DINNER IS SERVED
March 23, 2018
PHOTOGRAPHY: NICHOLAS ALAN COPE
TEXT: ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV
This article appears in the pages of VMAN39, available on newsstands now. Order your copy now at vmagazineshop.com.
Over the course of chef Jordan Kahn’s career, he’s toiled in some of the finest, most directional kitchens of all time, like The French Laundry, PerSe, and Alinea. In July 2017, he unveiled his magnum opus: Vespertine, an otherworldly labor of love that’s fascinated critics, baffled diners, and intrigued Instagram scrollers. “It was, and is, the project of my career; I won’t achieve anything greater,” Kahn says over the phone, as he drives 45 minutes outside Los Angeles to harvest Douglas fir pine from a 14,000-foot-elevation forest for a new dish.
Savannah-bred Kahn’s culinary roots date back to assisting his Cuban grandmother in the kitchen. Graham Kerr and Jacques Pépin’s PBS shows also fueled his passion, as did a fateful Christmas gift at age 13 from his mom: The French Laundry Cookbook. “It was a really defining moment for me, a snapshot into the most elite version of something I was interested in,” Kahn says. “To say it was inspiring is an understatement.”
Kahn began cooking professionally in Savannah at age 15. Two years later, he achieved his teenage dream: working under Thomas Keller’s tutelage at The French Laundry. Kahn then went back east to New York City to work on the opening pastry team at Keller’s Per Se, and next hopped over to Chicago to help launch Alinea, another hugely influential tasting menu temple. “When I learned what Grant [Achatz] wanted to do at Alinea, it was a place I had to go to,” Kahn explains. The chefs had missed each other by a month at The French Laundry, and Kahn was told he reminded people of Achatz. “Later, he became a really important mentor.” Then, Kahn worked at now-shuttered Varietal in NYC, then Michael Mina in San Francisco, and helped open XIV, another Mina spot in L.A. “I fell in love with Los Angeles and decided to stay,” he says. In 2010, Kahn co-launched Red Medicine, “a punk rock Vietnamese place that evolved into something more formal and creative.” After it shuttered, Kahn grew enamored with the Culver City area and began the secretive, four-year process of conceiving Vespertine, where wildly creative, frequently revolving dishes cost $250 per head. In 2016, Kahn opened Destroyer, a cafe (and unplanned side project) across the street from Vespertine’s striking, waffle-esque, Eric Owen Moss-designed structure.
Vespertine dishes start with a sketch by Kahn or a single ingredient, and are intended to flummox. To wit: when the restaurant opened, the first course resembled volcanic ash. It’s actually bastard halibut aged for three days, sliced very thin, lighty pounded, and pressed into a roughly-textured fireclay bowl painted with salt-cured plums, chopped herb stems, and a dollop of yogurt—all topped with puffed tef and dusted with onion meringue-glucose mix that’s stained jet black with squid ink. “It really looks crazy; you couldn’t tell where the dish began and where the bowl ended,” Kahn says. “People thought we were fucking with them, serving an empty bowl. It sets a really good tone; things are not what they seem.” Kahn doesn’t read reviews, but recalls a quote from Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who ranked Vespertine the city’s top restaurant of 2017. In a radio interview, “Jonathan said, ‘This is the very first restaurant I’ve ever been to where I could not separate the food from the experience; it fucked with my process.’ To me, that’s the ultimate compliment,” Kahn says.
Kahn looks to art for inspiration. Even the staff uniforms are high-concept, by Brooklyn-based designer Jona Sees: long tunics, cropped pants, goatskin slippers, and natural charcoal-dyed aprons woven on a 800-year-old Japanese loom used for samurai undergarments. “The apron actually comes with instructions on how to put it on,” Kahn laughs. The dishware is a mix of custom pieces by a sculptor-ceramicist, plus items Kahn sketches and has 3D printed. Pondering whether each breathtakingly plated dish is, in fact, actually edible is precisely the point. “Vespertine is essentially a place where art and food intersect,” he says. “We’ve intentionally tried to be really nebulous, but everything we do is very premeditated.”
Dinnerware ceramic vessels by Match Stoneware.