Not many chefs would leave prized posts at restaurants like The French Laundry, Per Se and Alinea to eventually cook casual Vietnamese food. However, for Jordan Kahn, those decisions were part of a natural progression, a personal manifest destiny that led from Savannah to Beverly Hills. Kahn’s latest decision involves teaming with former Mina Group beverage director Noah Ellis and Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman on Red Medicine, a contemporary Vietnamese restaurant in Beverly Hills.
Kahn’s fascination with food began in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia. His mother and her family all came from Cuba. Beginning at age of four, he joined his grandmother in the kitchen, learning to cook dishes like ropa vieja, moros y cristianos, platanos maduros, tostones and tasajo. To this day, he still considers her “easily the most amazing Cuban cook in the world, unparalleled,” and a couple times a year, when he can find the time, Kahn prepares a Cuban feast using her recipes.
His father also took food seriously. The Queens native baked fresh bread and sourced herbs from the backyard garden. “Scent is the strongest memory link,” recalls Kahn, “He was obsessed with [basil], so now, whenever I work with basil and have that smell on my hands, it’s really nostalgic.”
By age 11, Kahn embraced cooking and had discovered the Food Network and PBS, where he watched chefs like Graham Kerr (The Galloping Gourmet) and Julia Child. “Leaving school, instead of hanging out with friends, I’d just go home because I wanted to see the new Jacques Pepin,” he recalls.
In the fifth grade, Kahn started playing drums in power pop band called Seymour…which became a punk band…which became a metal band. His bandmates enjoyed the results of Kahn’s efforts in the kitchen and frequently asked him to make food. “Farfalle, at that point, was the coolest thing ever, so I’d sauté onions, olive oil, herbs and cheese,” says Kahn. “It was really simple, but I thought it was brilliant at the time.”
While most classmates were more concerned with sports and video games, Kahn was having culinary epiphanies. For Christmas at age 13, his mother bought him a copy of The French Laundry Cookbook. “I was like, ‘What is this?’ She said, ‘Oh, it’s a book I got at the store. It’s got really beautiful pictures.’” Kahn retreated to his room and read the book cover to cover, then did it again, and again, in a single day.
“It’s like reading arithmetic and reading about the work of a brilliant physicist when all you know so far is arithmetic,” says Kahn. “It doesn’t register. The importance of rabbits? A section on the importance of staff meal? I’m reading about straining sauces 30 times through a chinois, and I’m like, what’s a chinois? It sounds awesome. I want to strain a sauce 30 times through this magical device. Then it was pretty clear. I need to be a part of this. This is what I want to do.”
Kahn carried The French Laundry Cookbook everywhere and was so obsessed that he’d hide Keller’s book behind his literature textbook. “I wasn’t reading my lesson so my teacher would scold me and say, ‘Jordan, can you put that away please?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘I need to see you after class.” After class, I’d say, ‘I’m really sorry. It won’t happen again.’ My teacher would be like, ‘So, I’m trying to make this roasted chicken dish, but it’s drying out too much. What kind of oil are you using?’ They started asking cooking questions.”
During class, his mind would wander to the kitchen, which would inevitably lead to experimental menu writing. “After I learned about The French Laundry, I started going online and trying to download different menus, looking at other great restaurants,” says Kahn. “I remember L’Orangerie and going, oh, he’s got lobster with cinnamon in it. How inventive. So I’ve got these menus at my mom’s house, and she still lives in Savannah, so whenever I go home I like to look through them, cause it’s so hilarious. I was writing some of the craziest shit, because I had no idea what I was doing…I’d have like a quenelle – because I read about how to make a one-spoon quenelle in The French Laundry Cookbook – a quenelle of pigeon liver mousse with apricot sorbet, eucalyptus and something else. I’d never eaten any of those things individually, much less together, but it sounded interesting. It’s funny that years later I’m doing modern cuisine. I look at that stuff now and I think, hmm… I wasn’t too far off.”
At age 15, Kahn started working at Trattoria Rivazza, which is where he enjoyed one of his favorite meals up to that point, for his birthday. He washed dishes for about three months before transitioning to prep. Two of his regular duties consisted of cutting tomatoes for panzanella and cleaning squid, 100 pounds at a time. His tenacity led to the salad station, garde manger and finally, lead sauté on the hot line. “Towards the end I was running the entire lunch shift,” says Kahn. “I’d come in at eight on a Saturday and the next cook wouldn’t come in until about four in the afternoon.” He was handling 70 covers for lunch, “running back and forth between making salad and pizza.”
Kahn’s first mentor worked at Trattoria Revazzo, a chef named Blake Elsinghorst. He brought Kahn books like Le Cordon Bleu, French Techniques, James Patterson’s Sauces and Jacques Pepin. Kahn ate it up.
Elsinghorst left to work at a place right next door called Sapphire Grill, and he invited Kahn to join him. “Sapphire Grill was the shit in Savannah,” says Kahn. “That was the only place in town serving foie gras, the only place in town serving truffles. It was serious.”
