Interview: Walter Manzke (Republique + Petty Cash Taqueria)

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Chef Los Angeles


Who else do you look to in the restaurant industry at this point for inspiration, guidance or advice?

I’m still very inspired by all of the great chefs that I know, whether it’s Thomas Keller or Daniel Boulud or Alain Ducasse, on and on, but probably more so in the last year, just what I’ve seen while traveling, and just seeing what the rest of the world does, and experiencing what the rest of the world does…I love Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Europe as well.

How did your travels in Europe and Asia over the last few years inform what you’re doing at Republique?

Well, not only travels, but working there. We spent a lot of time eating at different places in Hong Kong and Tokyo, so obviously saw a lot of things that influenced us. A lot of great restaurants, and more so at every level. Hong Kong is a city where you can eat the best for cheap, or you can eat the best for very expensive, or anywhere in between. It’s a city that’s incredible, a city that has so much to offer. Also, working there [in Manila] was a chance for us to test some of this stuff out with Wildflour. Wildflour was actually the first restaurant that I’ve ever been involved with that has counter service, that casual. One of our branches has counter service, just like this will be. There are a lot of differences between working with waiters, so that was a great influence and tool. We’ve experienced a little bit of what this will be. One thing that’s amazing is how close the world is, because I don’t think Manila is that different from L.A., in a lot of ways.

Is there a restaurant or chef who isn’t currently in L.A. who you would like to see in this city?

Who should be here? I don’t know. Joel Robuchon would be great. I would go there.

Is there an aspect of food or drink culture you’ve seen in another city or country that you’d like to see more of in L.A.?

I would like to see more cooking where people are doing what they believe in, whether it’s one dish, one simple concept, not so much based on what works and what another person makes work. It would be great to see people doing more of what they believe in, whether that’s just barbecuing ribs and making that incredible. It’s difficult because you can’t always get the support you need if you’re doing that. Everybody wants a lot of variety. It would be great to see that. Especially in Asia, you see people who have restaurants and do one dish, and they’ve done it their whole life, and it’s really incredible.

I was just in Hong Kong for the first time and really enjoyed the specialization and focus at a lot of those restaurants…How are you able to maintain balance at this point?

Part of what I’ve done, it was also great that I had the experience I did in Northern California because we were there for five years, and Marge and I opened three restaurants and a hotel, and ran all of those. They were all very chef-driven and had our name all over it. That experience showed me that was very difficult to do, and not necessarily good, at least for me. I really told myself through all that, which I’ve stuck by, is that I would only open one restaurant that my face was bound to, and you could expect for me to be there all the time. That’s this. I don’t even think I will open another one of these, or should open another one of these, because it has to be better. To open a second branch of anything, it has to be better than the first one. I don’t think, at least in L.A., and I don’t know where else it would be, you would ever find a building that could compete with this. That’s a big part of this restaurant. The ambiance is as important as anything else. I don’t know that you could duplicate it, or I could duplicate it, or would want to duplicate it. This is the restaurant that has my face on it. Petty Cash, when I opened that, I purposefully don’t want it to be about me, even though I’m involved in it, and I’m there, but I don’t want people to think or believe that I’m some expert in Mexican food and that I’m there cooking every night, because it’s not true. Petty Cash is really about everybody from Mexico that I’ve worked with over the years who have cooked for me. It’s their restaurant. They’re the chefs, and I’m just there to guide them and inspire them and keep them going in the right direction, and maybe give them some techniques and support. I would definitely, and probably will, open another Petty Cash, because it’s that type of restaurant. In the Philippines, it’s exactly the same. Allen Buhay is the chef there. I’m there as often as I can. He’s the one who’s in the kitchen every day. Marge’s sister is running the operations. She’s the one who’s connected to it, and we’re just there to support her. We’re not promoting it as a restaurant that’s us in the kitchen. We’re there to support them. We help them with new ideas. We go there to make sure the quality is great, but it’s not a restaurant anything like this. It’s a very good restaurant, but it’s on another side of the world. For me, that’s important. Those restaurants are more about being good and consistent and good for others, and not just me. This is a restaurant that’s always going to have a spontaneous aspect to it. It’s always going to evolve. It’s always going to be personal. It’s always going to have energy from me and Marge. That’s the difference. This is where we’re putting a lot of our energy into, and of course it also helps Wildflour, because the menus are quite similar. Anything we do here, we could adapt to the Philippines. This is definitely a research and development stage for Wildflour. There’s no doubt about that.

