To Live, To Fight, To Dine, To Die
ARCHITECTURE RENDERING BY DAN BRUNN.
To Live, To Fight, To Dine, To Die
A One-Act Play featuring California Cuisine Mavericks
Time: The present
Jordan Kahn, chef and owner of Red Medicine Jessica Koslow, chef and owner of SQIRL Drew Langley, sommelier at Providence Dan Brunn, architect Krys Cook, owner of Cook Pigs Ranch Barbara Spencer, owner of Windrose Farm Hourie Sahakian, pastry chef and baker at La Brea Bakery Elizabeth Poett, owner of Rancho San Julian Deborah Koons Garcia, Documentarian of Symphony of Soil Dishwasher, from WoodSpoon Edith, the waitress Jerry, the pianist
The Setting: Saddle Peak in the Santa Monica Mountains, in a dining banquet designed by Dan Brunn.
BIRTH & THE CRADLE
The guests meet in the forest and file down the long walkway leading to an underground, cavernous dining room. It’s early morning, and through the ceiling of the dining area, sunlight peers over the wooden table. The guests, each involved in various culinary realms of Los Angeles and notable figures of their craft, received an invitation a few days prior at the bequest of an anonymous gourmand who wanted to bring them together for a grandiose pot-luck, one that serves as a reflection of the overwhelming journey that is life on this Earth.
When they arrive, no host is in sight. The place is empty. A medley of smells permeate the air—a roasted heritage pig, toasted brioche, caramelized garden root vegetables, honey poached cranberries. With these scents in their noses, the guests set suspicions aside and sit down to prepare for the first course.
Chatting amongst themselves, the guests ask one another if they know who sent the invitation, murmuring and speculating with excitement. From the dark corner of the kitchen appears Edith, a waitress in her late 90s, her thin and bony body trembling as she carries out the first course.
For course one, Jessica Koslow1 has prepared a meal reminiscent of birth—brown rice porridge made with organic heirloom Kokuho Rose brown rice and Straus milk, topped with elephant heart plum jam. Everyone is very excited.
Jessica Koslow: I liked the idea of having a fluid meal, where you’re traveling along this ride, and you’re not quite sure what’s happening…
Dan Brunn: I wouldn’t eat [if this were my last meal]. I don’t think I’d be able to chew anything. It’s just so difficult.
Hourie Sahakian: Bread would have to be part of a last meal for sure. Bread and good butter.2
Jessica: [This meal] is just like our life, we never know what’s happening. We don’t know if this is our last day, if this is old for us. Is 32 old for me? I think I’m in my prime.
Elizabeth Poett: I think that’s a beautiful way to look at it. I don’t think I would’ve thought of something as beautiful as that.
The guests stare at the vast banquet hall. Feeling at ease in the space, they recline further into their chairs as they ingest their porridge.
Dan: There is a great architect, I’m trying to remember who it is, he says that every building should be able to accept death.3
The guests nod at Dan’s sentiment, as they scoop their spoons into the porridge, commenting on its flavor. Barbara looks over, a joyful expression on her face, knowing that produce from her farm has been kneaded into this meal.
Barbara: There are times that [seeing what a chef makes with my produce] absolutely bring tears to my eyes, and sometimes they’ll do something that’s just so surprising, and really perfect, and really clean, and beautiful, and yes, it totally is [emotional]. I moan and groan and cry. Barbara laughs at this admission.Krys Cook nods in agreement.4
Krys Cook: It’s truly an art-form…my art is the second that pig is hanging and I see the fat, and the marbling, and the beauty of what came from our property. Once it goes on the plate, that’s [the chef’s] artwork.5
YOUTH & A SWING SET
For the second course, Jessica has prepared peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, made with brioche from Proof bakery, house-made almond and hazelnut butter, and blueberry rhubarb jam, reminiscent of kindergarten lunches and visits to the playground. To accompany the sandwich, Jordan Kahn has prepared fresh cream and anthocyanin, composed of raw cream custard, shaved rhubarb, raw biodynamic beets, walnut marzipan, purple cabbage, hibiscus-onions and a vinaigrette of raw rhubarb juice infused with verbena.
