For weeks, I kept get­ting nagged at by the mem­o­ry of some­thing I had heard years before about a restau­rant in Cal­i­for­nia, one that prid­ed itself on hav­ing no rec­og­niz­able style, no roots in con­ven­tion. After way too long search­ing, I final­ly turned it up: the chef Jor­dan Kahn’s Ves­per­tine in Cul­ver City, housed in its own Eric Owen Moss building.

Why was I get­ting hung up on that idea of being unprece­dent­ed? I think that in a time where every­one presents them­selves as car­ry­ing on a tra­di­tion, there is some­thing hon­est about com­ing out and say­ing that you are try­ing to be, in the words of Vespertine’s ini­tial press release, nei­ther root­ed in tra­di­tion nor culture…from a time that is yet to be, and a place that does not exist.” I feel the same pull when I try to posit a land­scape design that would actu­al­ly be worth doing – thanks to tra­di­tion, just as every­one can cook and cook some­thing worth eat­ing, every­one can land­scape and make a land­scape worth being in. So what does a pro­fes­sion­al stand to add, beyond tak­ing the bur­den of doing so off the wealthy? The answers can range from the like­ly and not very vir­tu­ous (avoid­ing bore­dom, mak­ing a rep­u­ta­tion) to the noble and not very like­ly (pio­neer­ing some­thing bet­ter, doing some­thing new for the sake of it). As the promis­es and poten­tials of tra­di­tion and cul­ture start to pall for more pro­fes­sion­als, it seems like­ly that his­to­ry will revert once again to being the night­mare from which you are try­ing to awake. 

That said, if you look at how Kahn is actu­al­ly doing, you do not have to dig very far to find roots. First, Kahn is pret­ty clear­ly sig­nal­ing prece­dents in cul­ture – maybe just not prece­dents in restau­rant cul­ture. Why did Kahn piv­ot from a restau­rant named Red Med­i­cineI am also a fan and I know this is a very 90s way of think­ing but — Bev­er­ly Hills? to one named Ves­per­tine? Well, because you can get social­ly reward­ed for cer­tain gam­bits in music that you typ­i­cal­ly can’t get away with in cui­sine. Like their name­sakes, you could call both of these restau­rants exper­i­men­tal, but in dif­fer­ent spir­its. Red Medicine’s house per­sona bal­anced the aggro with the vir­tu­ous, doxxing restau­rant crit­ics by night and for­ag­ing for ingre­di­ents in the San­ta Mon­i­ca Moun­tains by day. Ves­per­tine came billed as anti-loca­vore,” and Googled reserved din­ers to tai­lor their expe­ri­ence in advance. To stay with music ref­er­ences, on the face of it, you could trace a Grime­sian arc here, where what starts out as a scrap­py provo­ca­tion runs up against its lim­its and starts to shift char­ac­ter entire­ly. A cer­tain cre­ative per­son­al­i­ty, that is, will stop being sat­is­fied with the tools at hand and start look­ing to patron­age to achieve some­thing total­ly different. 

corn terraria
Various corn terraria at Red Medicine.

And in terms of roots, Kahn is hap­py enough to keep the cul­tur­al con­ven­tion of the lux­u­ry restau­rant intact in order to make his visions pos­si­ble. The expe­ri­ence of Ves­per­tine, for­bid­ding and exclu­sive, eas­i­ly fits today’s default assump­tion about the future – that self-delud­ed plu­to­crats will retreat into dreams and pull up the lad­der behind them. It seems, in that light, like noth­ing more than an ear­ly test run for the world of Blade Run­ner 2049. The neg­a­tive reviews reach pre­dictably and eas­i­ly for the Emperor’s New Clothes trope, assum­ing that in not fill­ing and not pleas­ing peo­ple Kahn is nec­es­sar­i­ly a grifter liv­ing off the gullible ultra­rich. It is treat­ed as being so self-evi­dent that a lux­u­ry meal is only acces­si­ble to rob­ber barons that I feel bound to point out that even now most of the mid­dle class could prob­a­bly stand to part with hun­dreds of dol­lars on a meal if they want­ed to – have you looked at what tick­ets to the Super Bowl cost? And as oth­ers have point­ed out, the spoils in this case seem insuf­fi­cient giv­en the amount of work Kahn is obvi­ous­ly putting in to his hustle. 

For me, the most com­pelling cul­tur­al con­straint Kahn is work­ing with­in – and the one he spends the most ener­gy con­test­ing – is the lim­it­ed set of organ­isms and min­er­als known to be edi­ble to peo­ple. Kahn keeps up with her­itage grains, region­al herbs, but­ter­fly pea drinks — things that read as new” to glo­be­trot­ters – so that, in the end, a nun­nish serv­er can inform you that the bent gold­en sheet in front of you involves a yuzu reduc­tion. Vespertine’s staff might guess from their din­ers’ online pro­files that while a small per­cent­age might not know what yuzu is, the major­i­ty will accept it as a pres­tige ingre­di­ent and look for­ward to see­ing Kahn’s spin on it. You don’t have to read this as being nefar­i­ous – Kahn is part of a con­ver­sa­tion in food where some top­ics are more cur­rent than oth­ers. But it’s worth­while here to con­trast what he does with anoth­er recent gam­bit in cui­sine, the Note by Note con­cept, which tries to cre­ate whol­ly nov­el foods direct­ly through chem­i­cal com­pounds. Why isn’t Kahn mak­ing the pres­tige equiv­a­lent of White Mys­tery Airheads? 

