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Jordan Kahn Isn’t Cooking Weirdness for Weirdness’ Sake

Vespertine's chef is changing the look and feel of fine dining—gaining friends and foes along the way.

Wading through the Ballona Wetlands at the edge of the Pacific Ocean in pursuit of samphire, sea kelp, and wild pepper flowers, Jordan Kahn’s buzzing iPhone distracted him. It was late October, and spending Mondays—when his restaurant Vespertine is closed—foraging for ingredients had become his routine in the four months since it opened. Despite the sprawl of Los Angeles, remote pockets remain where you can find yourself lost in nature with spotty cell service, a welcome reprieve from the noise of daily life. And there had been a lot of noise around Kahn and Vespertine in those early days. “We were getting beaten up,” he says. “I never read the reviews. I just knew they existed and they were bad.”

By month four, Kahn’s experimental restaurant-slash-art-installation in Culver City had become polarizing. His preopening pronouncements—calling its building “a machine artifact from an extraterrestrial planet that was left here like a billion years ago by a species that were moon worshippers”—had people scratching their heads.

Back here on Earth, he tried to block out the criticism and keep working, wading through marshes on his day off. On this particular Monday, Gloria Peña, Vespertine’s director of operations and Kahn’s fiancée, was willing to impede on his solitude. She had news. He answered his phone, but shoddy reception conspiring against him, he couldn’t make out what Peña was saying. So Kahn, the man derisively dubbed the “space emperor” by a reviewer because he wouldn’t allow phone use during dinner, hung up.

Verboten photography wasn’t the only reason people balked early on. His restaurant had been accused of abstracting food to the point where it wasn’t really food anymore. It didn’t help that when Vespertine released pictures of dishes titled “endive” and “white asparagus,” they didn’t resemble those ingredients in any way. But as with all things Vespertine, appearances are deceiving. Though Kahn’s style appeared to flout the LA dining scene’s produce-driven locavorism, there he was, carefully plucking raw ingredients from the earth himself. As he finished up for the day and returned to his car, his iPhone reconnected to the world and texts flooded the screen. He didn’t understand what he saw. He called Peña back.

“You idiot,” she said. “Jonathan Gold named you No. 1.”

“Oh. That must be a mistake,” Kahn said.

It wasn’t. The city’s—and possibly the country’s—most revered food critic, Jonathan Gold, had released his annual list of LA’s 101 best restaurants and had put Vespertine in the top spot, displacing Providence, which had held No. 1 four years running. In an age awash in “best of” lists, this one carried an inordinate amount of weight. But even in securing his highest accolade to date, the experience of finding out aptly mirrors the experience of Vespertine itself—difficult at times, but ultimately satisfying.

Despite the validation of Gold’s list, skepticism of Vespertine remains. Kahn’s style of restaurant is a conscious break with his mentors and forebears and a challenge to diners. He may be on the cusp of ushering in a new paradigm of fine dining, but enough oppose his vision that he still feels compelled to assure me, “It’s not art for art’s sake and weirdness for weirdness’s sake.”

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vespertine dessert

Black raspberry, meadowsweet, black carrot  Photo: Jessica Sample

Kahn cut his teeth primarily as a pastry chef for Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz, working inside their respective Michelin three-star gastronomic temples. With their shared flair for the abstract, on first glance it appears that Vespertine and Alinea have a much closer relationship to each other than to the French Laundry. But it may be easier to see the thread between Achatz and Keller than the one connecting Vespertine’s chef with either of his mentors. Kahn’s previous bosses want to play with your memory in their meal—they’re willing to mine nostalgia to bring you into their world and elicit an emotional reaction, albeit through different methods.

“The French Laundry can be intimidating,” Keller tells me. “We want something that breaks the ice. That cornet we serve at the beginning of the meal is amusing. You look at it and go, ‘Wow, that looks like an ice cream cone.’ But it’s a cracker with sour cream, onions, and salmon. It’s reminiscent of something you’ve had in the past that has reference points, which are so important for me.” At Alinea, Achatz may take a familiar food and turn it into an abstraction. In his hands, the classic Chicago-style hot dog becomes a distillation of the ingredients, reconstituted in gel form and served in a way that looks nothing like a hot dog. But when you take a bite, you taste the all-beef dog, sport peppers, mustard, and pickle. It may look strange, but it’s still toying with memories.

