Inside The Creative Mind of Jordan Kahn

by Katherine Sacks with Antoinette Bruno
Antoinette Bruno Antoinette Bruno
March 2012

How does the culinary mind reach outside of a traditional plate of quenelles, clean lines, and sliced protein, to artistic Jackson Pollock flair? How does a garnish go from simple greens to a floral composition of sea greens, foraged lettuce, and herbs? How are new flavors, textures, and combinations discovered?

Inside the quiet mind of 2010 Los Angeles Rising Star Chef Jordan Kahn, a wunderkind among the nation's bright culinary talent, these questions are answered. He may have some serious thoughts on restaurant critics, but Kahn's cool disposition directly parallels the graceful, elegant dishes he presents at his first solo restaurant, West Hollywood's Red Medicine.

Heirloom Black Carrots, Guava, Winter Kales, Dulse, Young Walnuts, Tamarind
Heirloom Black Carrots, Guava, Winter Kales, Dulse, Young Walnuts, Tamarind

Take one look at Kahn's refined presentations and you'll find plates of unprecedented artistic flair. Often compared to Salvador Dali and Pollock, Kahn's finesse with the plate is rarely matched by his peers. Although his avant-garde style is often imitated (and occasionally misunderstood), Kahn's presentations have impressed us since our first meeting with him in 2005, when he worked as pastry cook at Per Se and assisted our 2005 New York Rising Star Pastry Chef Sebastien-Rouxel.

But the suggestion that Kahn's a chef-artist makes him pause: "In the art world, it's not considered narcissistic," Kahn says of his reluctance toward the label. "Take it out of that medium, and the label itself is hard for most chefs to swallow." But watching him plate a dish—a quiet calm surrounded by the buzz of his busy restaurant—has the power to move, as an artist painting a portrait can captivate passers-by. "The way I look at it, every time you send a plate out, it's a small, little piece of yourself that you are letting go," he says. "I do approach my cuisine the way an artist would approach a painting."

»Click to enlarge

Pear, Wild Anise, Cream, Raw Chestnut, Mead Syrup Infused with Pear Skins, and Pistachio Amberjack, Red Seaweed, Buttermilk, Lotus Root, Tapioca, and Finger Lime Wagyu Beef, Crème Fraîche, Garlic Chive, Cashews, Lovage, and Charred Cucumber

Kahn says his creative offspring "is emotion-based, not looking through cookbooks and online for different things." Instead, the chef looks at a plate as "how we are trying to describe ourselves and what we are trying to say about cuisine," pulling inspiration from color and artists (the wild imaginings of Brit Andy Goldsworthy have most recently struck his fancy). "I don't necessarily pair ingredients that go well together. I pair more with colors," he says of his brightly hued dishes. "Find me three yellow things that will all taste good together—banana, turmeric, and passion [fruit]—for me it's always mostly been about color and balance."

Often the dish begins with one ingredient and its complexion. In his Heirloom Black Carrots, Guava, Winter Kales, Dulse, Young Walnuts, and Tamarind, Kahn started with black knight carrots, an earthy, dark-hued vegetable. The dish then becomes a study on Goth aesthetics: each item shares the dusky coloring. First Kahn roasts the carrots to a silky texture over dark coals. He also cooks young walnuts with sugar until they're black, and finishes the dish with fried dulce (a sea lettuce), purple Windsor kale, and tamarind syrup. It's pop art style, and not just in the coloring: the rich, earthy flavors of the carrot, tamarind, and young walnuts pop against the pairing of floral guava syrup and crisp, lightly dressed kale.

Much of his inspiration also comes from the environment around him, specifically the hillsides of nearby Malibu, where he forages for sea greens, wild lettuce, and herbs in the early morning. "Going out and finding all these things, it gives us a lot of energy. It's one of our favorite things to do," says Kahn of the team's culinary expeditions. "It's really easy to be inspired by where we are."

And his presentations often build off these foraging trips. Take Amberjack, Red Seaweed, Buttermilk, Lotus Root, Tapioca, and Finger Lime, a veritable aquarium on the plate. The red seaweed offers salinity, the amberjack has that clean ocean flavor, and Kahn's fish sauce-infused tapioca and finger limes become bright bursts of "roe." "The watercress [a garnish] grows in the water, and this dish looks like it's in the water," he says.

Charred Leeks, Taro “Vichyssoise,” Parsley Root, Chinese Celery, Vietnamese Herbs, and Smoked Tofu
Charred Leeks, Taro “Vichyssoise,” Parsley Root, Chinese Celery, Vietnamese Herbs, and Smoked Tofu

Kahn's startling creative prowess results in part from his young age, 28, and an unusually early start in the profession. Inspired by The French Laundry Cookbook (a gift for his 13th birthday), the Savannah, Georgia, native thrust himself at the age of 15 into nearby kitchens, then quickly enrolled and graduated through a Johnson and Wales program (in eight months to boot). And at 17, he found himself the youngest cook (ever) to work inside The French Laundry's hallowed walls.

Kahn went from working with Kellar to Grant Achatz, refining the techniques and creativity that define his signature style—and picking up the quiet demeanor of the dedicated, mad-scientist pastry chef along the way. After Alinea, Kahn headed to New York City and to his first pastry chef post at Varietal, and then later landed on the West Coast as a pastry chef consultant for Michael Mina. (And we eagerly followed his tracks along the way.)

And after years of pastry fine-dining experience, it may seem odd that Kahn's first solo venture is a savory one, a partnership with 2010 LA Rising Star Adam Fleischman of Umami Burger fame. But we saw his sweet-savory crossover during his 2007 and 2010 ICC presentations, and the simple-yet-suave décor of Red Medicine, paired with a rock-and-roll soundtrack, is the perfect contrast of elements to set the stage for Kahn's inventive cuisine.

Red Medicine is also Kahn's imagining of 3am Chinatown grub fests: a cure-all for the aches and pains of the industry. It's an exciting place to hang out, and an exciting place to work, according to Kahn's Chef de Cuisine Ari Kolender. "Brainstorming with him on new dishes is the funnest part," Kolender says. "We just throw around ideas and have fun with it."

In Kahn's mind, we gather, it's a bit more than just throwing ideas around. Instead, the Red Medicine is a kitchen full of wild herbs, foraged sea lettuces, and a comprehensive assortment of Los Angeles' Asian pantry supplies, all at the ready for the fearless chef—ready to face any critic or push down preconceived notions of his work—to plate (or paint) his next work of art. And we can't wait to see the innovative, inspirational results every time.