This story mentions a death by suicide.
After scrolling through dozens of hospitality classifieds promising the usual fast-paced setting, opportunities for growth, and family-like environment, one job listing stood out to Alex*, a seasoned restaurant worker who was searching for something new. “Vespertine is a gastronomical experiment seeking to disrupt the course of the modern restaurant,” the ad read. “A perceptual and cognitive experience, where deliciousness is driven by form and texture is crafted into sculpture. Blurring interrelationships between materials and ideas, environment and context, of sound and dissonance.”
Vespertine had touched down 18 months earlier, in the summer of 2017, heralded by a melodramatic trailer featuring a mysterious woman in a blue cloak moving through an alien landscape, intercut with extreme close-ups of flowers, spines, and fog. Captivated, Alex submitted an application, hoping to play a part in bringing to life this radical reinterpretation of a restaurant.
A few days later, an invitation to observe a night of service appeared. On the appointed evening, Alex pulled up to an undulating glass and metal tower in a semi-industrial neighborhood of low-slung warehouses and the architectural experiments of acclaimed Los Angeles-based architect Eric Owen Moss. The building, which Moss dubbed “Waffle,” has been described as a muse for Vespertine, with parts of the experience defined “largely based on what the building wanted.” Alex arrived just as service was getting underway, and he watched, wide-eyed, as the three-hour dinner quietly unfolded more like an avant-garde ballet than a Michelin-starred meal.
Upon entering the Waffle, diners were ushered into the elevator and whisked to the second-floor kitchen to greet Jordan Kahn, the auteur of this “space-age vision” of a restaurant. From there, they ascended a staircase that wraps around the outside of the building to an enclosed rooftop deck with panoramic views of the Southland, where they nibbled on appetizers like dehydrated kelp and sea lettuce artfully arranged on dry tree branches. Next, they were led to the mezzanine-level dining room furnished with steel banquettes and acrylic tabletops. An overhead spotlight cast a theatrical glow, while a seven-part musical score composed by Texas band This Will Destroy You hypnotized guests into reverie as servers seemed to float through the four-level structure, delivering dishes like a leaf-swaddled lobster glazed with fermented rose and sugar kelp, uttering scripted lines in hushed tones.
The $295, 18-course-or-so dinner steadily built to the crescendo of a fowl preparation, like a barbecued squab leg brushed with currant juice and dusted with rose petals, its scrawny feet still attached. Finally, mignardises and tea were served in the ground-floor garden — named Addilantis, after Moss’s daughter — for a supplemental fee ($30) before diners were sent off into the night with keepsake vials of perfume. “The point of Kahn’s food is to keep you off-balance, to resemble nothing you’ve ever intentionally put in your mouth,” the late Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold wrote in what would be his final best restaurants list, which Vespertine topped, in 2017.
Alex reported for his first shift in February 2019. Within weeks, he progressed to dining room server, a role governed by an intricate set of protocols regarding his appearance, guest interactions, and movements. Each afternoon, before the first diners arrived, he carefully steamed his uniform, a dark, drapey tunic and short pants that streamlined each worker’s silhouette into a seamless, androgynous form. Then he prepared his feet for the long shift ahead: taping his ankles and arches, securing a bandage around his heels, and finally sliding on a pair of goatskin slippers assigned to the entire front-of-house staff. Every element of the Vespertine uniform was purposefully chosen by Kahn to dampen and conceal — “I want you to appear as a ghost, and I want you to disappear,” he famously told servers — but the slippers were essential, muffling the sound of footsteps on the cavernous building’s metal staircases.
Balancing trays of meticulously plated stoneware while gracefully marching up and down multiple staircases was challenging, but doing so a hundred times a night on tiptoe — to muffle the sound, as dictated by Vespertine’s service routines — was proving to be impossible. “I began to have serious issues with my feet,” Alex said. The treadless leather shoe hugged his size-14 foot like a too-small ballet flat, and he began finding blisters and blood at the end of each service. Eventually, even the ibuprofen he routinely took before and during shifts stopped alleviating the pain, and outside of work, he began to walk with a limp.