Drew pairs the dish with a sparkling rosé from Caraccioli Cellars in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The ripeness of the region’s blue fruits, he explains, play well with the rhubarb, beets and verbena.
The discussion turns to where to eat in Los Angeles.
Jessica: As someone who knows where things are coming from, it’s hard to eat out.
Krys: Farmers are rock stars now, because they know where their food is coming from.
Drew Langley:6 When we opened [Providence]7 8 years ago, molecular gastronomy was really hot, and I see that trend kind of fading away.
Dan: This whole molecular movement, I’m not heavy on that...when they try to make a pizza made out of a ball of Jello and it tastes like pizza. A real pizza I could go get, I don’t need a ball of Jello that explodes in my mouth and all of a sudden I taste the olive oil and the tomato sauce.
Drew: What I see now that’s becoming more popular is kind of farm-to-table and also specific sourcing...it’s not just carrots, it’s McGrath Farm carrots and so forth.
Jordan Kahn:8 If you are not buying your produce from a local farm these days, you’re a giant asshole. I’m not going to sit here and say that [Red Medicine is] farm-to-table because it’s idiotic. Farm-to-table is the standard. If you go below that then you’re obviously a fast food chain.
Jordan stabs his fork into a sliver of rhubarb, while the other guests cut through the thick slices of brioche, the jam staining their lips.
Jessica: People just want it to say “organic” and it doesn’t mean anything anymore. That is a major thing that I’m seeing here in L.A. It’s hard because we as consumers need to learn to trust ourselves, and trust where we go, and seek out and do a little bit of work on our end to know we’re finding a location where they are sourcing correctly. For [SQIRL] we don’t write organic or farm free range chicken. We probably should do that because if I were a customer I would want to know that…none of my jams say “artisanal” on it. You should just know that we make everything [in-house].
Jordan: I assume that everybody at this day and age is farm-to-table. Except Applebee’s and shit like that...and maybe small little mom-and-pop joints that don’t quite have the...I don’t want to say resources, but maybe they just don’t know.
Elizabeth: My father was one of the founders of certifying organic meats in California.9 I believe he was one of the first certified organic beef growers back in the mid-’80s. But we ended up leaving that organization, and what I decided to do when I started selling beef again was to be upfront with people and tell them our standards...We don’t do irrigated pastures because water is like gold here.
Deborah Koons Garcia:10 When you irrigate in the valley—this is a common problem—you often get salinization because when you irrigate, rather than use rain for irrigation, the salts in the soil come to the surface and basically render the soil infertile because it’s filled with salt. There’s a lot of acreage in California that has to be moved from production every year because of salinization.
As the guests converse, Edith trembles around the table, asking if anyone needs more water. The guests look up from their rhubarb centric course, asking where the wine is. She runs away without answering. Suddenly the pianist, Jerry, appears in the corner of the room, and starts playing “Apple Peaches Pumpkin Pie” by Jay & The Techniques.
Jessica: We work with Flora Bella who is very passionate about having that [organic] certification. But a place like Windrose [Farm], they don’t have it and they don’t need it. You just know that they care about their product and their land, and they live their life and you can feel it.
Jordan: We [at Red Medicine] are actually super fortunate. We’ve been working with biodynamic farming...It’s like a million tiers above organic. [It was] invented by an Austrian, named Rudolf Steiner; he was a very strange man. Biodynamic farming is basically trying to create a self sustained ecosystem…[it] requires very little maintenance, but to get there requires an enormous amount of work and amount of discipline.11
FRESH ADOLESCENCE & HIGH SCHOOL GYM CLASS
The waitress emerges, ready to serve the next dish.
