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Jordan Kahn on Vespertine: "This is a New Thing"

Jordan Kahn on Vespertine: "This is a New Thing"

Visit Vespertine in LA: a monster collaboration of creativity where chef Jordan Kahn has twisted the idea of a restaurant into something "new".

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What would your food look like if you based it solely on your personality? On the things that make you, you. The things that inspire you. Not your cultural heritage, not the food your grandma or parents used to cook when you were a child, not on the food of your geographical location or genealogical makeup, but on your personality. On the music you listen to, the art you enjoy, your favorite colors, styles, inspirations, fashion, memories, hobbies and histories. On all the things you love. What would it look like? Have a think about that and while you do, take listen to the audio below for a few minutes before continuing this article (just hit Listen in Browser)... you can also leave it playing while you read on. 

The dreamy soundscape played above is one of the last interactions diners have with the Vespertine restaurant in Los Angeles as they say goodbye in the garden. The first comes when they exit the taxi and meet the building for the first time. Awestruck diners all do the same thing: stand back, open their mouths and consume their first bite of the evening; a mouthful of “WOW!” as the curvy flow of steel and glistening glass slants to the sky. It breathes, each step closer revealing a little more, an intriguing twist of metal and glass; parametric beauty! The three, four minutes from taxi to entrance is an intense ride - a hypnotic "wtf' moment.

Vespertine is a “gastronomical experience, seeking to disrupt the course of the modern restaurant.” The ambitious project is the design of chef Jordan Kahn and made possible thanks to a monster collaboration across numerous disciplines: perfumeries, artists, designers, architects, investors, musicians, chefs, producers, knife makers, and tableware creators. The building itself, designed by the famous architect Eric Owen Moss, took around 15 years to complete as it broke and bent almost every code and regulation required to regulate new buildings. Then there was the custom designed technology that had to be taught to different trades: it’s a feat of architectural wonder.

It’s important to start with the building because it’s the heart of the project. The spark that started it all and the spine that holds the whole idea together. “When I found the building it was still under construction,” said Kahn remembering the day he accidentally discovered what would start a three-year mission. “I was just stuck in traffic and I was like: ‘fuck this.’ I took some side streets and I drove by it and I was immediately affected by its existence. I can’t explain it any other way. I pulled over, got out of the car and stood in front of this thing for about 20 minutes just kind of marvelling at it. I felt this very strange presence or energy and I went back to work that night and I just became obsessive. I would leave work at night around 3 am and drive back to spend evenings kind of staring at this thing.”

ONE BIG LOVEFEST

Good architecture should affect you, create a sense of feeling, scientists have even spent time trying to measure what they call "psychological arousal" caused by different building designs. And for Kahn, seeing Moss’s creation affected him in a big way - in fact - it took over his entire life. “Eventually I broke in and started walking through it. It was a complete construction site covered in scaffolding. I would wander up and down the building and just start slowly putting this thing together. It was very organic in the sense of how it happened, I was just dreaming to myself.”

Kahn, who previously worked with Thomas Keller and then Grant Achatz during the time he opened the Alinea restaurant, eventually decided to see if his dream could become a reality. “I called the number on the for lease sign and I met with the broker. He asked me what my business was and I said: 'I’m a chef.' He said: 'so, you want an office for your restaurant group or something?' I said: 'no I want to turn this whole thing into a restaurant.’ He said: ‘no, I’m sorry, we don’t do that.’ And that was the end of it.”

At least it would have been for most chefs, but Kahn couldn’t let his feeling go. The building was special and it would make the perfect place for a restaurant, so the theme of convincing others to get involved with this ambitious idea began. “I was very persistent and eventually I was able to get a meeting with the owners, the landlords of the project and they play a really critical role in this because they’re the reason why this area exists.” The landlords he refers to are Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith: an ambitious couple who started buying property in the Hayden Tract area of Los Angeles in the 90s. They gave the spaces to the architect Eric Owen Moss who has slowly filled the industrial location with a series of spectacular buildings. One of which, referred to as The Waffle, was the building Kahn had been breaking into at godforsaken hours of the morning.

“It took me a fair amount of time to describe it in full but eventually everyone became so in love with the idea it became one big collaborative lovefest.” Kahn got lucky, the Smiths and Moss were into his idea of using food, eating and dining as a nucleus to experience not just the architecture of the building but a whole host of art forms. “When I met them and I had this idea, they didn’t immediately kick me out and say: ‘get lost.’ They were intrigued… Frederick is a pretty eccentric individual: he was a disciple of Pablo Picasso and a very well known writer in Paris in the 1960s. He has a pretty crazy history of things he has done and at the end of the day, he wants his legacy to be using art and architecture to formulate change in people's thoughts.”

Before any type of menu idea was put on paper - any kind of brainstorming related to food was started - the building work was halted for redesigns, making space and all the extra allocations required for the new guts of an unplanned kitchen, and Kahn, Kahn continued to convince people to work on his idea.