That April, when Alex informed Kahn of his injuries, he was provided with a different brand of soleless flats. They also battered Alex’s feet, so after enduring several more pain-ridden services, he decided to wear his own black shoes. Kahn noticed them almost immediately, and told Alex to change. “We can’t have any guests see you in those,” he recalls Kahn saying. “It’s just too distracting for the experience.” (A spokesperson for Kahn says that he “does not recall this specific circumstance and does not believe he is being quoted accurately.”)
Alex made another request for non-injurious footwear and supplied a note from his doctor. Kahn — who contends that Alex’s requests were granted, and that he “personally went out the very day of his request and bought the server a $160 pair of orthopedic shoes in size 14” — provided yet another alternative. But they lacked the necessary support, Alex said, and he submitted his resignation soon after. His two final weeks of service were completed in the slippers Kahn gave him, his feet raw and mangled by the end. “It’s sad because the experience is really special,” Alex says. “Some might say it’s just the cost of doing business, but it really isn’t.”
Eater has spoken with 18 former Vespertine employees who say that they suffered for Kahn’s artistic expression — that his drive to create an immaculate, otherworldly experience resulted in a culture where workers’ physical limitations and emotional boundaries were pushed, even by the notoriously harsh standards of fine dining. Though no employee alleged physical abuse or sexual harassment — and these accounts predate Vespertine’s shift to a takeout model at the start of the pandemic — these workers felt that Kahn’s expectations, in aggregate, contributed to an environment where his creative genius took precedence over their physical and mental well-being, forcing them out of the restaurant after enduring burnout, emotional distress, or injury.
Most former employees who spoke with Eater requested anonymity. (Pseudonyms are denoted throughout with asterisks.) Some say they were required to sign nondisclosure agreements upon their departure from the restaurant. Others fear retaliation: Kahn, who began his career as a 17-year-old wunderkind under Thomas Keller at the French Laundry and has worked for luminaries like Grant Achatz and Michael Mina, has deep-rooted connections throughout the industry; Sprout LA, the restaurant group that provides financial backing and management resources for Vespertine, counts some of the city’s most influential restaurants in its stable, including Bestia, République, Tsubaki, and Redbird.
As Eater was reporting this story, Sitrick and Company, a public relations firm, was retained as Kahn’s communication proxy. Through Sallie Hofmeister, a representative from the agency, he forcefully disputed virtually every negative assertion made by former employees. “A substantial majority of the statements and questions that Eater has asked that I respond to are based on false information and mischaracterizations of the facts,” Kahn wrote in a statement. While noting that “morale in the FOH [front of house] was admittedly faltering” between the fall of 2018 and early 2019, when some of Eater’s sources were Vespertine employees, he says that “Eater is being misled by a handful of former servers who have orchestrated what they refer to as a ‘smear campaign.’” The restaurant “began a process of rebuilding morale in 2019 and has enjoyed spectacular employee retention over the last three years,” Hofmeister said. Sprout LA offered only blanket statements in response to specific questions for this story.
Former Vespertine employees agree that Kahn is a singular chef — and that Vespertine is an exceptional, even extraordinary restaurant, especially in LA, where high-concept, Michelin-starred establishments are relatively scarce — under whom they did some of the best work of their hospitality careers. And at a moment when many restaurants were forced to pull back, or worse, Kahn’s quick pivot to a critically lauded takeout-only model in spring 2020 allowed Vespertine to retain its entire staff without cutting pay or benefits (which include fully paid health insurance, a rarity in the restaurant industry), even though it has not offered indoor dining since the beginning of the pandemic.
While no diner has set foot in Kahn’s immersive reimagination of fine dining in nearly two years, since the start of the pandemic, staffers at a number of the country’s most elite restaurants have spoken out with growing urgency about the cost of fine dining as it has historically been practiced and celebrated — by the industry, media, and diners — given that the result is not infrequently an environment where workers can be subject to exploitation, racism, sexism, and abuse. As restaurants hope to one day emerge from the apparently ceaseless ravages of the pandemic, many workers, like those who helped make Vespertine a reality, are now asking if the boundless pursuit of a chef’s creative vision — however artistic or awe-inspiring — as captured by this particular snapshot in time, at one of the highest-concept restaurants in the country, was worth the human toll, and whether there might be a better way going forward, one that equally weighs the brilliance of a chef and the needs of their employees. “I think that Jordan Kahn is a genius,” says Jacob Miller, who briefly worked at Vespertine in 2019. “He’s brilliant and is living the realization of his dream in this restaurant, and in order for that dream to work effectively, there are casualties. The dream has forgotten the employee in a sense.”
