A conversation with République's Chef Walter Manzke
It’s nearly impossible to visit République — beloved Los Angeles, California chef Walter Manzke’s hyper seasonal, all day bistro — and eat the exact same dish twice. Meaning, today the spinach cavatelli may be enriched with foie gras and porcini, but by tomorrow a new fungi may have come into season.
Manzke has sailed through some of the city’s best kitchens before opening his crown jewel, République, which he opened with wife Margarita in the iconic Campanile space on La Brea Avenue.
Dining at a Manzke-cheffed restaurant means hyper fresh ingredients that speak not just to the season, but more precisely to the week, and even day, of the year. Which is why the genial chef visits various Los Angeles farmers markets pretty much every day.
Manzke waxes poetic on menus and markets, and why, for a chef, Los Angeles just might be the greatest city in the world.
How does seasonality play into your menu at République?
It wasn’t necessarily the drive behind the menu. I’ve never pushed the concept of farm-to-table — even though I guess it is. Everything is orchestrated through seasonality and produce, mainly vegetables and fruit, and that goes to the entire restaurant — from cocktails to pastries, to ice cream, to salads, breakfast items, everywhere. People have asked me, why do you spend so much time going to the market, are you crazy? Some people don’t see it the way I do. I can’t farm myself, so I look to the experts, and I think that relationship with those farmers is so important. I generally buy from people where there’s a general interest and honest relationship. Buying from someone who is a good person, who has good intentions and is honest, someone who can tell me they did grow it, it’s heirloom, they didn’t put pesticide — I trust them.
How frequently do you go to farmers markets around LA?
I go almost every day. There’s a lot of people who say they go a lot, and I may be the most extreme, spend the most money, and buy the most produce. I do it for several reasons. It’s not to brag about going to the market, but I feel like I’m in a position where I have a lot of people who work for me who I have high expectations of. And if I bring them the best quality materials … I feel like I’m bringing something back to people, in the restaurant where they have a chance to have success.
How much of your menu changes, and how often?
It’s not really a formula or a percent. A lot of the ingredients that I get are sometimes one-time purchases, something I can get that’s spectacular, that I can get this week. Some things I can only get certain times of the week, or certain times of the year. I just buy food and we make the menu [out] of the food we get. Every day there’s a few things changing.
What are some of the benefits you experience as a chef cooking in Southern California?
I’m willing to bet whether it’s Northern or Southern Cal, there’s advantages to both. Whatever one is better, Cal as a whole is better than maybe anywhere on the planet. Through the entire year, there’s always something great and interesting here. What makes it a great place to cook is it’s hard to ship things like lettuce, vegetables, and fruits. It’s easier to ship meat and fish. And while we don’t necessarily have the fish here, we can get it. A plane only takes six hours to fly from the East Coast. Unfortunately for them, they can’t get the same vegetables that we get.
What are some seasonal ingredients you’re cooking with right now?
Our menu definitely becomes meat-heavy in the fall: venison, game birds, things like that. I love wild mushrooms, and there’s an abundance of them in the fall, like porcini mushrooms, for example. From the farmers market we have all the fall fruits, which is exciting, changing from juicy and sweet flavors to apples, pears, persimmons.
Do you consider proteins to be seasonal as well?
Protein is absolutely seasonal. I start serving mussels in the winter when it gets cold. I buy them from Maine. Uni is seasonal. I only use fresh uni, it’s more when the currents are rough. Spot prawns go out of season in the winter from November to February, they are always the best in the beginning of the season. Lobster is better in the winter. Soft shell crabs in spring, oysters better in the winter, but it depends where you get them from—New Zealand in the summer, West Coast in the summer. Lamb is best in the spring. In general, the quality of pork and beef is not as good in the summer because when it gets hot, pigs don’t put up as much fat.
In all of your travels, what are the top five farmers markets you’ve encountered in the US, and also around the world?
One of the most incredible markets in the US is the one at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, but I don’t believe they have what LA has. There’s a great market every day of the week in LA. The greatest market in the world could be LA as a whole. The market is even pretty good in New York in Union Square. My favorite market anywhere in the world is La Boqueria in Barcelona, and Campo de’ Fiori in Rome. I also visited an amazing market in Chiang Mai, but I’m forgetting what it’s called.
See which cities made our list of America’s Best Farmers Markets.