chef Manzke’s emphasizes we have some of the greatest vegetables on earth. So in California, as a whole, the kind of cooking done at Le Louis fits here too and that is one of following the seasons, going to the markets, tasting and then letting your palate decide what should be on the plate; not a trend or a fad.
For Republique, Chef Manzke or another member of his team goes to various farmers’ markets in Los Angeles as many as six times a week depending on what they need in the kitchen. Chef Manzke does have relationships with certain vendors but he also doesn’t try to get too personal with all of them. The first thing he does instead when he walks through any of these markets is that he tastes everything. As he noted, “I eat leaves of lettuce. I eat pieces of fruit. I look at things and I smell them. For me, that’s the first step of going to the market, and while i do this I’m thinking of what I’ll serve. I’m getting ideas. So I’m not tied to any farmer. Whoever has the best tangerine that week, that’s who I buy it from or at least the flavor I’m looking for as well as the size, the color, the shape so it’s all driven by my senses.”
Chef Manzke time in Ducasse’s kitchen in Monaco in 1996 and then several years later at another of Ducasse’s restaurant in Paris was arranged by Chef Joachim Splichal. Splichal also arranged for Chef Manzke to stage at elBulli plus took Walter to Daniel and many other places. Thus Splichal opened many doors for Walter and was the one person who has had the biggest influence on Manzke’s career. Something else that Walter learned from Splichal is that none of this can happen without somebody paying for it plus since the margins in the restaurant business are so narrow, if you don’t focus a lot on the p & l (profit and losses), you’ll never have any longevity. That’s true with anyone no matter what level of restaurant experience is being provided.
Joachim had a tremendous career. He went from being a cook to becoming the sous chef at the Chantecler restaurant in the Hotel Negresco in Nice being a guy from Germany running a kitchen full of French chefs. That is where Joachim got a big part of his influence plus Jacques Maximin‘s restaurant was the one to work at the time. Every one of the cooks in that kitchen is now a famous chef somewhere in the world. Jacques Torres now in NY was in the kitchen. Sylvain Portay, who works for Alain Ducasse now, was there as was Franck Cerutti who is now the executive chef at Le Louis XI plus Bruno Cirino.
When Splichal came to Los Angeles, he opened Max Au Triangle in Beverly Hills and did something that left an impression in L.A. that people still talk about which doesn’t happen often. Walter noted, there are only a handful of restaurants that have been closed for twenty five years that people still talk about and that’s one of them. After a few other restaurants, Joachim then opened Patina, a restaurant that if you recreated it today how it was then and where it was, that restaurant would be packed just like it was before. This version of Patina, Chef Manzke stated actually is a lot like how Walter would like Republique to be because Patina as Walter describes it “wasn’t a fine dining restaurant in the sense that we know one today, rather this restaurant was all about quality of food, how it was presented, how it was executed, the service, and the wine. Patina was about details and not about flare.” This is what Joachim Splichal was doing when Walter started working with him so Walter saw this stage of Chef Splichal’s career.
When Patina was undergoing a big renovation in 2000 and was closed two months, Chef Joachim Splichal asked Chef Walter Manzke where Walter wanted to go. After getting Walter’s answer, Splichal then made the arrangements for Walter to go work for Ducasse in Paris, and with Ferran Adria at elBulli for three weeks. Plus Splichal paid for everything. Walter was asked to stay on at both Ducasse and elBulli by the respective chefs in charge of those kitchens, and though either place would have been a great opportunity, he was committed to being the chef at Patina, where Splichal was making a big investment with the remodel.
Though Chef Manzke isn’t doing any molecular gastronomy at Republique, he thinks, “there is much more to Ferran Adria that is much more important than the fact that he was making spheres out of raspberries or whatever he was doing. It’s not just techniques; it’s more Adria’s approach. He was really the one who started questioning everything. In France everything was always so rigid. You do it this way because that’s the way Alain Chapel did it and that’s the way it’s always been done so that’s why you do it. That is great too, but Ferran said why do you have to do it that way? Why can’t I do it a different way?His looking at everything from the outside with phenomenal ideas is just a phenomenal approach. Plus there is nothing wrong with molecular cooking. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the idea of forcing air into something to make it light and flow on your palate particularly when there is a purpose for something. Molecular gastronomy is a set of tools you can use down the road some where if you understand it.”
Whether any of these tools are ever used down the road at Republique on a tasting menu, remains to be seen. Chef Manzke said that he’ll most likely do a tasting menu, but he’s waiting to see how the restaurant evolves. For Walter said, “a restaurant has a life of its own to an extent. If you let it live its own life, you have to support it, but in a sense you have to let it go its own direction and do what it wants. Moreover if you listen to the customers, and cook what they want, they’re going to take it a little bit in its own direction which is what is happening here at Republique. We’re finding our way right now with what our prices should be, and what every one is excited about. I think what is working is this mix of some classic bistro with some fine dining cooking. We served Dover sole recently which is quite expensive and generally only served in restaurants like Melisse. We were serving that next to a roasted chicken so there’s this kind of mix: A good balance between technique and a little excitement with some high end and some low end. This direction seems to be working.”
Chef Manzke continued, “But it has to be in balance too. You have to stick by your beliefs: this is me, this is what I do, and this is where I’m going. At the same time I have to listen to every one else and go where they want to go and that’s what we’re doing now, we’re finding our way. But what I don’t want is to have ten people sitting in the dining room loving a three hundred dollar prix fixe menu when I can have three hundred people happy with what I’m doing now. So some of this we’ll just wait to see where it goes and what happens. I definitely plan on it [the tasting menu], though the one thing I’m sticking by is Republique is not another Balthazar [ in New York City], which is a fantastic restaurant. Balthazar is right out of the book, and it’s very classic.”
Walter though took six to eight of the best selling dishes from Church & State, which was aspiring to be like Balthazar, and brought those dishes to Republique; changing them up a bit, because he thinks that it’s important for the restaurant to be recognized as a bistro plus Chef Manzke wants people to know what the restaurant’s purpose is. These dishes from Church & State are kind of the basics and the core of the bistro- the escargot, the tarte flambee, the mussels and fries, the steak and fries. So if you’re craving steak tar tare, you can come to Republique for it.
To enjoy all the culinary results of Chef Walter Manzke’s experiences, travels and accumulated tools, please visit Republique in one of the most impressive restaurant spaces in Los Angeles at 624 South La Brea Avenue, just north of Wilshire. Currently the restaurant’s cafe is open from 8:00AM to 3:00 PM serving pastries and coffee. Breakfast and lunch menus are going to be added during this current month of February. The restaurant is open for dinner from 6:00 PM until 10 PM Monday through Wednesday, and from 6:00 PM until 11:00 PM Thursday through Saturday.