Work life at Vespertine started at the Wedge, a one-story building located just west of the Waffle. The restaurant’s unofficial backstage, it contained staffers’ locker rooms and restrooms, along with a glass-polishing station and multiple refrigerators. Every afternoon, after getting dressed, staffers proceeded from there to the Warehouse — where Vespertine’s offices, a studio that can function as living quarters, and a secondary kitchen are located — for family meal. Finally, before service commenced at 5:30 p.m., the entire staff would gather in the main kitchen inside of the Waffle for an inspirational huddle. “They’re kind of the most beautiful aspect of the evening. It’s the place where you are really able to see a little community,” says Miller, a former server. “The language was a little bit culty and so is the energy, but that was the part of the job that I missed the most.”
Pre-shift, as the huddle was called, was also where the rigid enforcement of Vespertine’s ornate aesthetic regime began each night. Between the restaurant’s debut in 2017 and late 2018, front-of-house staffers were required to line up and turn in place while being quizzed on that night’s scripted patter for each dish. Gloria Peña, the founding director of operations, as well as Kahn’s fiancee until their August 2018 breakup, often led the inspections with an eye sharpened by her background in fine dining and performing arts. Staffers understood the need to look the part, but multiple former servers allege that the ritual frequently crossed a line, with Peña’s severe, public judgments bringing multiple people to tears. “We were lined up almost like show dogs in front of the kitchen staff and the rest of our peers, getting roasted on our appearance,” says Jessica*, a dining room server in 2018. “It felt like one big shaming circle.”
Female servers were subject to uniquely demanding standards, according to multiple former front-of-house staff members. While men were required to keep their uniforms immaculate, they allege that women were often given a specific “look” in line with Vespertine’s distinct aesthetic. Jane*, a server who worked at Vespertine from spring 2018 to fall 2019, says that they were “told how to do our hair, how to get our hair cut, what makeup to wear.” Failure to use the salon Kahn and Peña frequented, a high-end establishment in Beverly Hills that granted discounted haircuts to employees, could prompt snide remarks from Peña. After she left in November 2018, servers say that the inspections continued, but became less intense, with Kahn ultimately having final approval over their appearance.
Kahn contends that he was unaware of pre-shift visual inspections until late 2018, at which point he says he forbade the practice. He denies, however, that any servers were assigned specific looks, stating that while “one of our former managers had a deep interest in makeup and would offer assistance with hair or makeup,” there are “many servers who do not wear any makeup.” He also described the discounted haircuts “with a particular stylist who works for a very high-end salon” as a “perk for the staff.” Peña declined to comment on her role in the inspections or her assessments of the appearance of Vespertine staffers.
In a restaurant with exacting guidelines that dictated every element of service, there were countless opportunities — some 18 courses on average, multiplied by 22 diners twice per night — for subtle deviations from Vespertine’s prescribed mannerisms. According to multiple front-of-house staff members, even slight missteps, like setting silverware down too loudly, could result in withering stares and sustained passive-aggressive treatment from Kahn. “If you dropped anything ever, you wouldn’t carry anything down the stairs for like a day or two,” Alex said. “It’s just a lot of weird punishments — there’s no room for error or being human. He expected everyone to be perfect and if you weren’t, then you weren’t for Vespertine, you weren’t on his level.”
Though front-of-house staffers were trained to share details with diners about virtually every aspect of the restaurant, from the dining room’s steel table bases to the designers of the glassware, plateware, and uniforms (Hiroko Hatano, Ryota Aoki, and Jona Sees, respectively), there was one detail that front-of-house employees say Kahn insisted should not be divulged: the number of courses remaining in the meal.
One night, Michael Scribner, the restaurant’s sommelier from 2018 to 2019, says that he had difficulty navigating the question from a diner due to a language barrier. According to Scribner, word of the upset guest, who found his vague response rude rather than playful, traveled back to the kitchen. Kahn “called me up in the kitchen, pulled me to the side, asked me to explain myself, cut me off in the middle of my explanation and said, ‘That’s not the answer. Go home.’”
