There are few restaurants in the world as distinguished for their architecture as their menu as the Vespertine in Los Angeles. The first impressions of Vespertine’s umbra steel structure, designed by acclaimed architect Eric Owen Moss, are often reminiscent of a wildly conceptual structure – a “crazy architectural utopia”, a design that has won numerous architectural awards since its unveiling in 2017. Interior and industry has received and studied inspection, the design in its entirety shows a highly controlled and conceived space that has evolved to act as a spatial accomplice to its culinary counterpart, as conjured up by Chef Jordan Kahn. There is a method to his madness. Chef Kahn has taken up the abstractions entrusted by his architect and adopted Moss’ work as a physical totem in his own spirited work in the kitchen.
Vespertine’s sculptural footprint sits in an industrial corner of the Hayden Tract in Culver City and began with a pre-existing structure of Moss’ design, locally and affectionately known as the Waffle – a vertical pronunciation of the urban landscape that almost wobbled from below seems. In its curvaceous, latticed exterior, Vespertine functions as a multi-level dining experience in which Kahn’s guests are led upstairs and from the waffle into an outdoor garden, perhaps an abstraction of the food. The late great Jonathan Gold once described the dining experience awaiting him as “mandatory in the way that the James Turrell show was mandatory on LACMA” and otherworldly when he said, “You may as well be on Jupiter.”
Vespertine has been in operation for several years since it opened and has developed into something rare and special for every architectural project, but above all for every restaurant and its architecture: a landmark. We spoke to Chef Jordan Kahn about his collaboration with architect Eric Owen Moss and how Vespertine’s architecture has influenced his view of the dining experience.
How did the partnership between you and Eric Owen Moss come about?
My relationship with Moss started before I met him. I discovered a new building called “Waffle” that he had designed. The building was 60% complete when I first saw it, but it hit me in a way I had never felt before. From that point on, I became obsessed with the structure. I honestly didn’t know anything about Eric Owen Moss, Frederick and Laurie Smith, Hayden Tract, or avant-garde architecture. Still, I returned almost every night to wander the grounds and stare at the structure, fixed in shape and movement.
I always brought a screwdriver with me so I could break into the construction site without anyone knowing. I wandered around the building for hours wondering what it was exactly. After a few months of these secret visits, an idea took on a very loose shape. I got enough ideas to meet Moss and discuss my vision with him. My first meeting with [Moss] was fascinating. Our conversation was insightful and harmonious, but in some ways awkward as neither of us had the vocabulary to discuss each other’s work in detail. The reference to Ferran Adria and Antoni Gaudí proved very helpful.
I’ve read that Eric Owen Moss designed the restaurant regardless of any reference to food. However, there is a focus on the experiential and sensory “flow” of the guests upon entry. What was the impetus for such an approach to the design of the restaurant compared to one where an integration / connection with food / eating is evident?
The building was originally designed as a conference center. When I discovered it, I described the concept to Moss and we started working together to turn it into a functional restaurant. However, when we talk about restaurant design, we must first agree on what a restaurant is: a restaurant is just a vessel, a medium. We design integral experiences that go beyond form or technique and through which people create close bonds with their surroundings. There is no beginning, no middle and no end. Our rooms should not be used, but felt.
We design integral experiences that go beyond form or technique and through which people create close bonds with their surroundings. There is no beginning, no middle and no end. Our rooms should not be used, but felt.
What hand did you play in the design and / or the specifications of the design?
The core structure and facade was built before I came. These are Eric’s designs. I started with the guest’s journey. Once this was developed, Eric and I had a map and we started working together on everything from furniture, to trays, jars, gardens, water craters, to just about anything a guest touches during the experience.
Has the architecture itself influenced your perception of your own cooking method and also your approach to the culinary experience in retrospect, which was not recognizable at first glance?
Vespertine wasn’t an idea I’d written down in a notebook or hidden in a computer file somewhere in search of the perfect vessel. The project was born out of the structure and therefore has an impact on everything: cuisine, music, language, service, hospitality, experience.
Everything that a guest experiences at Vespertine is interconnected. These are not different media working together, but everything is a single, coherent form. If you lie in the middle of a forest, you will notice the sound of the trees, the chirping of the birds, the flowing of the brook, the hum of the bees. They can all be viewed as separate, but they are part of the overall ecosystem and are inextricably linked.
What is it like when Vespertine lives without guests?
Typically, a restaurant feels better when it is full of guests because of the amount of energy generated in the area. It’s observable. Conversely, when a restaurant is empty it can often leave people feeling separated and lonely. There is no energy. Vespertine is just another form of an organism. It has its own energy. When it is full the energy does not expand and when it is empty it does not contract. To answer the questions simply: It’s beautiful.
What do you see regarding the future of eating at Vespertine after COVID?
My hope for the future is that people will find a deeper connection and meaning through food. Eating is our most sacred, ancestral, intimate and vital ritual.
Photos by Tom Bonner Photography.