For the next course Jordan has prepared potatoes with yeast and grasses. Drew pairs this dish with a bio-dynamic wine from Paso. He insists that AmByth Estate makes a fabulous Roussanne. The natural yeasts give the wine a distinct earth and grass flavor, with its high acidity and granular mouth feel.
Jordan: I [made] something that was beautiful and interesting, fun, delicious, and comforting all at the same time. Things that [will be] the last jolt of beauty before [one] leaves this earth. [This dish is] potatoes with yeast and grasses...we take these really tiny potatoes and we dip them in cultured butter that’s been flavored with yeast and then there is a sauce we pour that is made from wheatgrass...and then this little fried rice dough, it’s kind of like mote cheese. We have some wild grasses that are from the coast so it’s like wild sea grass lettuce.
Drew pours everyone a glass, then reflects on his favorite meals from life.
Drew: One of the best dining experiences I’ve had in Los Angeles is Urasawa. It is really incredible.12
Jordan: [Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa] is the only person who has direct contact with fisherman in Japan. Like nobody...it’s like secret shit...anyway…[when I ate there with my girlfriend] these guys next to us were complete jackasses the whole time and ruined the meal. They didn’t take the environment seriously. They were wealthy so it was like they were just going out for sushi that night.
Hourie: The direction [L.A. is] going in is casual dining...I don’t know that fine dining is going to grow that much.
Drew: L.A. is really casual. I’m amazed sometimes. [At Providence] we don’t have a dress code, but sometimes I wish we did...people come here in shorts and flip-flops, and trucker hats. That’s fine, we want to welcome everyone, but sometimes I wish it were a little more serious.
Hourie: There is a little bit of that precious food movement that is overly fussed with. I think food should be thought out and cared for, but I don’t like the really precious plating. Like overly contrived dishes. I like more rustic style when it comes to food.
Dan: [For restaurant design] the restoration hardware look is driving me crazy. Everyone feels like they need to have an iron style chair, something that’s rustic, some kind of piece of wood that’s unfinished. I’m sick of it. I’d rather embrace something that’s new, modern, of this age.
Jordan: We’ve gone from the ’90s to where you had iconic chefs like Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Jean George, and all these guys who were the elite, and all these young chefs working for them, and then becoming chefs de cuisines, sous chef, and then going on to opening their own places. Now you got, like, this guerilla style of cooking where it’s like a hipster neighborhood in really dumpy kitchens with just T-shirts and tattoos.
Everyone continues to feast on their potatoes, eating like they haven’t had food in years. The pianist continues on with Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything for Love.” Everyone smiles. Some start humming along.
Drew: I wish there were more options in Los Angeles for serious food. I think a lot of the food here is kind of...I mean it’s L.A., it’s the land of the hamburger, the gastropub. And I understand that the problems that we had with the economy five or six years ago put a lid on super high-end restaurants, but I wish that there was a broader range.
Jordan: First of all, those [higher-end/white table-cloth] places are becoming less and less. They still exist certainly. But also, that is absolutely why a lot of people are going the other route. These young cooks are like, ‘We don’t need chef coats to be good cooks. It’s like we can be ourselves; it’s just food on a plate.’ Yes, but there is a whole discipline that is lost in that…We don’t understand what it’s like to cook at that level if we are no way attempting to.
Dan: Design is super important but I think that the food is the number one reason that somebody is going to go to one of these restaurants. In a way, you’re kind of liberating yourself from having to spend or invest a lot in a facade to build a new restaurant.
GENERAL AGING & INHALERS
The old waitress totters around the table as she sets down plates overflowing with the next course.
For this course, Jessica has made crickets and chicharron topped with Sriracha and key lime. The guests begin nibbling on the crunchy insects as Jessica explains that this dish she has prepared represents the slowing down of life. This is the prelude to her dish of corvina fish, caught by John Wilson of Sea Fever, paired with cranberry beans and salsa verde.