That’s where Kahn’s approach diverges. He wants to short-circuit all those reference points with his plating and dining experience. You’re forced to engage with a course not because it’s so familiar but because it’s so unfamiliar. “Heston Blumenthal came up with this dish that was revolutionary. It looked like a beach scene, and he had an MP3 player and headphones so you could hear the sound of the ocean,” Kahn says. “You ate this dish that looked like an ocean while listening to the ocean and conjuring the past. With Vespertine you don’t know where you are. It’s not a singular thing.” But by removing memories from the equation, is he also shunting aside one of the best parts of eating—the fact that great cuisine can tug at emotions by conjuring the past? I had to experience his vision for myself.

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Vespertine Mango redwood

Mango, redwood  Photo: Jessica Sample

In an industrial expanse of LA called Hayden Tract, low-slung buildings filled with tech start-ups and film production studios reside beside some eclectic architecture. Among them rises an angular yet undulating four-story, rust-colored waffle designed by Eric Owen Moss, who has devoted his talents to transforming urban ugliness. Even though the building was never meant to be a restaurant, upon seeing its shell, Kahn became determined to build his dream there. He convinced not just Moss but an indie band, a renowned ceramist, a fashion designer, and a team of cooks to join him in creating an immersive, multidisciplinary art project helmed by a chef. “Food is such a remarkable medium to work in,” Kahn says. “It’s one of the few things that can cause such intense emotional reactions from people. I give you a giant bowl of ooey gooey mac and cheese? It’s the only thing other than a fire and a blanket that can make you feel that way.”

As I pull into the lot adjoining the wavy grid of the tower, two attendants in gauzy black tunics (by designer Jona Sees, I later learn) greet me. Surely they were extras from a sci-fi film who wandered off a nearby studio lot, but no—I realize as they request my keys that they are the valets. One absconds with my car, and the other guides me to a concrete slab, one of many gray islands amid a sea of vegetation. A flute of sparkling birch juice awaited my arrival, and I can hear the languorous music of the instrumental band This Will Destroy You, which created a custom score for the dining adventure.

The attendants, pleasant and calm, cue me to follow them toward Vespertine’s entrance. I board the elevator and ascend to the third floor where, as the doors part, the space emperor himself stands waiting. As he eagerly welcomes me and explains the building’s architecture, it’s apparent this isn’t some bizarre intergalactic ruler but rather an earnest craftsman who just happened to style himself like the lead singer of an industrial rock band.

On the roof, I sink into an overstuffed chair and drink from an aperitif with a beautiful yet foreboding flower swimming atop the aromatized wine. Kahn reappears, bearing a bowl of silky and brightly acidic fermented chickpea puree covered in a quilt of small green leaves. It looks as if he’s brought a dip without chips. He then surprises me by saying the tree branch on the table, draped with green and brown ribbons I had ignored as some object, is actually dried kelp I can use to scoop up the puree.

Tiny courses continue to arrive in odd pottery crafted for Vespertine alone, like the cone that splits apart to reveal flowers stacked in seeming defiance of gravity along the inside but that are actually attached to a curved savory cookie. I pulled out my phone to take a picture, because I’m that guy. I tried to conceal my mini photo shoot, remembering the restaurant’s reputation for hostility toward phones. But no one makes me stop when caught in the act. As the next course emerges, the server even pauses to let me finish my shot.

Kahn explains: “When you first open, some people only come for this reason,” he says, holding up his phone. “We discouraged phones the first month to get a more visceral, accurate response from guests. And then one day I was like, ‘Okay, we’re good.’ You don’t want to tell people how to live their lives and enjoy things.”

The servers seem to move in unison, which is no accident. A choreographer trained them to glide through the dining room, avoiding sharp movements and using the music to guide them. So as one pours a drink at a table, the motion of his arm is in sync with the foot of the server walking on the other side of the room. It may seem like overkill, but the result is an unexpected harmony that has the power to transport. There was a moment, as I sat on the roof with the music thrumming, the servers weaving around tables, the gentle wind causing treetops to sway, that I just stared at the jostling leaves, losing myself in an almost meditative state as I waited for my next course to arrive. I recount this to Kahn, and he merely smiles and casts his gaze downward. He was pleased.

