Laurent Manrique seems pretty serene for a man keeping so many balls aloft at once. Executive chef at San Francisco's award-laden seafood mecca, Aqua, since 2003, he also is chef/owner of Urban Tavern, Cafe de la Presse and Rouge & Blanc, and he's consulting at the Hotel Palomar's Fifth Floor restaurant. He also dabbles in winemaking. The 42-year-old convert to Buddhism also created Taste and Tribute, an annual fundraiser for the Tibetan Aid Project. Manrique embarked on a culinary odyssey at 14, when he left his home in France's Gascony region and picked up technique from a series of master chefs before emigrating to the U.S. in 1991.
What's your normal day like? Are you living the California dream?
After breakfast, if I have time, I try to exercise…. head into work around 9:30…review menus…meetings….light lunch at Cafe de la Presse…office work…check dinner service at Fifth floor, back to Aqua….sit down for dinner around 9:30. I'm done around 10:30.
Rumor has it you also like to check out the club scene with some chef pals…after a day like that, how do you have the stamina?
After my day I have to come down — if I go straight home I don't sleep until 2 in the morning. Also, I love music and dancing; some day I might go to a dance class and learn how to tango.
So you think you can dance….does some of this fall under the heading of research, too?
In our jobs, we constantly need to — I hate the word — reinvent ourselves. We need to keep up, see how people eat and dress, what they like.
What other ways do you kick back?
I've been involved in Buddhism for nine years, so I practice meditation, and I like reading, walking or even enjoying a great bottle of wine. With the kids (three seven-year-olds — Manrique's son and his girlfriend's twin boys), we go crab picking at Stinson Beach and we do a lot hiking in the hills nearby. It was important when I moved here (the Bay Area) to get outside the city and next to the water.
I see you have a little stash of foie gras tucked away there. Do you keep to your Gascon roots at home?
We're very lucky that the children have open palates, so they eat everything from lentils to duck confit to foie gras and curry. It's a pleasure to cook for them. It could be a great cheese and macaroni, or a simple barbecue with ketchup or barbecue sauce. They like picking wild fennel and blackberries, so we'll make a fruit tart.
Speaking of fruit, you have an affinity for grapes.
For me wine making is such an interesting process, using the element of Mother Earth and controlling it with machines and technology. So I bought a vineyard in Spain with some friends. Even if I'm not making wine, I like talking about it with the wine maker, and spending time tasting it.
Tell me how Taste and Tribute got off the ground.
I'm not a rich guy, I can't write big checks, but I realized I could put together a dinner and make some of my clients pay for it. We've done it since 2001. Two years ago, we started a second one in New York. Most chefs participate in some charity; I think it's important to devote yourself to at least one.