In terms of inspiring and motivating people, there are a lot of different restaurants you’re involved with as far as management, at this point. What are some of the keys to inspiring and motivating people who work for you?

Here, the kitchen is mainly people I worked with before. We’re pretty tight together, and we actually motivate and inspire each other. It’s very interactive and back-and-forth. It’s not necessarily easy, especially now in the beginning stages. We’re in there working together right now, pushing each other and supporting each other, and going through all that.

At Petty Cash, it’s Fabian [Gallardo]’s kitchen. I support him, encourage him, keep him going in the right direction, know the parameters, criticize his cooking and help him with his cooking. It’s all about that. It’s his place.

When people hear the name Republique, what do you want them to think?

The name began with a thought. I wanted this concept to be tied to France, and tied to a French brasserie or bistro. I wanted to have strong ties to France, because that’s the background of my career, France, whether it was at Patina, Alain Ducasse, the majority has been around France. I love France, so that was an important part of it. I just didn’t want it to be too French, because I didn’t want it to be too concept-y, and I didn’t want people to get the wrong impression of it. I certainly wanted to have a little bit of a California edge to it, which it does. That was the idea of a name that was not too French, and not too precious, but still has ties to France, and that’s one thing that’s great about Republique. You can pronounce it in French. You can pronounce it in English. It’s the same word. Initially, the meaning came from the ties of the Arts District, and the Arts District in Paris, which is around the area of Plaza Republique, because I was going to open this in the Arts District. It had great ties to that, and in a sense it still does, because much of this is about bistronomie and the movement, much of which is happening in that area of Paris. The same thing that’s happening here, restaurants are going to neighborhoods that are less expensive rent and a little edgier and hip. Even though I’m not in that area, the concept is still there. I also heard all kinds of different things. Somebody from France said, “That’s really great because every revolution in France has started at the Bastille on Plaza Republique. That’s great because you’re starting another revolution.” Somebody from France told me that, which was cool. It also ties into the concept that it’s also a public space for everybody, where you could come for any reason, any time of the day. After we get going, that’s definitely how it will be, whether it’s coffee and croissants in the morning, and lunch, you could have a big dinner, you could have a simple dinner, you could come to the bar. Come for different reasons, different days of the week, and it’s very open.

When people hear the name Walter Manzke, what do you want them to think?

More than anything in this space, I don’t want the anticipation to be too high, the expectations to be too high. I want this to be a place where I can enjoy being, and the customer can enjoy being, and a lot of that is what it is. I’m not trying to create food that’s never been done before. I’m just doing things that are good, and maybe they’re a little bit lighter and fresher and a little bit stronger flavor, because it’s Los Angeles and California, but it’s really just about this fantastic restaurant. We have a great kitchen, we have a great staff, and California and Los Angeles has fantastic resources, and it’s really just a place where all of this is coming together, hopefully.

This is definitely a restaurant where I think the ambiance is at least as important as anything else. Through my career, things I’ve discovered that ambiance in any way is every bit as important as anyone’s cooking, and service is important as anyone’s cooking, and it’s really just when you put that together, that’s something that’s great. At least we have the ambiance here. It’s a special building and we’re all so lucky to come across this space, which I think is the most fantastic building that a restaurant will ever be in, in L.A. Maybe I’m biased.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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