We all want to innovate, to create meaningful new things that people love. Once in a while someone delivers at an extraordinary level, devoting themselves to expressing themselves so personally and authentically that they inspire us to seek greatness in ourselves to share.
I was fortunate enough to experience such a leap forward—unexpectedly and contrary to my expectations, as I’ll explain. I’m not a restaurant critic, nor a musician, and my goal is not to praise Jordan Kahn or his Culver City, Los Angeles establishment, Vespertine. Few readers will be able to experience Vespertine in person. As a teacher and writer on leadership and initiative, my experience compelled me to share how even in a field combed over for novelty for generations, even centuries, dimensions of new possibility are available.
If you lived in the time of Bach, could you have imagined a Mozart opera or Beethoven symphony? It took Mozart and Beethoven to create them, so very few could.
To say that the later musicians added new dimensions to music takes nothing from Bach as an artist. I love the Brandenburg Concertos and always will, but Mozart’s operas involve many more instruments, many more performers of different types (singers, players of instruments, a conductor), architectural design, ornate sets, wardrobes of clothing, and the contributions of teams of people, many geniuses themselves, who devote careers to deliver a complete, comprehensive work—performers, architects, financiers, carpenters, and more.
Every great artist cares about every detail, but Mozart added dimension and scope of type of details to care for. Earlier generations could not likely have envisioned the scope.
The Paris opera house and Lincoln Center are not just other buildings to play music in and seeing an opera in a great opera house is not just hearing some music. It’s an event. An evening at a world-class opera or symphony will affect you for years, maybe the rest of your life. I remember operas I saw in decades ago. The experience begins months before an evening’s performance, before buying the ticket. You learn about the event, its history, the artists. You see how it fits into your life. You accommodate it.
It unfolds in countless ways beyond “just” the music: how you emerge from your vehicle, walk up the entry stairs, interact with other patrons, are greeted and directed by staff, applaud, and so on.
Mozart’s operas required vision and execution beyond Bach’s and his contemporaries’. We can’t compare Bach to Mozart as artists—each is unique—but we’re damn glad Mozart did what he did. No one wants music to stagnate with later composers fiddling around the edges of what Bach nearly perfected.
Jordan Kahn’s Vespertine is a Mozart opera amid Bachs in the culinary arts.
To say you ate dinner at Vespertine (from the Latin vesper, “of the evening” or “evening star”) implies a regular restaurant experience, which it isn’t. An evening there involves more dimensions, evolving in space, time, color, sound, and more. It involves the whole building. You actively move from room to room and floor to floor, unpuzzling food you remember seeing prepared as you passed the kitchen an hour or two before. The architect’s voice matters. The manufacturer of the bowls and the land from which its materials were mined matters.
Every great chef pays attention to every detail. Kahn added dimensions and scope of type of detail. The experience begins months before, with research and figuring out how to fit it into your life, figuring out what to expect from articles like this one. It unfolds in countless ways beyond “just” the food, and lasts with you a lifetime.
I’ve long marveled how the same elements—color, shape, line, form, rhythm, melody, and composition, for example—apply in different arts with parallel meanings. A novel or poem contains rhythm as a song does. Composition involves space in painting, time in music, and multiple dimensions in sculpture, yet we recognize the same underlying meaning of composition.
Before Vespertine, I hadn’t noticed culinary artists using all those elements. Composition might mean how the chef arranged food on a plate or designed a room and matching menu. At Vespertine it involves more. It uses elements I’m not aware of chefs using, as Mozart expanded beyond the limits of his time.
One early hint in my evening: when arranging my reservations, I mentioned that I was staying within walking distance and could meet my companion at Vespertine. They suggested we arrive by car together—the valet and greeter receiving us would be part of the experience. They were, as was the space where we waited outside, the temperature of the furniture we sat on that chilly evening, the sight lines to Vespertine the building (the restaurant uses the entire several-story building, which reveals itself throughout the evening), the scents, the garden, the first tastes of the evening, how we entered the building, and how we came to expect the evening to unfold.
The night unfolded in distinct scenes and acts, using elements in time and space, with rhythm and melody, of color, form, shape, and composition. Kahn told a story beyond what I thought a restaurant could.
The beginning of my evening
I’m risking overly florid language because of how my evening began, when I was predisposed to dislike the experience. As a New Yorker, I learned of Kahn and Vespertine while researching food and sustainability panelists at an industry event in Greenwich Village a few months before.