“It was really small, with five guys in the kitchen,” says Kahn. “They started me on pastry, which was the easiest station there. I learned basic stuff, how to make custards, mousses…I would do the flatbreads, and I’d cross over to salads and garde manger to help out.”
Elsinghorst introduced Kahn to a number of new foods. “The first time I saw foie gras in person was there, with him,” says Kahn. “I’d seen it in The French Laundry Cookbook. This was grade B, and they had grade A. He says, ‘Do you want to try it?’ I said, ‘Is it weird?’ He said, ‘No, it’s duck liver.’ I said, ‘It sounds weird.’ Young kid from the South, duck liver doesn’t pop up as being delicious. He said, ‘I’ll make it for you in a way that you like it.’ This was so smart, and to this day, I tell people who don’t like foie gras to try it this way. He sautéed it – seared foie – and then slipped it underneath the skin of a chicken breast, and then he pan-roasted the chicken breast. When you cut it and take a bite, he said, ‘Foie gras makes chicken taste better.’ He was right. It was delicious. I couldn’t believe it.”
Sapphire Grill is also where Kahn first tasted raw fish. “He sliced me a big piece off of a loin of tuna and said, ‘Jordan, taste this.’ I said, ‘No, it’s raw.’ He said, ‘Let me make this clear. It’s very important that you learn to like this.’ I tried it, swallowed it. Every day, it was tuna, and I started to develop the taste. It makes sense. It’s important for you to learn to like stuff, even if you don’t like it, which I always thought was kind of brilliant.”
To celebrate Jordan Kahn’s graduation, his mother took him to Mecca: The French Laundry. “At that point, I knew the book front to back and cover to cover. They served me dishes and I knew what was in it when they served it to me, but I’d never tasted any of that stuff. That was still, to this day, the greatest meal of my life.”
This meal also marked the first time that Kahn met Thomas Keller. “I went to the breezeway and had my French Laundry Cookbook,” remembers Kahn. “I was so nervous. I can’t remember what I said. I was like, ‘Hey…everything was very good…Can you sign this for me…I want to work for you one day.’ I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he was like, ‘Come back and see us when you’re older. Keep on practicing and learning. If you have the drive, eventually you can make it.’” Kahn considers this a “life changing experience.”
Kahn was so bent on cooking that he graduated three months early from high school in order to attend Johnson & Wales, in Charleston, South Carolina. “It seemed like any restaurant you went to, you’d see the Johnson & Wales blue neckerchief,” says Kahn. “Now I was in this different culture. I’m in this culinary city now.”
Kahn was looking for externships and Sapphire Grill chef Chris Nason directed him to chef Bob Waggoner at the Charleston Grill. “I went to chef Bob and said, ‘I’m going to school, I’m sure you have tons of externs in back. I really will bust my ass. I’m hungry for it. I want it, and I’m trying to work my way up to work in The French Laundry. That’s my ultimate goal.’ He’s just impressed that I knew what it was. He said to me, ‘I’d love to hire you, but we don’t have a position available. Sorry. The only thing we have is a position in pastry coming available in a couple weeks. Have you ever done pastry?’”
Kahn started in the pastry department working for chef Vincenz Aschbacher. “He coached me a lot and taught me a lot,” says Kahn. I was always the one trying to push the envelope. I was like, what if we did basil sauce or licorice sauce? To which he replied, ‘Basi Licorice? People don’t want basil in dessert.’ It was the South, and that was unheard of at the time. He wanted me to be more grounded, chocolate, vanilla, caramel, banana, things like that. I was always trying to do more interesting stuff, and I don’t even know why.”
“After a month in culinary school, I realized that I hated it,” says Kahn. “They didn’t seem serious about cooking. It was just like high school, people copying off each other, people fucking around and not taking it seriously. I was like, you guys are paying fucking money to go here and you’re joking around. It was kind of idiotic. So I talked to my professor, and I went and talked to my guidance counselor, then I went to speak to the Dean. I said, “This isn’t really working for me. I saved up. I got a scholarship, and I went through a lot to come here and I don’t feeling like I’m getting a lot out of it.” He replied, “Well, we have an advanced course for people who have worked in the restaurant industry beforehand, but it might be too difficult for you.” I was interested. “What does that entail?” He said, “You have to take a series of tests.” “Okay, when can I start?” They were a little bit hesitant because I was still 16, but I ended up taking them anyway, and I took a written, a practical and an oral. I passed all of it. I think I only missed two or three questions on the written. So I got a two-year associate’s degree in eight months.”
Near the end of his stay at Johnson & Wales, Kahn wrote Thomas Keller a six-page letter with one central message: “I really want to work for you. I’ll work for you for free for five years. I don’t care. I’ll do whatever it takes.” He eventually returned home to find an e-mail from Thomas Keller. It took him two hours to even open the e-mail, he was so nervous. When Kahn finally built up the nerve, the e-mail read, “Thank you Jordan for your inquiry. We received your letter. We have a three-month stage position coming available at the end of the month if you would like to…” That was it. The opportunity of my life! So I packed my shit and drove across country with no paying job in sight. It was a dream come true.”