Following the gaffe, “there was over a month where [Kahn] didn’t talk to me,” making it difficult for him to perform his job, Scribner says. “I would have to change my wine pairings on the fly. For a two-Michelin-star restaurant that demanded so much, and then it was just, ‘Oh something’s changed, figure it out.’”
Sallie Hofmeister, Kahn’s spokesperson, disputed this characterization, noting that “Vespertine does not have a finite number of courses on the menu because it tailors each menu for every guest” and stating that Scribner “was sent home because he got into a verbal altercation with a guest at their table,” and then “snapped at Jordan in the same contemptuous tone,” according to Vespertine’s HR records. (Scribner “completely contests” this account. “I never snapped at Jordan. I was too terrified of the man. I mean, you never saw that because the backlash was so intense.”)
Though Kahn admits that he doesn’t have a “perfect score” when it comes to communicating with employees, any suggestion of passive-aggressive behavior or giving people the silent treatment “is preposterous,” he says. “Being a mentor and a leader requires coaching team members, especially during moments of frustration, not resorting to petty behavior that undermines the spirit of professionalism and collaboration.” (“Jordan does not become upset with employees,” Hofmeister said.)
While many staffers tolerated and even thrived in Vespertine’s stringent environment, others could be profoundly affected when they fell short of Kahn’s standards. In the fall of 2018, Jonathan*, a 38-year-old cook, mistakenly served squab that was still raw, according to several front- and back-of-house staff members. Upon discovering the error, they say, Kahn pulled him aside to deliver a long lecture in which he accused him of deliberate sabotage.
Following what multiple sources described as a mandated three-day rest period, Jonathan was reassigned to the appetizers station. Though Vespertine’s kitchen culture attempts to eschew hierarchies, with all cooks being called “chef,” certain stations were considered more prestigious based on their level of difficulty, and according to multiple employees, his relegation to the appetizer station after six months of preparing proteins was a clear reduction of status. Kahn contends that Jonathan “asked if he could take the week off” after telling Kahn that he “was having trouble focusing,” that he was not demoted (“we have never demoted anyone”), and that he requested to be moved to a different station, “which had no bearing on his status in the kitchen.”
When Jonathan returned to work following the incident, according to multiple people, he had a markedly changed demeanor. “Jonathan was never the same, it was kind of scary how different he was,” says Ben*, a cook from 2018 to 2019 who was close to him. “He was this depressed person I didn’t even recognize anymore.”
Kahn’s scrutiny only intensified, according to half a dozen staff members, who say that he went from ignoring Jonathan to providing sharp feedback in public or in earshot of others. “Jonathan just struggled with keeping up and Jordan didn’t quietly let him know that,” Katie*, a front-of-house employee from 2017 to 2019, says. “He was always like, ‘I don’t understand why you don’t get this by now. I don’t understand why this is so hard for you. Why am I always having to bail you out? Why can’t you keep it together?’”
“Jonathan would just be doing stuff that was normal and then Jordan would yell at him,” Ben says. “He’d be mopping the floors after service, which everyone does, but [Kahn] would be like, ‘You’re too fucking loud right now.’ Stuff like that. And I know that if I was doing that, he wouldn’t have yelled at me.”
Kahn states that “this account is false and inaccurate” and paints an altogether different picture of his relationship with Jonathan, describing it as “very positive” and that of “a mentor and a protege.” “I nurtured Jonathan and spent a lot of time with him,” Kahn said. “He was very curious, always asking questions about the how and why of cooking and ingredients.” (“Jordan also disputes the alleged quote and especially its tone,” Hofmeister said. “It is a complete fabrication and mischaracterizes his management style.”)
Jonathan left Vespertine in October 2018, about a month after the squab incident. Within weeks of his departure, he took his own life. When Kahn learned of Jonathan’s passing, he announced the news to shocked staff members gathered for family meal in the Warehouse. Some say that they were unsettled when, following the all-staff announcement, the pre-shift meeting and dinner service continued as usual. “People were crying,” Jane says. “It was literally, ‘Oh, someone died, go to work.’ Kahn could have handled it better, he could have told people individually or waited until after service or he could have emailed everyone. He could have given people the day to grieve.”
