Interview: Jordan Kahn: Renegade, Manifest Destiny and Red Medicine (Part 2)

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On Jordan Kahn’s first day at The French Laundry, sous chef Gregory Short immediately pressed him into service. Thomas Keller’s culinary lieutenant asked Kahn to drive to a nearby farm and fill eight palettes with figs. The task seemed simple enough, until he learned how tall a fig tree can grow. “I’m at least 20 or 30 feet in the air,” recalls Kahn. “I reach for a fig and I’m almost slipping, but I didn’t fall. I’m okay. I’m in my clogs and apron reaching for a fig for Thomas Keller. I almost died, but I thought, this is amazing.”

Kahn worked for three months in savory, handling stocks and brunoise, shucking corn, juicing beets, making powders, cleaning greens and “learning the fundamentals of how a kitchen operated.” In his three-month stage, he never touched a single piece of food that went straight on a diner’s plate, and it was uncertain whether he’d be able to remain at The French Laundry at all. However, Kahn had built a rapport with pastry chef Sebastien Rouxel. Kahn routinely peppered him with questions, and after he expressed his interest to chef de cuisine Eric Ziebold in staying at the restaurant, Rouxel welcomed him into pastry, which was, once again, the only position available. “It was kind of meant to be, or at least a coincidence,” says Kahn. “I was officially a pastry chef de commis at The French Laundry, making $20,000 a year, and it was awesome.”

In his first year at The French Laundry, Kahn routinely arrived at 4:30 AM and left at 8 PM, six days a week. Despite the grueling schedule, Kahn still has fond memories of this stretch, and of Rouxel. “Sebastien, he is my mentor, 100%,” he says. “I learned most of what I know from him. Not only did he help me grow, but he helped me grow in my own way.”

When Kahn started at The French Laundry, he viewed the desserts as “simple, perfectly executed, and really, really classic.” However, Rouxel was open to suggestions, and Kahn had ideas to spare.

For example, every year, Rouxel made an Alsatian-style rhubarb tart, which Kahn described as “the greatest thing in the world.” The rhubarb tart featured a streusel top, brown butter frangipane, and Grenadine- and sugar-cured rhubarb. They were entering rhubarb season and Rouxel announced his plans to make the tart. “I was a geek,” says Kahn, “so I knew it was a punched-out round, and they did a quenelle crème fraiche on top with a rhubarb chip. I was like, ‘Would it be cool if we cut it like a bar and spread it out on the plate a little bit?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, we can try it.’ ‘Instead of crème fraiche sorbet, what about vinegar?’ He was like, ‘You can’t do a vinegar sorbet.’ I was like, ‘Let me make one and see how it turns out.’ I made a white balsamic vinegar sorbet…it wasn’t brilliant, but he kind of knew where it was going and knew it needed to be lightened up.” That was the first dish that they ever worked on together, and from that point on, Rouxel allowed Kahn to contribute.

“I’ve always done food that was unique and different, but not weird for the sake of being weird,” says Kahn. “If I do some unusual flavor combination now, it’s the norm. But before I ever knew about all that, I was kind of personally attracted to it for some reason.”

Rouxel began to trust Kahn, who eventually was the only pastry pro working in The French Laundry kitchen on certain nights. “I was in charge of the entire pastry station 3 nights a week at The French Laundry by myself, 100 covers, 2-3 courses each,” recalls Kahn. “Everything has to be perfect, so we had silver trays of mignardises that had about nine different items on it, and some of them had to be done a la minute, so you were cooking items for mignardises and completing financier and sorbet courses while you’re also taking something out of the oven for a larger course. You were non-stop for the entire service. That was great.”

Kahn’s hard worked paid off. Rouxel invited his protégée to be on the opening pastry team at Per Se. “I think on some level Sebastien trusted me to help propel our desserts forward,” says Kahn. “He was always there to keep us on track and cohesive, while I was always there trying to make our desserts more complex than they already were.”

Keller clearly noticed Kahn’s contributions. He requested a meeting, and Kahn remembers his idol saying something to the effect of, “Your work ethic is great, your food is phenomenal, and you work well with people. And we’re looking at doing some other things, expanding in the future, and we’re talking about promoting Sebastien to corporate pastry chef. We’re going to need somebody to take over the pastry team at Per Se, and we think that in a few years, you might be ready to take on that role.” Kahn recalls, “At 21 years old, Thomas Keller was telling me that in a few years I might be the pastry chef of a 3 Michelin-star restaurant. That was the hardest thing I ever had to say, ‘No.’”

Instead of biding his time at Per Se, Kahn moved to Chicago, without a job, to work at Alinea, for a man he’d only met once: Grant Achatz. In Yountville, people would often compare Kahn to the Alinea mastermind, who previously worked at The French Laundry, and Kahn became intrigued. He said, “I remember looking at Grant’s food at Trio, and I was like, this is the next step that I need to be.”

When Achatz had eaten at Per Se, Kahn was ready for him. “I really wanted to work for him,” recalls Kahn, “so I was super nervous and prepped for four days, making the most elaborate dishes that I could, to try and wow him…I was doing smoke vapors (before it became cool) and all kinds of progressive techniques in the Per Se dining room, where it really had no business being.” After the meal, Achatz came into the kitchen, shook Kahn’s hand and said, “Nice job, chef.”