Drew pairs the crickets with Egon Müller Scharzhofberger Riesling Spatlese 2011, a dry white wine with notes of lemon and lime. Riesling, he explains, is always great with spicy Sriracha, and the sweetness bodes well with the salty crickets.
The fish is served with a Sonoma coast Chardonnay, Peay 2011. Drew explains that the high acidity, cool vintage, and great purity of fruit is a great compliment to the salsa.
The guests complement the flavors as a thick fog floats into the dining hall. The sun is setting and a golden red ombre fills the room, giving it the appearance of a cave drenched in blood.
Barbara: What I am loving is the fact that L.A. is now seeming willing to support so many really good new restaurants…and just make really beautiful and fresh food. I think the quality of food in L.A. is just continuing to move up all the time.
Dan: In the last two years L.A. has been on a big revolution with food...I love what’s happening to Los Angeles and I love seeing the change and I always defend it. I go travel across the country, or internationally, and everybody says, “Have you been to this place? Have you been to this place?” and at least now I can pin point places in Los Angeles that are great.
Hourie: In the past, when I use to dine out with a big group of people, they would order the familiar but I think dining has become such an experience and people are more adventurous.
Barbara: If you didn’t have knowledgeable people willing to eat out, it just wouldn’t be happening. We do have one of the better food scenes in the whole country.
Hourie: I am so thankful that people have embraced [offal], and I am so glad that the public was so responsive to it. People don’t necessarily cook offal at home [but] you have all these chef’s taking offal to the next level.13
Elizabeth: There are only so many filet mignons in an animal. I really love it when I see chefs that are really thinking outside the box and making delicious, amazing meals, but perhaps not just the standard that their customers must have…They’re making ravioli out of cheeks, and they’re using the entire animal, which I find really interesting.
Everyone nods in agreement as they crunch on their crickets, savoring the sweet and spicy notes. Their chicharrons begin to soak up the Sriracha, which the guests use to scoop up the crispy delicacies.
Hourie: My favorite aspect of the food scene right now is that there is such a melting pot of culture. Some of my favorite places to eat are Northern Thai restaurants.
Jordan: There’s a restaurant called Night + Market that I like...It’s all traditional street Thai foods and it’s really amazing and extremely authentic. One of my cooks is from Thailand and he said this is the best Thai food outside of Thailand. A lot of white people probably wouldn’t like it…There’s this beef tartare [dish]…it’s about 90 percent chili product and 10 percent beef.14
Jeremy the pianist asks if the dish could kill.
Jordan: Yeah. It would fuck you up.
DEATH & FORMALDEHYDE
For dessert, Hourie has prepared a pear and ginger pie with hints of clove and nutmeg, and a fresh and candied ginger crumble; and Jessica, an angel food cake made with Wholesome Sweeteners organic sugar and Schaner Farms egg, layered and topped with blood orange meringue, the oranges sourced from Rancho Del Sol.
Someone requests lavender gelato and is immediately scolded by the waitress, who is bitter because she is lactose intolerant.
Suddenly, from the kitchen, the dishwasher emerges from a sea of foam. He has been patiently scrubbing behind the scenes throughout the meal. He joins the guests, his entire body covered in suds. The waitress, shocked by his appearance, grips her gaunt face in horror. She sees that the dishwasher is holding a skillet still sizzling with hot grease and butter. A manic grin spreads across his face.
He proceeds to press the back end of the skillet against the faces of the guests, searing their cheeks. They shriek and cry in agony.
Legend has it that this is what was said during the dessert portion of their meal, although these quotes cannot be 100 percent verified.
Jordan: [Yells] What are you doing? Stop caramelizing our faces!
Drew: If only I had time for one more glass of Dom Perignon Rosé, 1985 in magnum. I fear this meal was our last!
Barbara: Drew, perhaps take a moment to see the glass half full. We will survive! Like a ripe nectarine blossoming in the sun, we will live to see another day.