(“Are you suggesting that Jordan should have closed for service, sent everyone home for the day and upset a full house of Vespertine guests, last minute, that their evening would be ruined?” Hofmeister said in response to a request for comment about this allegation. “Closing was not an option. Also, closing would have been untenable for the many employees who rely on hours to sustain themselves.”)
Kahn says that grief counseling was available through the employees’ benefits package — although no one Eater spoke to recalled being informed of it — and some felt like the restaurant didn’t go far enough to acknowledge the tragedy. “I know that whatever was going on with Jonathan, we can’t blame the restaurant for,” Ben says. “But whether you like it or not, something happened in your restaurant, and it was a death.” Jonathan’s family declined to speak for this piece, and his name was changed to protect their privacy.
“I continue to mourn the loss of Jonathan,” Kahn says.
One of the most hallowed tenets at Vespertine was the ethos of “shadows and whispers.” This sensibility permeated every element of interaction with guests — from reciting a dish’s ingredients to escorting diners to the bathroom. Even in the kitchen, silence was the objective, with Kahn often whispering feedback in cooks’ ears. “You can’t make noise, you can’t talk, you can’t yell, you can’t bang pots,” said Ruth Ostrowski, a former morning sous chef and kitchen manager. On one occasion, the entire kitchen staff, including Kahn, removed their shoes and sat on the staircase because the noise generated from cleaning their stations at the end of service could be heard in the dining room, where a VIP was finishing up dinner.
The Waffle’s naturally reverberant setting of open spaces and hard materials meant that a person speaking at a regular volume in the ground-floor lobby could be clearly heard in the second-floor kitchen, according to a former server. While strategically placed spotlights above each table obscured servers’ movements throughout the dining room, ensuring stealth necessitated not only the famed Jona Sees-designed goatskin slippers, but choreography that some staffers say pushed them to their physical limits, and beyond. According to Alex, Kahn “saw us as a necessary evil.” It was like “he wished the dishes would just float down from the kitchen and mysteriously appear on the tables,” he said.
Kahn denies that there was any specific choreography beyond “relatively routine stuff” like “pouring wine and placing flatware, serving plates and bowls of food on the tables, table-side saucing,” but nearly every server Eater interviewed described the intense physicality needed to traverse the stairs silently — softly, tiptoeing along the edge of each step. “You have to walk on your tippy toes without making any noise carrying really heavy trays,” said Simone*, a dining room server from 2018 to 2019. “It was an intense level of stress.”
Miller, the former server who began working at Vespertine in April 2019, claims that he injured both Achilles tendons from repeatedly climbing the stairs with the expected level of silence. “I made it about two and a half weeks before I went to bring something downstairs and my ankles buckled,” he said. “We move as steady as the beating drum that you cannot hear — it’s flat foot up and flat foot down. Flat foot up is not much of a problem because you’re able to catch yourself on the ball of your feet and gently bring the heel down. But coming down, the heel is catching all of the shock. That is certainly where my injury originated.”
Kahn referred Miller to his personal physician, Stefan Hagopian — who, in addition to his medical practice, owns a biodynamic farm in Topanga Canyon that provides Vespertine with herbs, vegetables, and flowers. According to Miller, Hagopian gave him a pair of nonprescription orthotics. When he returned to work two days later, he was assigned to the ground-floor garden and permitted to wear more supportive shoes. Though the new arrangement alleviated some of Miller’s discomfort, the nagging injury continued to cause pain. When he was tasked with climbing stairs while holding trays multiple times during a busy Saturday-evening service just a week after his injury, he asked the service captain to be relieved from his duties. The following week, his employment was terminated, roughly one month after it began.
In early May 2019, shortly after Miller’s final service, a workers’ compensation claim was filed by Sprout LA at his request. He was assigned an adjuster who connected him to medical services, but after two doctor’s appointments scheduled 10 weeks apart and a mostly unused prescription for an anti-inflammatory painkiller, he closed the claim. “It was clear that this was an uphill battle, so I was going to independently seek out some other means of physical therapy that later included X-rays, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and electric therapy,” he said. “I don’t think the human body is really cut out for the enormous amount of strain that goes into being perfect every second of a shift, every day from 3 p.m. to 1 in the morning.”