Online, I read Kahn in interviews saying he transformed food so you couldn’t tell where it came from. I prefer my food minimally processed, to show off the vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, and all the ingredients for their innate beauty and taste. I’ve been known to call processing or covering them with salt, sugar, and fat assaulting or molesting them.
I found the videos on the site too attention-getting. I didn’t see the point of talking about the building in interviews so much. I could go on, but I wasn’t that interested in seeing more.
Things changed at the panel. Each panelist talked revenue models, funding sources, and other business first, taste second. Kahn wasn’t a panelist. He came on after and prepared food, interactively, describing each ingredient’s origin, its place in nature, its role in sustainability, his experiments to learn it, how and why he processed each as he did, the point of his combining them, and other parts of his craft. His presentation struck me as more honest than rehearsed, from the heart as much as from the hands and head.
Experiencing the ingredients transformed—yes processed, but the opposite of assaulted—after knowing why, then tasting the results revealed a different purpose to the processing, based in caring and personal expression. The result told a story in flavors and textures over time of tart, sour, sweet, crunch, chewy, oil, crisp, and so on. He didn’t process to cover, hide, or assault, but, in my view, to express his appreciation for the plants, fungi, and microorganisms that went into this simple dish.
I felt I experienced art amid businesspeople. Since I knew I would visit L.A. a few months later, I began looking into an evening there. The place seats only 22 people per evening.
The actual evening began with lunch at Kahn’s casual restaurant across the street, Destroyer, whose layout is more mainstream, though its open kitchen allowed me to see Kahn and his team at work and to speak briefly. Vespertine, the building, was visible, but mysterious. What was the relationship between its style and the food that Kahn’s videos and interviews described?
About 24 hours later, my companion picked me up from around the corner and we arrived. After the aforementioned welcome, the staff walked us in, told us to take the elevator up, to where Kahn greeted us, standing before another open kitchen, or area of food preparation, because it didn’t look like a kitchen. What his team was preparing, I couldn’t guess from looking. He walked us up more stairs, giving more view of the floor.
A staff member sat us at a bench. The staff alternated between bringing us food, giving us space, serving neighbors, explaining what was in the food, and answering questions. The descriptions created as much mystery as they answered. The dishes, utensils, and napkins were various shades of black, their textures various shades of earth. There was rhythm between the architectural design and clothing, between seeing the food prepared an hour before its presentation, and between the periods of sitting and walking to new rooms.
There was line, shape, color, and form also in time and space, not merely physical lines of the tables or walls, but of the experience. Every restaurant composes the food on the plate. Vespertine’s composed our countless and various interactions—walking, talking, eating, listening, overhearing, climbing, descending, entering, exiting, and so on—into a composed, curated, orchestrated evening.
Each dish was a character in its scene, with a back story giving it depth, development to carry me forward, relationships with every other character, and plot twists to keep me interested. How the giant kelp was served related to the spruce about ten courses later. The split cone from which emerged a hidden garden (I can’t explain it better) resonated with the open sphere I spelunked to find submerged treats beneath subterranean pools of frankly I don’t know what.
Every dish was presented simply, yet became complex as you broke it open, cracked the surface, sought the ingredients the server mentioned, and otherwise solved what Kahn and his team riddled for you. Initial discoveries yielded new mysteries, which yielded delights, wonderment, and fun. Each scene stood on its own while arising from the scene before and propelling to the next. That is, each dish, absent the rest of the Vespertine experience, was delicious, harmonious, and the equal of any dish I’ve had at any regular restaurant, as each Mozart song would stand on its own.
It would be a mistake to think the food, wine, and service dominated the evening. On the contrary, despite the artistry, it prompted and supported meaningful reflections and conversation. Great art adds to, not distracts from life and relationships. For all its artistry, Vespertine didn’t overpower but nourished.
Over a dozen courses later—a story with many plot twists—we left, amid curtain calls of tastes, scents, and staff members as we traversed and explored the outdoor garden nearby which we entered.
I received an email reminding me of some of the evening’s players: giant kelp. Sea lettuce, burnt onion, black currant, salsify, abalone mushrooms, concord grape, tradescantia (a wildflower), rose apple, almond, radish, yam, smoked soy, salted plum, leek, rose, begonia, pumpkin, guava, sunchoke, lovage, parsnip, juniper, . . . that’s about half the list.
I’m writing these words six weeks after the event. The writer in me felt challenged to communicate the experience authentically, accurately, and helpfully and it took this long to digest.