The dishwasher then pulls out a butcher knife from the back of his jean pocket. He begins to chop off everyone’s hands. He hangs them on kitchen twine, and dangles them above the table like a string of twinkly lights. The blood from their hands drips all over the table, forming perfect little dots.
Dan: Really? Turning bloody hands into string lights? God, I am so over this whole rustic look.
The guests are screaming and crying, telling the dishwasher to stop with the inhumanity.
Jessica: Why dishwasher? Why?! If you stop hurting us, I will give you free jam for life. Imagine waking up everyday to a jar of strawberry and rose preserves, or wild boysenberry.
The dishwasher ignores Jessica’s offer. He takes a whisk and twirls and twists the bloody stumps of everyone’s wrists. He ties everyone to their chairs with rope. He raises his hands to the sky, causing a flood of soapy water to collapse from the ceiling. Constrained to their chairs, the guests are on the verge of drowning.
Krys: The soap, it’s in my eyes! I can’t breathe, I can’t see! What about a lifetime supply of heritage pigs? Then will you stop?
Hourie: I think he’s a fruitarian Krys. [Sighs] We didn’t even get a chance to enjoy my pie. Now it’s ruined, all this soap and blood, this is no way to finish a meal.
The guests gasp for air, but the dining room continues to fill with soapy water.
Elizabeth: We’re not going to survive. Nothing will stop him. Goodbye everyone.
Jordan: Before we die, there’s just one last thing I’d like to get off my chest—no one knows what the fuck gluten is...Everyone thinks gluten is a general term that they use to describe things that are bad. It’s like, people believe this shit. It’s ridiculous.
The dishwasher quiets everyone and announces that in addition to all this torture, the fish was poisoned. The guests wonder why he even bothered to burn their faces, chop off their hands, whisk their bloody hand stumps, and drown them in soap, if they could have simply died from the poison of their entrée. In any case, everyone is dead.
1Before entering the world of small-batch seasonal jams, Jessica Koslow was a TV-producer. But with a great love for preserves, and experience from a previous stint as pastry chef at Bacchanalia in Atlanta, Georgia, she turned to the jam business creating SQIRL, and eventually opening a café by the same name in the fall of 2012. The quaint Silver Lake cafe is where she serves Proof’s brioche toast topped with her jams, and/or greens with lacto-fermented hot sauce and a fried egg, as well as specials like rosé braised local squid and sweetbreads with nectarine-tomato salad. They do not serve rodents—please stop asking.
2Hourie Sahakian began her culinary career when she met Amy Pressman (creator of Old Town Bakery in Pasadena, and one of the original cooks at Spago) at the gym. Pressman, who, before her death, opened Short Cake bakery, and Short Order hamburger with Nancy Silverton (co-founder and head baker at La Brea Bakery, as well as co-owner of Pizzeria and Osteria Mozza) in 2012, brought on Sahakian as pastry chef. Sahakian is now Culinary Innovations Manager at Aryzta, working on the La Brea Bakery brand. Moral of the story: You’ll never regret exercise.
3Known for his modern aesthetic, L.A. based architect Dan Brunn creates both commercial and residential designs around the world. Notably, he collaborated with chef Giacomino Drago on the design of his Beverly Hills restaurant Yojisan—which was a finalist for the AIA Restaurant Design Awards—as well as a Bauhaus style home in Venice, Calif., which The New York Times described as “a clean-lined but structurally complicated beach house.” He also insists on inviting all four Beatles to his last meal.
4Owned by Bill and Barbara Spencer, Windrose Farm is situated just east of Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County. Currently transitioning to biodynamic, the farm supplies heirloom and antique varieties of produce such as apples, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, melons, a variety of greens, beets, and on and on. They supply to many restaurants in California—in Los Angeles this includes Red Medicine, Gjelina, Providence, Animal, and Rustic Canyon Winebar, to name a few. They have yet to provide ingredients for popular L.A. establishments such as Chick-fil-A.
