Q & A with Jordan Kahn, Part 2: The Nature of Criticism and Why Red Medicine Kicked Out the LA Times
A. FrougChef Jordan Kahn in the Red Medicine kitchen
At the end of the first part of our interview with Jordan Kahn of Red Medicine, he was explaining that Vietnamese cuisine fits his culinary philosophy because he isn't interested in making "a big, sweet fucking rich bomb. A big ass molten chocolate cake or a giant bowl of pudding. " Check back later for the recipe from Red Medicine. Your version won't look quite as good, but if it makes you feel better, neither will ours.
In the second part of our interview, Kahn discusses food criticism in the social media age and explains what exactly happened when his restaurant booted out then-anonymous LA Times restaurant reviewer S. Irene Virbila and posted her photo online. He also tells us that he'd like to meet Virbila sometime. Did we just move one step closer to reconciliation?
Squid Ink: You spend all this time on these dishes, when you have someone like S. Irene Virbila who maybe doesn't appreciate your thinking, is that where that whole event came from? Can you give us your side of how that all happened?
Jordan Kahn: I don't necessarily want to get into because it was not meant to be a stunt for publicity or anything. I want people to come here and know that we work really, really hard to make every guest that comes to our door really happy. It's not driven by ego. It's not driven by money for me. I want the restaurant to make money so that I can pay our cooks and we can pay our vendors. I have no interest in being rich. Ever. The food world is tricky these days: the internet, Twitter, Facebook and all these things. Everybody's a critic and says things without realizing what it does to other people.
I get this a lot, "Any artist who puts his stuff up is gonna be subject to criticism." And it's entirely true, but the main difference is that the artist paints for himself and hopes other people appreciate it and understand it. A chef cooks for you. And hopes you like it. So when you hate it, it destroys us a lot more inside.
And when someone says really harsh and cruel things, they don't understand the chain of how it affects people. It doesn't just affect the chef. It affects his cooks. It affects their families. It affects their families.
You know, when Irene wrote her review of XIV, she said really, really terrible things about me, and I remember, I was at home and it was the first day off I had taken off since we had opened. It was like five months in. I read it, and I looked at my girlfriend at the time, and I said, "How am I supposed to face my cooks tomorrow and tell them that everything's gonna be okay and what they do is important?" They should be proud of what they make.
People thrive on negative criticism and they enjoy writing negative things. "Oh, this movie was shit." Or the best are commenters on Eater. They're the fucking best. [Kahn holds up the water glass he's drinking from] Someone just writes "Oh Jordan made this glass himself. We're gonna show it." [He makes typing motions.] "This looks like shit. I hate everything about him. Fuck you."
Where does this come from? People are entitled to do that, but when someone has a voice in such a public manner, it's really mean, you know? I didn't want to put my guys through that. I didn't want to put myself through that. I don't know how I would have reacted.
I'm pretty sure that she and a lot of critics, they're not unbiased. She wouldn't like my restaurant at all. She's not gonna like my food even if her palate likes it. Even if she technically likes it, she will not like it. Does that make sense? So we were already gonna lose.
SI: Why do you think she wouldn't have liked it?
JK: Well, I can't speak for her because I don't actually know her, although I'd love to meet her one day. But when you read a lot of her reviews, you tend to see a trend of what she likes and what she doesn't. There's a part of me that thinks she's gonna think that there's too much fuss, we've put in too much work. She reviewed Providence and she wrote that some of the dishes were too fussy. I read that and I said, "Does that mean they put in too much time? That's considered a detriment now, I suppose. You're spending too much time making this perfect. You need to slop it out. But not too sloppy because I'll call you sloppy. You need to find the balance that I like."
Which is really absurd. She said some of their larger entrees seemed sloppy. A big piece of meat and smear of puree. Other dishes, "The desserts were too fussy. There was too much. There was an herb, and there was a flower on it and no no no, I want a big bowl of fucking pudding with a giant spoon so I can force it into my mouth faster, and that's what dessert is supposed to be."
I hate when people say that shit. And whenever bloggers or someone eats my food and says this dish was too this or too that. They always say it in these broad general statements.
But no, the dish was exactly what it was supposed to be. The dish wasn't too this or too that. The dish was perfect as it was. You just didn't like it, and I'm sorry.
When people think of Red Medicine, that shouldn't come up. I hope they say, "It's a really good restaurant that has great food, and the people that work there and the people behind it really believe in what they do."
My cooks kill themselves for me every day. The least I can do is work three times as hard as they can every day so that they can see why things are important. Why it's important that this steak is clean or this is organized or this dish is beautiful. That we take the time to learn to do it fast but we take the time to make it as perfect as we can every time given the circumstances. Because it leaves an impression on people.
Yeah, we can make really simple food that's tasty, but I don't know that that makes an impression on people. I think what we do does. Not everybody and definitely not the majority, but several times a night, we have people who want to come back into the kitchen to meet me or whatever the case may be, and you know that we won that one. That person is gonna take this experience with them, and even if they don't tell others about it or spread word of mouth or tweet it or whatever, it's like we made an impression on that person. We made today worth it.
Get the Squid Ink'd Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly food newsletter, which features top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips and a link to our print review.