My guess, hav­ing put in a cer­tain amount of time try­ing to lis­ten to musique con­créte, is that there is very lit­tle social cur­ren­cy to some­thing total­ly unprece­dent­ed – if noth­ing else, because there is noth­ing else to relate it to. Put anoth­er way, an abstrac­tion is social­ly suc­cess­ful if it can be read as the con­tin­u­a­tion of real­ism by oth­er means. Any­thing that is appre­ci­at­ed for its for­mal qual­i­ties is firm­ly stuck to oth­er par­tic­u­lar ref­er­ences in the world, usu­al­ly via the glue of wide­ly shared human pref­er­ences. An Agnes Mar­tin paint­ing derives its val­ue from the qual­i­ties of its line and col­or, but in a way that can’t be sep­a­rat­ed from its resem­blance to graph paper (a supreme­ly sat­is­fy­ing man­u­fac­tured object) or the way that it sig­nals the pres­ence of a patient and thought­ful person. 

There is an unstat­ed bal­ance, then, as real and pre­car­i­ous as one of Kahn’s con­struc­tions, between social sig­nalling and cre­at­ing exact­ly what you want to make, between prece­dent and inno­va­tion. Kahn’s glo­be­trot­ting to source arti­sanal pot­tery – and will­ing­ness to share this fact in the press cov­er­age – is not clean­ly sep­a­ra­ble from his desire to make a din­er keen­ly feel the black­ness of a dish. To put it anoth­er way, what is Björk doing when she includes a choir of Inu­it women as part of her Ves­per­tine tour? Includ­ing, impress­ing, intro­duc­ing, exploit­ing; quot­ing, unprecedenting?

one dish
Images from the late Jonathan Gold's LA TIMES review. Is Kahn his own best landscape architect?
Images from the late Jonathan Gold's LA TIMES review. Is Kahn his own best landscape architect?

What would it mean to start a land­scape as fresh as pos­si­ble, with­out pri­or ref­er­ences? You would imme­di­ate­ly hit Kahn’s con­straints. First, even if you tried to dis­card aes­thet­ic cues from past land­scape design, you would prob­a­bly end up import­ing the stan­dards of anoth­er art. Sec­ond, your whole enter­prise would have to be under­writ­ten by some­one else’s cap­i­tal, and so serve their social real­i­ty. And third, you would be con­strained by the avail­able world of mate­ri­als and plants, as well as the phys­i­cal dimen­sions of peo­ple – for fear not of mak­ing some­thing impos­si­ble but mak­ing some­thing incommunicable. 

In the course of some very enjoy­able research in an unfa­mil­iar field, I have yet to see any­one remark on the expe­ri­ence of Vespertine’s gar­den, attrib­uted to Moss and stamped by Land Images. It might pass as unprece­dent­ed” to the unini­ti­at­ed, but it could have been made by Gar­rett Eck­bo in a whim­si­cal mood. The basic idea is to cast the shad­ow of Moss’ waf­fle” on the ground, with din­ers and servers cross­ing stepped humps to get into per­son­al din­ing pods. Tall grass­es in cant­ed planters have grown up to half-screen the din­ers from one anoth­er; they rise up from loose­ly lin­ear slosh­es of land­form poured against con­crete fur­ni­ture. This com­po­si­tion sits inert inside the prop­er­ty line, fac­ing onto some CMUs and the man­dat­ed acces­si­ble park­ing in a way that is all too con­tex­tu­al to stereo­typ­i­cal Los Ange­les. What would a land­scape archi­tect of com­pa­ra­ble resolve have done here? And would it have been worth it? 

Inso­far as land­scap­ing has any val­ue to oth­er arts, it is in hav­ing to be under­stood as a net­work of mutu­al con­straints. While we tend to, for very good rea­sons, respect the known con­straints, we do not spend the time or ener­gy to find new con­straints for famil­iar, or semi-famil­iar, mate­ri­als. I hang my hopes on the new wild” of a place like Ascen­sion Island because it shows the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a new ecol­o­gy, where old species find new pos­si­bil­i­ties of coex­is­tence with­in their indi­vid­ual capabilities.

vespertine garden early
how it started; photo via http://ericowenmoss.com/project-detail/vespertine/
vespertine garden late
how it's going; photo via https://rottenapplesandotherdelights.com/2020/01/12/vespertine-november-14-2019/

Fin­gers crossed, Ves­per­tine has made it near­ly five years in, includ­ing one of the worst years that could be imag­ined for the restau­rant busi­ness. For­tu­nate­ly, it was also one of the best years ever for the rul­ing class. In a weepy piece from last May, Bill Addi­son described the expe­ri­ence of get­ting $100 in take­out from Ves­per­tine with a friend. In addi­tion to keep­ing the staff on pay­roll and insur­ance, the restaurant’s menu had piv­ot­ed to explic­it ref­er­ences from Kahn’s past – his family’s his­to­ry in Mex­i­co, his own upbring­ing in the South. Addi­son reflects:

Where is the place for art­ful cre­ativ­i­ty dur­ing a world­wide cri­sis? Peo­ple are suf­fer­ing and dying. Tens of mil­lions have lost their jobs; some of L.A.’s best restau­rants already have closed per­ma­nent­ly. There’s lit­tle band­width for dif­fi­cult” books or films or chal­leng­ing, abstruse food. Dif­fi­cul­ty is oppres­sive and unpleas­ant; you can be dif­fi­cult only in times when you can waste a meal.

Band­width? Not that I had the chance, but I can hard­ly imag­ine a bet­ter time for a sup­per of bit­ter herbs, for sit­ting qui­et­ly and look­ing care­ful­ly at what is on the end of my fork. And I can only imag­ine masks would have fit the Ves­per­tine expe­ri­ence. Kahn, nat­u­ral­ly, is a Sleep No More fan. The real prob­lem was only in part­ing with the mon­ey, since mon­ey had sud­den­ly become more pre­cious, since nobody knew what would hap­pen next. 

(May 2021)