Kahn says that he is “not aware of any workman’s comp claims that occur at Vespertine because all claims are handled directly through HR,” but that he “made a personal recommendation to the employee to a friend of mine who is a physician because I too suffer from back and foot pain and felt empathetic.” Hofmeister, Kahn’s spokesperson, separately stated that Miller “complained of chronic foot pain that he sustained before working at Vespertine,” (italics hers) and that “he withdrew his workman’s comp claim when an independent investigator sought to learn how his injury occurred.” (Of Alex, the server who alleges Vespertine’s mandatory slippers injured his feet, she also stated, “the only thing this illustrates is that one person sustained a foot injury, which could have occurred playing tennis or doing any other number of things outside the workplace. Again, this is an isolated incident and not a proxy for the working conditions at Vespertine, given that dozens and dozens of servers have worked without injury at Vespertine over the years.”)
Feeling the pressure to go beyond one’s physical limits was not limited to front-of-house workers, either. With six or seven cooks preparing up to 800 individual dishes during the course of service, the impact of a single person’s absence reverberated throughout the ranks. Michael Luong, the chef de partie on Vespertine’s opening team, says the pressure of being a “team player” compelled him to work even while grappling with early signs of glaucoma. On a Saturday morning in October 2017, he claims that he informed Kahn he was having trouble with his left eye, and needed to get eye drops before coming to work. To make it through the 11-hour shift, Luong avoided bright lights and worked in the kitchen’s dimmer areas. “I was squinting with my left eye the whole night because if I kept it open I’d be tearing,” he says. “It got so bad that the reflection from my knife would give me sharp pain. I purposely moved to the more dark spots in the kitchen to help it.”
Though cooks working close to Luong that night encouraged him to go home early, he didn’t bring the severity of his condition to Kahn’s attention during service, working until he was sent home sometime after 11 p.m. After taking a two-week-long medical leave, Luong resigned to focus on his health. He ultimately lost vision in his left eye in January 2019.
According to Kahn, when “Michael showed up at work with his eye bloodshot red, I sent him home early and asked him to text me when he got home.” Moreover, he said, “our HR documentation shows that this employee’s doctor recommended he take a week off, which we allowed him to do, during which time he chose to resign so he could focus on his health. His doctor referred to the condition as an eye irritation, making no mention of glaucoma or blindness.”
Restaurants of Vespertine’s caliber are generally obsessive about their guests, and go to incredible lengths to craft not simply a delicious meal but a fully memorable experience tailored to each diner’s sensibility. Vespertine goes further than most in this respect, with valet attendants greeting each diner by name when they pull up to the Ditch — a water fountain at the restaurant’s front entrance that ebbs and flows like tides. But former employees say that in its fanatical approach to hospitality, the restaurant can sometimes go too far, pushing workers to their limits and crossing the fine line between fully anticipating a diner’s wants and making assumptions based on their circumstances or background.
It’s common for fine dining restaurants to conduct extensive background research on upcoming guests, to ask probing questions when they arrive, and to keep meticulous records of visits, excavating any details that might allow the restaurant to more finely hone a diner’s experience, from catering to specific tastes to providing fodder for more personalized small talk between courses. After Vespertine lost several key front-of-house managers in 2018 — its founding director of operations, wine director, and service captain all left within the restaurant’s first 16 months — dining room duties ramped up for the remaining front-of-house team, according to multiple former staffers. As a result, they allege, completing and filing “service notes” — which detailed everything from a diner’s preferred water type and favorite courses to which hand they ate with, and were due to managers before noon the day following service — was increasingly performed by servers off the clock.
“They want this done with every table, and sometimes I would have upwards of six or seven tables, so I’m coming home ... and I still have to do all these notes. It could take up to two hours to get it done correctly,” Simone said. “Sometimes a manager or captain would send me an email back in the middle of the night, ‘Hey, you got that wrong. They actually had this course after that course,’ or things like that. I’m doing this for free. Why am I doing this?”
