Photography by Jen Britton
But unless you pegged him for a guy who wakes up early to forage for wildflowers, you may not know as much as you think. A native of Savannah, Georgia, Jordan Kahn left home at an early age to pursue his culinary career. His travels took him first to the halls of Johnson & Wales University. Upon graduation, he began working successively in such fine-dining behemoths as the French Laundry in Yountville, Per Se in New York and Alinea in Chicago, among others. Until he finally landed in Los Angeles under the auspices of the Michael Mina empire at XIV, where he worked as the pastry chef until its closure in 2011.
Echoes of his time at these restaurants are apparent in the precision techniques and modern-art plating on display at his latest endeavor: Red Medicine, the restaurant he co-owns in Beverly Hills. However, when it comes to Jordan Kahn, there is more than meets the eye.
This is most apparent when he describes why he drifted away from the chef mecca that is the Santa Monica Farmers Market.
“[The market] becomes about socializing,” he laments. “Every five feet is a stop-and- chat with somebody and you end up spending two hours there. So instead of going to the farmers market now I spend that time picking wild plants.”
This wasn’t an overnight decision, but rather more of a gradual development. Weekly trips to the farmers market slowly became weekly drives up the PCH to pick fennel. Picking fennel slowly evolved into harvesting miner’s lettuce, wood sorrel and radishes, which in turn led to wild Spanish chervil, and on and on from there.
His motivation to continue foraging was twofold. First, the quality of the found produce is far superior. “The herbs we pick are as pristine as you can possibly get,” Kahn says self-evidently. “I can’t buy the equivalent that’s as beautiful.” Sourcing the best possible ingredients is and should be the number one priority for chefs of Jordan’s caliber.
The second reason is personal, and somewhat surprising to Kahn himself. He wasn’t expecting to become so devoted to foraging, explaining that, “In the winter, when you get out there in the canyons, it’s quiet and everything’s covered in dew. There’s just this magical sense about it. It’s very zen.”
Coming from years spent working in kitchens, where life is often cramped and hot, foraging provides a rare meditative moment for Jordan and his sous-chef, Greg Zanotti, who shares in the foraging duties.
Together they quickly learned the landscape and identified edible plants.“We started buying a lot of literature on edible wild plants,” Kahn says, because “the first most important thing to do when you want to start foraging is you have to be able to identify what you shouldn’t pick.”
Some of the staples in his encyclopedic collection are Gregory L. Tilford’s Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West, Milt McAuley’s Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains and Steve Brill’s Edible and Medicinal Plants.
As Kahn grew from inadvertent forager to seasoned gatherer, his menus went from market driven to wild inspired. Originally, foraged herbs played the part of a pretty garnish on most of his dishes. As his explorations deepened, wild plants practically begged to play a starring role.
“The more we went out, we stopped allowing the menu to be dictated as much by the markets and started making it more dictated by what we were picking wild.”
These trips started to change his creative style, and informed many of the menu items added this past fall, such as Foraged Mushrooms with Brown Butter and Balsam Fir and Duck Liver with Meadowsweet and Salsify. Wild plants have not only changed Kahn’s new dishes, but also pervaded the entire menu. In the winter, for example, the abundance of juicy-stemmed yellow wood sorrel led him to rethink his use of acid.
“In the winter it grows like crazy. […] So in the season, most of whatever sour flavors you get from a dish—whether it’s a vinaigrette or a sauce or a curd—now come from sorrel juice.”
For all of the positive reasons to maintain a foraged pantry, there are obvious pitfalls. Although Kahn can expect to find certain plants in certain seasons, he can’t always count on finding what he needs. Wild plants are subject to the whims of weather, soil and sun. Even if he does find what he needs, well-meaning passersby often try to stop him, believing that he has no right to harvest on that particular piece of land. And depending on where exactly he is, they might be right: Foraging for wild plants is illegal in California state parks.
Like any good forager, however, Jordan Kahn does not reveal his collection spots. He and sous-chef Greg do share successful locations with each other via pins in Google Maps. They gather plants mindfully: trimming but leaving intact the native plants while uprooting the invasive, nonnative species. Sometimes they don’t gather anything, but rather cull ideas from the countryside.
“You get inspiration from being out there,” Kahn says. “It’s very cheesy to say, ‘I’m inspired by nature,’ but it’s true. You go out, it’s gorgeous, the weather’s perfect. You see things in their natural state and it makes a big impression.”
Chef Kahn is so enamored with the natural habitat of his ingredients that he co-created a film last year (Reverie) wherein he brought his mise-en-place to the plants and plated around them in the wild.
Fortunately, you don’t have to travel to the Santa Monica Mountains to revel in the veritable landscape design of Jordan Kahn’s plates.
Enjoy the fruits of his foraging at Red Medicine, 8400 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA; RedMedicineLA.com.