Sigh. Chef Walter Manzke is working his way out of Church & State, that gem of a restaurant deep in the industrial district of downtown. Remember how giddy SIV got when then partners Steven Arroyo and Yassmin Sarmadi scored Manzke? "Let's hope Manzke stays, because with Arroyo's sense of fun and Manzke's deft French cooking, Church & State has the heart and soul of a true French bistro married to an authentic sense of place: Los Angeles." And then Jonathan Gold began to wax poetic, especially about Manzke's pig ear dish: "simultaneously crisp and chewy, soft and tasting like the best French roast pork... as impossible to stop eating as the onion rings on your girlfriend’s plate. This is the place to nibble on ears. Or pig’s-foot fritters. Or braised pork belly with fresh peas. Or giant, roasted marrowbones, naked and split in two." The critics, they raved; the people, they came. Then, came word that Sarmadi bought out long time LA restauranteur Steven Arroyo. Whisperings about Chef Manzke's status begin not long after, and last week ownership spilled the news that Joshua Smith would be taking over the kitchen as Manzke leaves to pursue his own project. It was time to talk to the chef himself about the switch and his future plans...
[Photo: My Last Bite]
1) Word is out that you're moving on to open your own restaurant. What can you tell us about the concept, the location or the menu? I can't say too much right now, it's still early on in the process. I'm looking at a couple of locations right now, and all I can say about the concept is that... well, I've really enjoyed the energy and pace here at Church & State. I really love the type of food, the casual, fun, loud feeling of the place. I want to keep that energy and vibe in my next place. I've been trained in French cuisine and that's what I know, but I was also born in Southern California, so that's a big part of me and my process too.
2) There have been some rumors that you have a partner lined up? No, not true. Not at the moment. I am in the process of looking for investors.
3) Will you retain creative control? Definitely, yes. It will be my concept, with Marge's input.
4) What role do you see Marge (Manzke's wife) fitting into best -Pastry Chef? Front of House Management? Well Marge has done everything in this business, she's a pro, she grew up in it, from working with Joachim [Splichal, of Patina], at the fish station, to making desserts, to helping in the front of house at Church & State. She can do anything and whatever she wants to do, it's up to her. I do see her as having a lot to do with the dessert menu at the next place, she's always helped me with the desserts and that's going to continue, whether she actually makes them daily or serves them herself, that's another thing.
5) Back to Church & State for a moment, do you think they will be keeping the same menu? That's the plan, from what I know, yes. At least in the transition period, the plan is to keep going with the same menu. It was a bistro before I got here, and all I did was clean it up a bit. I think this concept has been working for them, so I don't see why they'd change it.
6) Do you know if your staff is planning to stay? I have to say that I owe the success of Church & State to my staff. Without them, none of it would have happened. They're a bunch of extremely talented young cooks and they just found out about my leaving too, so it's hard to tell. Of course I'd want to work with them again if the opportunity presented itself. On the other hand, whenever there's a chef change that brings new challenges for the staff, possible new learning opportunities. It's up to them. I owe it to them.
7) Is there anything in the news that you've read that you'd like to clarify? The news came out yesterday afternoon, and all I know is I have hundreds of text messages and voicemails and I haven't even looked at what's been written yet. It happened so fast. My priority is still the restaurant and my staff right now. And on that note, I want to emphasize the fact that this has been one of the greatest years of my career. I've met the most interesting people during this experience, I've given it my all. It's kind of hard to let it go, but ultimately, it's not what I want for myself. So I'm leaving to work towards my goal of having my own place and grateful to the people that made this experience possible - my staff and the guests. I owe it to them. —Daniela Galarza