Q & A With Red Medicine's Jordan Kahn: Food as Art, Abstract Oddities + Why Vietnamese Food

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Wed, Jul 6, 2011 at 2:26 PM

click to enlarge Chef Jordan Kahn plating a dessert at Red Medicine - A. FROUG
  • A. Froug
  • Chef Jordan Kahn plating a dessert at Red Medicine

To the outside observer, Jordan Kahn's career doesn't make a lot of sense. He worked at some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country (The French Laundry, Alinea, XIV), the kind of places that become pilgrimage sites for the food-obsessed. And then, partnering with Umami Burger's Adam Fleischman two years ago, he opened up a Vietnamese restaurant.

But the spring rolls at Beverly Hills' Red Medicine are stuffed with dungeness crab and pea pods, and plates look the progeny of Albert Einstein and Salvador Dali. Jonathan Gold and Gail Simmons certainly approve. Turn the page for part one of our two part interview by discussing his recent croissant decomposition video and food as art. And check back later for a recipe from the chef.

Squid Ink: There seems to be a real connection between your food and the art world. You talk about Salvador Dali's mustache for the croissant video.

Jordan Kahn: The Surrealist artists used non sequitur to express what they were feeling. It was very emotionally driven art, and that's something that always made a really big impression on me. We combine a lot of natural elements. We try to look for the abstract in the natural. I hate perfect shapes: squares, rectangles. We don't really cut things. We mostly tear and rip.

When [filmmakers Natasha Subramaniam and Alisa Lapidus] told me they wanted to do this film, I said "This is awesome because people have asked me about doing a book. And I said I would love to do a book one day, but I don't think it would be a cookbook."

It would be in the arts section. It would all be food based, and we'd set up these really elaborate shots where maybe we would plate a peach dish on a branch on a peach tree high in the air. It's like in its element, but it's entirely not edible, not meant to be eaten because you're literally plating it on a branch.

SI: What do you want people to feel when they see your dishes as pieces of art?

JK: I hope that first and foremost they say, "Wow, that looks really pretty and also I want to eat it." Sometimes I have a guest that will say, "I don't want to ruin this. I don't want to stick a fork in there." But part of what makes it fun is an artist will spend years of their life on one major piece and it'll be there in existence forever but a chef can do it every five minutes. You get a new shot every time. And each time there's spontaneity there. Maybe this gets a cooked a little differently or it's a little warmer in the kitchen or this leaf looks a little different than the last one.

I hate saying [that food is art] because it seems really pretentious. But we feel that way. We approach it the same way that an artist would. One of the hardest things -- and my guys understand this in the kitchen -- is I don't want everything coming out of the kitchen the same. I don't want it to look like a factory, and it doesn't. We have this dish and this is what the vegetables look like but each one looks different so rather than cutting them all to be uniform or sorting through and only picking the uniform ones, we use all of it, and whatever we use changes the appearance slightly. It's got a different arc and a slightly different color.

click to enlarge A. FROUG
  • A. Froug

SI: How do you train someone not just to create the dish but to interpret it?

JK: The best way to do it that I've found is to be formulaic initially. Every time they make it, you make it with them so they start to see what you see. "Chef, this looks the same." No it doesn't. You have to look at the whole scope of the dish and how the colors interact.

Jackson Pollack Pollock was wonderful at creating movement. It looks like there's just a lot going on but when you look way, way back, it had a very intended movement to it. So dishes are the same way. And maybe the movement shouldn't always be the same for each dish. It should always be balanced but the balance could come from not being symmetrical. It should be a large and a small or it could be off the plate showing a lot of negative space. Or filling the plate.

It's very difficult to do that but the plus side is that I check every plate that goes out so I can really adjust. But they've gotten really good at seeing.

We're doing this new foie gras dish where we took a whole croissant, oddly enough, and we froze it and sliced it very thinly through the center so you can see the webbing of it and these thin chips of foie gras. Each one looks different because it's a natural croissant, from the end which is smaller and then go to the middle which is bigger. But we use every size. It's easy to see when you start to put it together like, "Wow, this makes sense. The weight is gonna fall here, and the balance is gonna fall here."

SI: That's so not the orthodoxy. Where did you learn to do that?

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