In fact, he spent the next few years convincing a whole list of other different artists to take part in the project. The soundscape you heard above was produced by his favourite band, This Will Destroy You. He literally chased them down before a gig one day in San Diego. “I got there early, I was waiting out front of the venue and one of the band members walked by and he said, ‘hey, are you the chef from the Red Medicine restaurant?’ It was just this bizarre serendipitous moment where they were fans of the work that I’d been doing and I literally went there to ask them to be a part of this. Needless to say, that pitch went very well, I didn’t have to do a lot of convincing.”

We need to change the ideas, even if we hate them.

The band set about producing a deeply constructed, texturally rich and evocative soundscape that accompanies the whole experience. It is designed to focus on what's called the "feeling tone" - it also plays with fundamental mood changes, like starting with minor tones outside the building and welcoming guests with more major, harmonic tones when they step inside: simple but highly effective. Just like the architecture of the building affecting mood, music, we all know, can do the same. For Kahn, this idea plays an integral role in the Vespertine experience. It's an entire soundscape created for that space, with the purpose to alter and affect the mood of guests as they dine - whether they notice it or not.

"Their component of the project is so important, it really acts as a kind of a transportive piece, you really feel like you’re floating or you’re drifting, or you’re moving... it actually has a function which is to slow the guest’s heartbeat but really slowly and in a way that they’re not aware of it. Usually, it happens around the sixth or seventh course. You just see people start to drift, they really start to turn and come into the moment.

"We started looking at forms of meditation that involve sound and one of the oldest and most ancient is Buddhism. We looked at ancient monk chanting and started reading up the reasons why they sing... In certain ceremonies, they have this chanting they do, the reason they do that is it syncs everybody's heart rate. It has to do with this slow repetition, I guess your body starts to recognize the sound waves, and it just starts to sync, so eventually everybody's heart rate in the space starts to sync up."

How do you achieve that duality of staying true to your ethos as a chef by using indigenous, local ingredients of the highest quality but putting them in a way that is not familiar?

With so much attention to detail on the music, the building and everything else inside it, what about the food? There's a reason it's at the bottom of the piece and it's because it also came last for Kahn. After convincing designers to make custom plates, after adding new guts to the restaurant, and after taking planes to finally persuade the naysayers they should take part. "I got two "noes" from Japanese artists but I flew all the way to Japan to meet with them and they ended up saying yes. It was a global effort, there are artists here from Texas, from Brooklyn, from different parts of Japan, Ukraine. They all have their own specific craft." After three years of this, Kahn finally sat down to create a menu.
 

Orach, caramelized lobster and quince.

 

THE FOOD

"I remember the very first dish that I put together for this, the first time we tasted it we kind of had this epiphany moment where we were like ‘holy shit, this is a new thing'." It's a bold statement that Kahn is well aware of. "I know that to some degree this may sound arrogant, but we are in the food industry, we are in the world where we are constantly looking at what other chefs are doing and what other restaurants are doing and getting inspired by them. When you see something and come across something that is very unusual, very new and not derivative, it causes you to double take a little bit. ‘Wow, this is something that we created that doesn’t look like anything else’ and we were not just proud of that we were intrigued by it."

The different, the new that Kahn is talking about is evident when dining at Vespertine. It's evident in flavours, in the crazy pairings, presentations and mad textures that are served across the multi-course tasting menu. By surrounding himself for years in architecture, art, fashion and music, on purpose, Kahn created a whole new foundation to be inspired by. "I kind of inadvertently had their work affect my work, in the sense that when I had my creative sessions coming up with menu items, the dishes I was coming up with felt so different to me than the stuff I had done in the past."

Left to Right: Ariel shot of the Garden / Chicory stem, dried brassica leaf, physalis, pumpkin seed, scented germanium, preserved lime and northern pike roe.

Influenced heavily by the forms, ideas, and sensibilities of all this art and void of influence from the chef world he had inhabited for years, he said he purposely stopped looking at other chefs' food, Kahn created two unique ways to focus on producing dishes. "There’s what we call extroverted dishes and introverted dishes. In other words, some dishes don’t want to be discovered, sorry, some dishes require discovery and don’t want you to know what they are and they’re kind of hidden. In some cases literally and other cases more figuratively." The extroverted dishes, well, they're almost architectural, they jump out of the plate, have strong form, Kahn described one extroverted dish as "sculptural in a way, the bowl is starting to curl and grow out of itself... People have different reactions to it, some don’t touch it and wait for you to bring something else."

It's the introverted dishes that cause the real thinking moments, often ingredients are purposefully disguised and hidden. One dish even has its own bowl that produces an optical illusion where diners don't know where the food begins and where it ends. Looking at the dish, it's hard to actually see the food at all.

Above, you are actually looking at: aged plum paste, strained yogurt, fish, ancient grains, onion and nut meringue powder, and squid ink. How? "The inside of the bowl: we brush it with this aged plum paste, we put the dollops of strained yogurt, we take wild sorrel stems and mince them and sprinkle that on the inside of the bowl as well. Then we lay fish over it and the fish adheres to the shape of the bowl, so essentially it’s just replacing the interior. Then we take teff that we puffed until the size of nothing, it’s micro and we dust it with a layer of teff and this meringue that’s made from onions and a couple of different nut, sweet sugars. We are able to get this sort of shiny crystalline quality, then we stain it with squid ink and we dust that over the whole bowl and it just looks like an empty bowl.”

