This week, chef Jonathan Whitener and his partner Lien Ta are opening their first and much-anticipated restaurant, Here's Looking at You, in LA's Koreatown. Instead of taking cues from the neighborhood, Whitener, who came up in the influential kitchens of Animal and Tom Colicchio's Craft, will be pulling from a Southern California upbringing that merges his Guadalajara-born mother's cooking with Vietnamese, Japanese, and Middle Eastern flavors. And if you like tropical drinks, he says the bar at HLAY makes a mean mai tai: "It's the best fucking mai tai you ever tasted."
I spoke with Whitener in advance of the restaurant's opening to get his take on non-Californian chefs, fusion food, and keeping cooking simple.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Jonathan. You've worked in some famous kitchens. Why did you think the time was right to open your own your own place? Jonathan Whitener: The end goal for me going into the industry was obviously opening my own place one day. I knew that one of the roads I wanted to take was [to] never open my own place without being a chef de cuisine under somebody else's direction, or working for other people who already had a restaurant group and learning from them before I moved on to my own place. I think that's working at Animal, for Jon [Shook] and Vinny [Dotolo], you know, it taught me a lot of the business side. I was also looking for the right partner to work with—that's why me and Lien meshed.
The first rumor I heard about HLAY was that it was going to be a Mexican-Japanese restaurant. That was misconstrued by the first interview we had. [The interviewer] took the fact that I was Latin, and I like Mexican food, and that Japanese cooking has a lot of influence on my cooking—but that's not to say that I was going to be cooking Mexican-Japanese food. [Laughs]
Now I see that you're describing it as "So-Cal food." What does that mean? When I think of Southern California food, I think our style is very unique. We have tons of ethnicities here. We're like the cultural food capital of the world, I think. There's nothing you can't find here in terms of different types of cuisine to go eat. [What] we're cooking here is pretty much everything that I've ever learned about cooking—I have a French background, but [I have] influences from all types of cuisine. I like to think that our food doesn't have boundaries with what we can do. Even saying that we are kind of a "fusion" restaurant—I'm not afraid to say that, because cooking is a fusion. What is someone taking that wasn't already pre-existing? What is American food?
Is there a big difference between chefs that grew up in Southern California and chefs who come here from other places? I think a lot of chefs that come here from out of state or out of the country tend to still hold on to their style of cooking. What they've cooked puts an imprint on anybody. What was imprinted on me growing up here is we have so many choices [for] what we can eat, from whether you want traditional, straight-up Chinese food, or you can go find the dirty versions of it. We have everything here, and that's what imprinted the most on me.
Which of your dishes do you think really represent what you're trying to do at HLAY? One of them would definitely be the quail dish we do here. It's really simple: it's literally two [main] ingredients—quail and beets. It's just the way we manipulate the beets, it's the procedure we use to cook the quail—over open stone-fruit wood mixed in with walnut and almond, this mix from the farmers' market—that puts a very unique flavor into the quail. It's simply seasoned: just a few cracks of black pepper, some coarse sea salt. Then, we do the beets two ways. We make this really intense smoked beet barbecue sauce with just these little pearls of pickled beets. And that's the entire dish.
Have you been fixated on any specific ingredients while creating the menu? I don't know. I like using a lot of different things here. We have over 80 spices racked up on the wall in the kitchen. It's not like I can say one ingredient inspires me. I get inspired by whatever comes to me from my forager or the farmers market, or whatever is in season at, like, the peak. That's what inspires me.
What's your hope for HLAY? It's an extension of me and Lien, and what we built together and what we envision. In just over the past couple of months, it's evolved into something completely different than what we thought it was going to be—I changed the menu in the last three weeks multiple times to get exactly what we wanted. As it continues, I want it to be an institution where people can learn how to run a business and how to cook. You know, just learn as much as they can from us.
Thanks for speaking with me.