That validation inspired Kahn to follow up with an e-mail, and Achatz didn’t exactly respond how he’d hoped. “We’d love to hire you, but right now, the kitchen is stocked…If you’d be willing to be a food runner for a few months, I’m sure a position will open up.” Kahn ran food for two months at Alinea, gladly. “I learned so much about front of the house,” says Kahn. “I always recommend that chefs spend at least a little time in the front of the house as a food runner, not as a server. You learn a lot about how the beast operates. Typically, your view of the operations of a restaurant are very one-sided. You’re sort of the liaison, so you understand how something here affects there, and vice versa, but you can literally see it.

Kahn appreciated the unexpected opportunity, but still noted how grueling the job was, explaining, “Upstairs they had about 45 seats, and everything at Alinea went out on a big, heavy tray…The tray itself weighs like 10 pounds. Then Grant’s putting these giant plates of food on them. Then there’s this dish he always does with vapors, so there’s a large bowl with flowers in it. Then he has another bowl with the food inside it to be placed on the flower bowl and you pour hot water inside it tableside, so you get flower vapor. ‘Runner please.’ So you’d walk up, and the chef would put out four of these giant bowls (which means 8), then carry 2 large pitchers filled with scalding hot water, and you’d have to take it upstairs. This thing weighed like 55 pounds. I lost like so much weight in those two months.”

The hard work once again paid off, since after two months, Kahn got called up to the big leagues…again. While Kahn was a runner, he made sure that pastry chef Alex Stupak was well aware of his desire to work in pastry. “We’d talk a lot and he and I were actually working on dishes together before I’d even worked in the kitchen,” says Kahn. “After I got on the station, we meshed really well and became best friends.”

One of the very first dishes they collaborated on at Alinea was a dish that Stupak became famous for, a twisted chocolate ganache. “If you ever see someone do a sliced ganache, that’s him,” says Kahn. “Anyway, we did this twisted chocolate ganache with lime ice cream, avocado puree, mint and cocoa. He even did it on the opening menu when he moved to WD-50.”

Kahn calls his time at Alinea “a fucking incredible experience.” He enjoyed “going from a chef like Thomas who preached a lot about classics and simplicity and perfection, to a chef who has no rules like Grant.” After good friend Stupak left Alinea to work at WD-50, Kahn had a dilemma on his hands. Achatz called him into a meeting and asked if he wanted to take over and become the pastry chef. He considered Alinea “a tremendous experience,” but told Achatz that he couldn’t accept the position. As much as he loved the restaurant and the philosophy, Chicago just wasn’t for him. He was ready to return to New York.

The job market was tough at the time, so Kahn resorted to Craigslist, finding a Chelsea restaurant called Varietal that was looking for a creative pastry chef. He showed them some desserts that he’d done and they signed Kahn instantly. “I was doing really interesting, unusual desserts,” says Kahn. “At 23 I had the cover of Time Out New York. Food Arts. Art Culinaire, that was a really big deal.” However, nobody seemed to notice the savory food. Crowds were thin, and Varietal went out of business in six months.

When Varietal was in its death throes, Kahn called his friend Chris L’Hommedieu, who he worked with at Per Se. L’Hommedieu was, and is, the chef at Michael Mina‘s flagship San Francisco restaurant. Kahn relocated, replacing the outgoing pastry chef.

At that stage, Mina was primed for expansion, and corporate pastry chef Lincoln Carson needed help opening several restaurants over the next year, including Bourbon Steak and Saltwater in Detroit and Bourbon Steak in Miami and Scottsdale. Kahn signed on instantly.

Kahn explained his relationship with his boss and now good friend Lincoln Carson. “We’d go to a place, we’d establish what we needed to do and what the menu was and I’d put stuff together,” he says. “After a week or so, Lincoln would fly somewhere else, because at that time Michael had 12 other restaurants, so he had a lot of fires to put out. He’d send me to an opening, I’d have to train the staff and help finalize the menu. He’d put the station together, but I’d have to come in, take inventory, order product, train the staff, work service with them, get them up to speed and then leave in a month. I did that five times. Needless to say i got some really great experience opening restaurants.”

XIV was his final stop on the Michael Mina tour. “I started to read about L.A. and realized there were some interesting things, but not a whole lot,” says Kahn. “I’d never even been here before and I thought, L.A.’s an interesting place. I might want to open something there. XIV was a means for me to get here. I had a job. I could introduce myself to the city. Then when I did my own thing, I wasn’t a new guy in the city.”

“Working at XIV was great initially,” says Kahn, “because Michael wanted me to do my style of desserts at that restaurant. I told him, ‘Michael, I’ll work at XIV, but I don’t want to do it if we have a conversation in a week to change my food because you think it’s too adventurous or too unusual.’ He replied, ‘No, we want it to be cutting edge. We want it to be really cool.’ Okay then. Be careful what you wish for. After three months with SBE, Sam Nazarian doesn’t like any of the desserts and said, ‘Can’t you just make a simple chocolate cake.’ Well, so much for that. I had no choice. At XIV I met a lot of really good people. My cooks all were really, really good people and we built a really great relationship, but that place turned into a nightclub overnight, so it was time to leave.”

“I jumped around initially because I wanted to progress and move forward and learn as much as possible,” says Kahn. “Now it’s about finding the right fit to help build a lasting legacy. Here I am, sitting in my own restaurant. How crazy is that?”


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

Is there a way to get in touch with Jordan Kahn to get an interview on what inspires him to become such a great chef and drives him to be the best he can be? It’s partially for a school assignment but also is because I would like to find out more of what it takes to be in the culinary field.

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