These ideas are repeated across the menu with dishes often rooted in specific colours, colours are important to Kahn. One dish, seen above, riffs on white and is entirely "extroverted" involving something Kahn called "macadamia nut porcelain." Another, below and also white, consists of raw and caramelized scallops, smoked bone marrow emulsion, fresh yuzu rind, fur needle vinaigrette and thinly sliced white asparagus: though it doesn't look anything like that when it hits the table.

White asparagus / a vessel designed to deliver a burnt onion cracker to the table, shared in two it's a good example of how the objects at Vespertine encourage interaction.

Sometimes dishes are created vessel first and many dishes are designed with the intention to challenge diners. To make them discover, interact, analyse and think. Vespertine is about letting go and sticking your fork right inside the black hole to be rewarded with a delicious surprise. One dessert lands at the table with the explanation that it contains sea urchin, of all the savoury ideas for dessert, sea urchin? It's something immediately off-putting, yet it works brilliantly. Rich, umami-laden uni paired with chewy date toffee, crystalized pecan, bergamot, lemongrass and Pedro Ximenez sherry. It's an example of how sweet-savoury crossovers should be done.

What if the idea of the anti-presentation is as much as a challenge for us. It’s very hard for me to purposely not make the food look beautiful and to hide it. Going through that process when we were putting the menu together was very challenging to me in a good way.

As pushy as it gets, Kahn is still focused on delivering comfort. “Ultimately we care above all else about making people happy and serving them delicious food. You should feel like you have that ultimate, luxurious, eyes-rolled-back course but then other dishes are meant for a little more analyzing, head scratching. Some dishes are supposed to bring you back to reality with familiarity."

The ingredients are often local but being rooted to the land, being rooted in a particular cuisine or style of cooking, that's not what Vespertine is about: being "new" also applies to the idea of what is actually defining the restaurant.

A blanket of red spinach, hidden inside, on the very bottom is caramelized prawn brushed with brewers malt and seared until the malt caramelizes. There’s butter, lemon juice and some cognac to deglaze. There’s some cooked soft poached quince that’s sliced and draped over the prawn, there are some water chestnuts shaped in for crunch and more steamed red spinach.

COOKING YOU

"The concept in its more general form is something that I’ve been ruminating through my psyche for years… My background as a person: I was born in Savannah, Giorgia in the South, my mum was an immigrant from Cuba, my dad was adopted and his original parents were from Sicily. I don’t have some historical or imperial, you know, trajectory of what I’m supposed to do in terms of being a chef. It’s not that I’m going to look at my Mexican heritage and become a super Mexican chef, or my Nordic heritage or things like that, which is sort of the way the world has been heading. I was like: ‘what the fuck am I? I’m a mutt’. A hodgepodge of things and I’ve worked at all these places. What’s my perspective?"

The mix in Kahn's life is something he said is also echoed in LA's food scene. "Los Angeles… everyone says 'melting pot' and I think that they're probably most referring to cultural reference points, variations of Korean food, Mexican food - all sorts of things here. That’s one of the things that makes the culinary scene fantastic, but the city itself, the pulse, the beating heart of the city is really about creativity. That’s why film exists here, that’s why music largely exists here, that’s why a lot of art galleries and a lot of architects migrate here. That creative spine that the city has, that’s what we’re trying to tap in to."

The whole project is meant to be this constantly morphing sphere. I think that we will use some markers for change, so year two is almost like season two - our new perspective on how we want to adjust.

Left to Right: The Monolith is a concrete structure with a piece missing, encouraging guests to use their hands, the space at the top is filled with Lancetilla mango cured in resin / Giant Kelp formed into a crispy chip, served with ocean honey and wetland herbs / Cream of smoked duck liver, carob and hyssop.

Creating a restaurant and cuisine that doesn't denote or promote the usual cultural reference points, the familiar indicators we search for as diners, is part of the challenge for guests at Vespertine. It's also why lots of people just don't get it. A personality restaurant is certainly not a "new thing," but this is more than that. Kahn is trying to cook an introspective reflection of himself as a person, to stray away from the norms of tradition and culture, forcing moments of emotional connection between plate and people. The whole idea is sliding the chair of architecture and art one step closer to the table of gastronomy and it tastes great while doing it. The effort and originality alone should be praised. For Kahn, the whole thing is just a reflection of him, as he put it, "it's the project of my life."

"What’s largely made me the individual that I am is Art. I was a painter when I was a young kid. I was a musician for many years before I fell in love with cooking. I’m collecting all those things that ultimately made me who I am as a person, not as much as a chef, and mixing them with the stuff that I’ve learned over my career. When I found this I was like: ‘this is it, this is the thing I’ve been looking for that I had no idea I was looking for.'

"We are craving authenticity. I think that people always link food and authenticity with being culturally specific, is this an authentic Italian dish? What I’m looking at is the authenticity of the self, of the person who is putting this thing together. Hopefully, I think one of the reasons why we are successful with our guests is because when they leave, they have this sense of knowing us."


 

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