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)