Pastry Chef Jordan Kahn
formerly of XIV by Michael Mina | Los Angeles, CA
Visions of Concord grape bubbles, cocoa sable crumbs, and carrot glass have been dancing in Pastry Chef Jordan Kahn’s head since he was a child. His first kitchen job was in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia when he was only 15 years old. A year later he enrolled at Johnson & Wales and graduated in just eight months. His first job out of school was at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. Kahn was 17; the youngest chef to ever work in Keller’s kitchen. But that’s Jordan Kahn for you: inexhaustibly creative and—perhaps a bit insanely—driven.
Kahn was asked to join the opening pastry team of Keller’s New York City four-star outpost Per Se, where his inventive desserts and techniques caught the eye of Chef Grant Achatz of Chicago’s groundbreaking Alinea. In 2005, Kahn moved to Chicago to work with Alinea’s Pastry Chef Alex Stupak, who helped the young pastry daredevil further develop his signature style. Kahn returned to New York in late 2006 to become the pastry chef at Varietal, where he won national acclaim for his culinary artistry. Time’s food critic Frank Bruni compared the pastry chef to Jackson Pollock and the New York Observer likened his dishes to Salvador Dalí paintings. Kahn was 23.
Chef Michael Mina tapped Kahn to work at his eponymous restaurant in San Francisco. Kahn then transitioned into a corporate role, assisting in the opening and operations of Mina’s multiple restaurants across the US and in Mexico. Kahn settled down at Mina’s LA flagship, XIV, where he once again broke boundaries and redefined dessert.
Kahn’s mission to challenge convention and reinterpret tradition (think: wood ice cream) has already distinguished him in the culinary world. Where he’ll take pastry next remains to be seen; Kahn is currently pursuing his own restaurant project.
Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jordan Kahn: My family’s background is Cuban and the majority of cooking was done by my grandma, who is without a doubt the most incredible cook on the planet. I grew up with incredible Cuban food. I started getting involved in cooking, working in herb gardens, when I was eight. I helped prep; I loved chopping onions and their layers. When I was 13, for Christmas my mom got me the French Laundry Cookbook because there was a recipe for garlic chips. I grew up in Savannah, Georgia and the food culture there is slim pickings. I read the book cover to cover that night and I didn’t understand it. I didn't know what anything was or how it was possible that this existed in the world. I vividly remember reading about herb oils. I would even hide the French Laundry Cookbook behind my algebra textbook.
AB: What was your first restaurant job?
JK: At 15, I got a job at a restaurant washing dishes. I highly recommend starting washing dishes; it really humbles you for the rest of your career and you never take the dishwashers for granted. It’s all part of the same beast. A restaurant is more than just food and service, it’s also dishwashing, sweeping, and polishing. A great chef must see that and lead his people so that restaurant staff doesn’t grow up learning to abuse dishwashers. It breeds a much better culture.
AB: Did you have any formal training?
JK: I graduated high school early and went straight to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Charleston. I hated culinary school; the students were not there for the right reasons. It was filled with lots of slackers so I went and spoke to the Dean and got on an advanced track course. I accomplished a two year degree in six months. I was 17.
AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef and pastry chef?
JK: After I worked at that restaurant [washing dishes] for a year I worked at another restaurant in Savannah, which was a great introduction. I wanted to go work at the Charleston Grill with Bob Wagner. He's super nice with a big personality. [He has] red hair and the classic all white French uniform. He sat me down and interviewed me and said we don't have anything available but a pastry position. I started working there and since it was a 4 star restaurant I learned a lot of techniques.
[After culinary school] I mailed Thomas Keller a ten page letter and he responded through email. He said he had a three month position open that I could take. So I packed my stuff and left. I worked for three months in savory at The French Laundry. Brunoise, stocks, harvesting vegetables and herbs on the farm, reaching for figs in the tree—it was a really, really great experience. It was a life long dream to work with Thomas. After the three months, I told the chef how honored I was and that I'd love to be there full time. They didn’t have anything except again, something in pastry, so I started working with Sebastian [Rouxel]. Pastry it seemed, chose me after all – it was fate.
AB: What was it like working with him?
JK: I got a really great foundation from Sebastian. He really helped me grow and Thomas really did too. Sebastian started letting me do some desserts when we moved to New York together to open Per Se. Every year he does a rhubarb dessert and I told him it needed vinegar. I've always wanted to do different items. It’s not about fads for me.
After I was at Per Se for a year and a half I went to go help open Alinea, but [Grant Achatz] didn't have anything for me, so he asked if I would mind serving for a couple months until a kitchen position opened up. It was cool. To this day they still have cooks that are runners and servers. I did that for a month and a half, then I started working with Alex [Stupak].
AB: Who have been your mentors?
JK: Soulfully, my grandmother. Professionally, Sebastian. You've never met anybody who says anything bad about Sebastian, you can’t find one person. [He is] unbelievably talented, I can’t believe he’s not the most famous pastry chef on the planet; he can run circles around anybody. I worked with him for four years. The first time, it was a big deal when Sebastian and I worked together on a dessert.
AB: What has been your proudest moment in your career?
JK: At Per Se Sebastian had a lot of other parts of the restaurant to run so I did a lot of desserts. One night we had a VIP come in from Time Out NY and I was working on a dessert with Campari and licorice and they loved it so much that they chose it for the Time Out NY restaurant awards and it was on the cover. So walking around NYC seeing posters of my dessert everywhere was my proudest accomplishment.
AB: If there was one thing you could do again or re-do what would it be?
JK: I wish I would have quit Varietal two weeks later so I could have gotten NY Rising Stars. Starchefs.com is huge. It’s a resource that not only chefs watch but all chefs, the top chefs in the world to the smallest chefs. After I did my demonstration with Paul in the International Chefs Congress I had people coming up to me and I wasn’t even a pastry chef anywhere. If I had to do anything over again, I guess I would go harvest two cases of figs for Thomas.
AB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
JK: I'm trying to be. I've made some very good friends with some excellent people like Norbert and his team at the Beverly Hills Cheese Store. I have ideas to start a small circle of restaurants and chefs to cross-promote. Norbert and I have this great idea [based on] a farmers market in Burgundy that gives leftover produce at end of night to restaurants and all the chefs make a dinner.
AB: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
JK: Hopefully you'll find me in Los Angeles with a couple of restaurants that you won't expect me to be a part of and one you definitely will, but I won't go into details.
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