After the appetizers finish, I’m led down to the small dining room and seated in a booth made of curved steel that halfway encircles an acrylic table. The dishes proceed much like they did above, arriving in bespoke ceramics and plated in such a way as to obscure what you are about to eat, many times eliciting monosyllabic responses out of me ranging from an inquisitive “huh?” to an astonished “whoa.”

A beautiful arc of petals across a white plate is served with a jus the same deep shade of purple. I learn these are the flowers from favas, and they’re obscuring the beans from my view. On a subsequent course, as I dig into a deep bowl to scoop out what’s on the bottom, the spoon in my hand is of such a weight and balance that I can’t help but stop eating and admire it. Later, I take a bite of caviar—and with the briny roe I’m surprised to taste something sweet, realizing the osetra has been paired with macerated banana. And in one striking dish, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the black pottery ends and the food begins, as a layer of powdered burnt onion covers a mixture of scallops, marrow, and preserved plum.

For all the talk of Vespertine’s cuisine being weird and otherworldly, once I peel back the layers of the abstract plating, I discover delicious and recognizable food underneath. I wasn’t just popping food in pill form or downing glasses of Soylent. And yet the experience can be exhausting because Kahn never lets diners off the hook. His obfuscating style of plating doesn’t provide easy answers. He’s continually finding ways to make me engage, even down to the grippy texture on the tabletops that means I can’t just mindlessly swirl my wine. If I want to swirl the glass, I must lift it off the table, and that mere act forces me to consider it more than I would have otherwise.

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vespertine fava beans

Fava beans, horseradish, grilled raspberry  Photo: Jessica Sample

There’s a speech that René Redzepi made upon Noma winning World’s Best Restaurant in 2014 that rings in Kahn’s ears—one that he thinks about when he’s faced with criticism of Vespertine. At that point Noma was more than a decade old, had redefined the restaurant world, and had become universally beloved, but Redzepi wanted to remind his peers how far they’d come.

“Do you remember the opening years of Noma?” Redzepi asks the crowd. “How few people believed in us? We were the geeks in the class of linens and fine wine. They gave us funny names. We all remember ‘the seal f*cker.’ That didn’t bother us; it f*cking fueled us. And look where we are now, several years later, celebrated for all the experiments. Wood sorrel conquered caviar, and the seal fucker is on top.”

The early months of Vespertine were when Kahn had to endure the wisecracks, like “space emperor.” Yet he’s also found supporters, beyond just the late critic Jonathan Gold. One of his biggest idols, Andoni Luis Aduriz, ate at Vespertine the second week and told him, “What you have accomplished in 10 days took Mugaritz 20 years. Your biggest challenge is waiting for the world to catch up.” The chef of the Michelin two-star Mélisse, Josiah Citrin, had early skepticism about the restaurant and came away impressed. And his mentor Achatz told me, “He is doing amazing things. Genuinely amazing. Not just overhyped redux stuff.”

But he can’t please everyone. For some, the objections reach deeper than criticism of the experience—they disagree with Kahn’s approach on a philosophical level. “Chefs start to follow certain schools. In the early 2000s it was all El Bulli, and then everything switched to Noma and everybody was chasing after that,” says Michael Cimarusti, chef and owner of fine-dining stalwart Providence in LA. “Now there are some influential restaurants whose goal is the abstraction of food. You take whatever it is that you may have as inspiration and just blow it to pieces, and then bring it back and put something on the plate that might or might not resemble food. To me, that trend—well, I don’t know if it’s a trend. I hope it’s not. You don’t need trickery. You don’t need a cabinet full of hydrocolloids. You just need simple ingredients and craft and art.”

And yet so much of the fare we enjoy is an abstraction. It’s just that it has been around long enough for it to register in our memories, so we think of it as food. One of the great comfort foods, a hamburger, is an amalgamation of products that don’t resemble their origins—from the cheese to the bun, the mustard, the ketchup, and the blend of ground beef. As a pastry chef, Kahn’s job was to create abstract dishes—and people didn’t balk then, and they shouldn’t balk now. “A cake doesn’t look like eggs and flour and sugar and butter, so why is that any different?” he says. “The answer is it’s not different. It’s just perception.”

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