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.
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.
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?
JK: I dunno. It's something that over the years we've started to adapt. I worked for Thomas Keller for a long time, and he's very much about being so exact and precise and specific on everything, which we are but in a very different way. We welcome the abstract and the differentness and the oddities.
Last week we got a bunch of red mizuna from Coleman [Bill Coleman of Coleman Family Farm], and I said, “Did the mizuna come in? Is it nice?” And he said, “Yeah, kinda,” and I said “What do you mean?” He said, “Well it's nice but it looks like it got burned by the sun and there's a lot of little holes in it.”
And I looked at it and I saw that this is amazing. Now all of a sudden it has a hundred little holes in each one and it looks like it's been slightly burned, but the leaf is still intact. It's not wilting, and it's hearty. Nature did this for us. And we used them on the plate and we didn't do anything. So it's about the taking the risks of seeing the beauty in everything and trying to capture it every single time.
SI: Why Vietnamese food?
JK: I drew particular fascination with Vietnamese because of their overabundant use of herbs. The first thing you do when you sit down at a Vietnamese restaurant is you get a giant plate stacked with herbs and it's not just mint. It might be two or three mints. There's basil, there's perilla, there's rau ram, there's ngo gai, there's fish mint.
It was a cuisine that really spoke to me because it really spoke to me about my desserts in a weird way. You might get a rich, fatty grilled piece of pork, and it's always served with raw herbs and raw vegetables and something really acidic. And there's this dichotomy of rich, cooked, raw and bright in every dish.
It's not like French cuisine or some Italian dishes or Indian or anything. Their balance is something I understand because I approach desserts that way. You would never have one of my desserts that's just a big, sweet fucking rich bomb. A big ass molten chocolate cake or a giant bowl of pudding. I don't put things together that way.
I don't like warm desserts. People always make fun of me for that. I hate eating a warm cobbler or a warm pie. I always prefer to eat them cold. You get more texture that way. Texture's always been a huge thing for me so Vietnamese for me has been a very close parallel to what I've been doing in my career for desserts even though it doesn't seem like that to anybody. But in my brain it absolutely makes sense.
Check back later for the second part of this interview and a recipe from Red Medicine.