Like most people living in cities, Jordan Kahn, chef of Vespertine was driving around trying to avoid traffic when he spotted an empty building under construction. “That’s what you do when you are in Los Angeles.” He decided to stop the car and looked at ‘this thing and it was very emotional’. He had no idea what triggered his desire to stop. That evening, he finished work at his previous restaurant Red Medicine and after service, at around 3am, he went back to Culver City where today the restaurant is located.
“Service had finished at 2am so it must have been around 3am. I jumped over the construction fence, broke open the hinge of the plywood door and trespassed in this empty building. I did not fully know why I was there, I did not think this was the place for a restaurant but there was this gravity pulling me. I could not shake it away,” Jordan told Food and Wine Gazette.
He returned (and trespassed) to that spot every day for the next five months. “Slowly all these participles started to metastasise into an idea. I was having these feelings and thoughts but I did not know what I was to do with them.”
Eventually, having taken the time to gestate and put his ideas together, he plucked up the courage to make a presentation and take it to the developer Frederic Smith who passed away earlier this year and to the architect of ‘The Waffle’ Eric Owen Moss.
Jordan had a few meetings with the architect Eric Owen Moss without realising who he was really speaking with. “Randomly, I met an architecture student and he told me he was working with Moss. He asked if I knew who he was and I told him I met him earlier this morning. It was like meeting Ferran Adria and not knowing who he was. Eric is a real genius up there with the world greats.”
Today, Vespertine, is considered by many as one of the most avant-garde restaurants in the world It has won many accolades including ‘Atmosphere of the Year’ at the World Restaurant Awards in Paris last February.
“It feels amazing to get this recognition though it is also a bit bizarre because where I am from we are not super acclaimed. Maybe that’s not 100 per cent true because Jonathan Gold, the famous Los Angeles food critic, really supported the restaurant since it opened which was life changing for us. But almost no other food journalist in Los Angeles really supports us because we are considered too strange,” he said.
The young chef said he was privileged to work with Moss and his team and learn their methods and perspectives. “It was eye opening to say the least.”
After closing his restaurant Red Medicine, he went underground for a little but and focused on this restaurant by creating a vacuum. “I was not on social media, I was not looking at what the new trends where, what other people were doing.”
I went to Iceland deliberately so that I would not have access to the internet. There was nothing but me, my ex-girlfriend and raw nature. It was nourishing for the soul
I ask him whether he deliberately blocked himself from social media but he said: “I’m bad with social media. I go on Instagram two minutes a day to see whether a guest has complained but other than that I like quiet things, I am not a party guy, I don’t drink so I am a bit of an odd duck in that sense. For me blocking myself from social media was not a difficult decision.”
“It made sense for me. I like to stay steeped in the quiet. I did go to Iceland with my ex-girlfriend so I would not have any cell service. I went on the ring road around Iceland and there was nothing by me, my ex-girlfriend and raw nature. It was nourishing for the soul,” he said.
A year and a half into working on the project, he realised that he was not just building a restaurant but a world and he needed things that he did not have. “J.R. Tolkien had to invent a language, culture. We had to create a version of that. I invited people who were big influences for me and who helped me become who I am even if they had nothing to do with restaurants or food. We worked with musicians, with artists who made our garments. It became the nexus for the concept which is to experience the ritual of dining through all the other pieces. The whole experience causes you to feel in a certain way even though we cannot control how you feel. What the experience does is very specific to you, to who you are dining with, to what is going on in your life,” he said.
He says that the experience is like an art installation. “10 people might go and look at a painting. Three people will say I don’t get it and walk away, five people will see something but are maybe indifferent while two might stand there for an hour pondering about what they are seeing. The restaurant does a little bit of this. Some people are really impacted by it, sometimes I get messages and letters six months later. I think that to some degree this was what happened to Jonathan Gold. The experience ignited something in him.”
Jordan said that while he often gets to take the credit “honestly it is an aggregate of all the people who have been involved in the project including his team.”
The young chef does not know what the building was being built for before he took it over. “It was being built for something else. Eric said that it was going to be a conference centre but honestly no one knows what he means by that. It probably would have ended up being an office for a creative company or a gallery or maybe an executive office.”