5Krys Cook and her husband Mike, started their pig ranch in Julian, Calif. in San Diego Country in 2012. It quickly turned into a family operation when Krys’ parents, siblings, and in-laws got involved in the business. They raise a variety of Heritage pigs, with more than 500 frolicking about, each with a microbiotic diet. Krys maintains that she is not killing her friends.
6Drew Langley started his career at age 6, when he would toss Miller Lights and Budweisers to his dad and his friends on their charter boat. At age 20 he moved to Los Angeles and began working at Greenblatt’s Wine Shop. From there he moved up the wine ladder and eventually became sommelier at Providence a couple months after the restaurant opened. He also possesses a strong Patrick Bateman vibe.
7Executive Chef Michael Cimarusti’s and Donato Poto’s Providence, which opened in 2005, is a two star Michelin restaurant on Melrose Ave. With an ingredient list that sources from all over the world, the menu offers savory lollipops of squid and chorizo, a wasabi pea encrusted soy marshmallow, abalone, geoduck, uni and ikura. L.A. Times food critic S. Irene Virbila noted, “The kitchen at Providence is consistently turning out the best seafood cooking in Los Angeles — and some of the best in the country.” They do not, however, serve every Rhode Islander’s favorite treat, Del’s Frozen Lemonade.
829-year-old Jordan Kahn trained at Johnson & Wales when he was 16 before taking his first job as a pastry chef for Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. This led to future gigs at Per Se in New York and Alinea in Chicago. He opened Red Medicine with Noah Ellis in 2011, where he became known for his avant-garde plating and unique ingredient use. In Jonathan Gold’s early review, the L.A. food critic wrote, “It takes long seconds before anybody dares to disturb the composition with a chopstick. It is a dish as easily comprehended by its beauty, or by its surprisingly sharp scent, as by its taste.” Not quite Applebee’s, but he’ll get there someday.
9Rancho San Julian, located just outside of Santa Barbara, has been in the Poett family for 175 years. Elizabeth Poett is the 28-year-old daughter of Jim Poett, who was one of the first farmers to raise organic beef when he started distributing their beef in 1987. The cattle are raised, to this day, on this agriculturally sustainable ranch where they live on a vegetarian grass-fed diet. So the next time an elderly woman asks you where the beef is, you now have the answer.
10Deborah Koons Garcia is the documentarian of the recently released Symphony of Soil, which takes a look at agriculture through the complexities of soil. In 2004, she investigated genetically engineered food for her film The Future of Food.
11Started by social activist Dr. Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic farming applies a spiritual and ecological approach to agriculture. This is done by creating fermented manure and composts, doing things like placing cow feces into cow horns and burying them in the ground, then digging them up in the Spring, stirring the caked feces in water, then adding that watery-feces mixture to the farm’s soil. Other additions to the soil: flowers fermented in a stag’s bladder, and oak bark in a sheep’s skull, all giving the soil a cosmic force. The sowing of the land is also determined by an astrological planting calendar.
12At Urasawa, the second most expensive restaurant in the U.S., chef and owner Hiroyuki Urasawa’s sushi arrives with 24-karat gold flakes.
13Over the past few years, offal has become a popular component to menus in Los Angeles, with more restaurants taking to calf brains, veal tongue, pig heads and sweetbreads. Writing about the offal trend, journalist Florence Fabricant wrote in the The NewYork Times, “The precursor to all of this may be found in Los Angeles at Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. Nothing as fancy as sweetbreads or foie gras there, but waffles have been offered with fried chicken livers and gizzards for years.”
14Attached to his family’s Thai restaurant Talesai is 31-year-old Kris Yenbamroong’s Night + Market, serving Thai street food inspired by his eating habits as a teenager in Bangkok. Since opening, the place has generated a fan base that includes chefs like Josef Centeno, Ari Taymor, Vinny Dotolo, Rene Redzepi, David Chang, and April Bloomfield.