I ask him how he managed to convince the developer and architect. “Actually this is my favourite part of the story. They were really excited. I brought the idea to them and they were intrigued.”
“I think that for Eric it was about the exercise of doing something that was different, that was not normal to what they normally did. He has designed lots of amazing buildings. The Waffle, as it is called is one of 30 buildings in the neighbourhood that he has designed. Normally once they finish a building its done but in this case, he was able to be get involved in designing everything from the furniture to the garden, the hanging table and the water feature. So for them, it was also really exciting.”
The whole concept centres around collaboration, around bringing artists and the restaurant team together to create this unique experience.
While Vespertine is a restaurant it acts more like an art installation. “It creates feelings in people. Depending on who you are, who you are with, what is going on in your life, it will cause you to feel in different ways. You might slip into the fold, get carried away, just drift through the experience. If you are there to analyse it, you might find that you will resist the experience. But if you want to let go, then there is very little resistance,” Jordan said. “Today, after the experience we have gathered since the restaurant opened we can fine tune the experience a bit better. “If you do not want the experience that we want to give, you can still enjoy the fact that you are in a good restaurant with great food and great service.”
I ask him how important was it for him to think outside the box. “It is not outside my box. It is important to be sensitive and thoughtful and do what the current brings you, the influences that inspire you and allow it bleed into what you do. My food is inspired by film and music but not in a linear way. A dish might be inspired by a scene from Reservoir Dogs. But it is more of a feeling rather than factual evidence. I watch something and it will influence an idea that is directly linked to that. The ending of a film might inspire a dish but how the two are connected I have no idea. I just let it happen. It has always been my process. I have been like this my whole life.”
Jordan says Vespertine is the mechanism that allows him to take all the building blocks of his inspirations and insights and combine them into a craft. “So much of what we do as chefs is focused and disciplined on techniques but I was fortunate to develop these ideas that are so far removed from restaurants.”
One of his first guests was Andoni of Mugaritz. “He came to our 10th service which was incredible because as a kid, I was reading his book. People may say how unusual or unique Vespertine is but for me it is very cohesive. We did not use tradition or precedent or reference points. We did not use the status quo. We did not say we need to have this. Instead we started with one thing and we solved that equation which created another problem which we then solved and created another problem. What exists in the restaurant exists because it has to. Our equations were so unique that they required weird answers. The way that our tables are shaped, every single condition was unusual so we had to use unusual methods to solve them. The aggregate of all that is something that is unique,” he said.
So where does he see Vespertine in 5 years? “My idea, and I have started to work on it, is to constantly introduce new artists. We want to have new works, new mediums and see how this effects my work, We are working with a new set of musicians to work on another score. I am working with a new ceramicist to create some sculptural elements from natural clays that will be really cool visual contrast. The restaurant will still have continuity because our plates are made of the same material so there is the same language. My idea is to have different languages. Once we switch the soundtrack it will have a big impact because music has a synthesised reality. It will influence how we operate, the food will change. It will be cool.”
I am constantly surrounded by works of people who have been great influences in my career. It is like I am in a creative bath every single day and it is constant
He is constantly jotting in his notebooks. As I sit in a hotel bar in Slovenia he shows me what he has jotted over the past few days which is nearly half a notebook. “I don’t have a process. I don’t recall who said it but agree Nature is an infinite sphere where the centre is nowhere and the circumference is everywhere. I carry notebooks everywhere. I have 100s of notebooks in the kitchen, in my office, in the prep-room. I have build a place that is like my creative dungeon. It is my work place. In the restaurant I am constantly surrounded by works of people who have been great influences in my career. So when I am listening to a soundtrack, it would be by an artist who has played a big role in my creative process and this is happening in real time. I am in a creative bath every single day and it is constant. Creativity starts with whatever the fuck it starts with. I sketch something that makes no sense, it could be an ingredient, a seasoning or an intention.”
So has he learned from his experience working with a great architect and his constraints. “I write the menu as one piece. Each individual dish is part of a narrative so I cannot just substitute a dish with another when an ingredient is no longer in season. The dish that replaces that dish might have to be completely different but what that dish emotionally represents for me needs to be the same.”
There’s only one thing left. To head to Los Angeles and experience Vespertine.