Eater has reviewed emails containing service notes that Simone and Jane submitted to management via email after they’d clocked out on multiple occasions, as well as emails sent by Kahn and a member of the management staff providing service corrections to Simone timestamped at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. Kahn says that “there is ample time allotted at the end of the server’s shift to complete this work,” and that “I was not aware of any work being performed off the clock as no such claim was ever brought to my attention nor the attention of HR.” Moreover, he contends, “if there were any corrections to the guest notes sent by a manager” late at night, “no response from the server was required or expected.”
Two categories of guests merited particular care and attention: first, as at practically every restaurant, VIPs, who were known internally as “sparrows,” and for whom service is especially mindful; and second, “a person who typically documents their experience at length and posts photos on social media,” known as a “peacock.” (Another kind of visitor, health and safety inspectors, was once referred to in internal documents as “swine,” which Kahn says he had been “unaware of,” is “mortified by” and “apologize[s] for.”)
A signature moment of each meal is the appetizer course served on a rooftop deck with sweeping views of Los Angeles. According to Rachelle Golden, a California-based employment lawyer specializing in disability-access compliance, “if you open the roof for one person that doesn’t have a disability, it must be open for everybody that may have a disability.” Yet numerous employees told Eater — and the building’s official plans filed with Culver City show — that a flight of outdoor stairs accessed from the kitchen is the only route to the rooftop deck. (An elevator brings guests to the mezzanine dining room.)
Typically, former employees say, whenever a guest was unable to scale the stairs, the restaurant enacted what was called the “rain play,” which involved shutting down the roof for an entire seating. But on one occasion, this sleight of hand went too far for some staffers. On October 30, 2018, the late Top Chef contestant Fatima Ali, who publicly had stage 4 cancer at the time, had an 8 p.m. reservation. She was assumed to be in a wheelchair and, according to service notes for the evening that Eater has reviewed, slated for the “rain play.” Earlier that same evening, fellow Top Chef alum Mei Lin was set for the full Vespertine experience, which included appetizers, drinks, and conversation with Kahn on the rooftop deck. Kahn, several former front-of-house employees allege, directed staff to exhibit discretion to ensure that Ali didn’t catch on to the discrepancy. A number of staffers felt deeply troubled that they were being tasked with deceiving a terminally ill guest; according to several front-of-house staff members who were present, the wine director threatened to walk out, leading to an altercation with Kahn, who ultimately relented and closed the roof to both chefs, cursing about Ali in front of the staff. (The wine director, who did not wish to speak for this piece, ultimately quit over the incident, according to multiple sources.)
Kahn disputes every element of this account, from the inaccessibility of the roof deck to the use of the “rain play” to the nature of “the conversation in question,” which he says “was witnessed by only a few people,” and could not have resulted in “an escalated argument.” He claims that the roof was closed that night because of the weather, and that, moreover, the rooftop — which is licensed as a mechanical roof deck, not a dining area — is not required to be wheelchair-accessible. “As a courtesy for its guests,” he says, Vespertine operates an electric chair lift that “is only set up when requested/needed and removed when not in use” so that it is “accessible to all.” (Golden, the lawyer, told Eater that under the California Building Standards Code, only permanently installed vertical platform lifts are allowable.)
Hospitality at the upper echelons of fine dining means not just responding to guests’ needs as they arise, but to anticipate them before a guest even knows what they want. Multiple staffers say that for diners deemed peacocks, however, this could veer from preternatural anticipation into stereotype, and that the term was somewhat derogatory, with Kahn sometimes preemptively cutting courses in anticipation of extensive photography or palate fatigue. Several former employees also allege that while social media influencers wound up with the label, international diners from Asia were also frequently placed in this category. “This person is a Chinese businessman, so ahead of time we’re going to prepare ourselves that they would be a ‘peacock,’” Scribner, the former sommelier, says. “There was a little bit of assumption immediately that if somebody was Asian they would want certain things.”
“Beef isn’t really a course that we would serve, but if there was a Chinese guest,” Katie said, “[Kahn] would be like, ‘I know they’re going to want like beef, caviar, and truffles, like that’s why they go to Michelin restaurants,’ so he would take out the other protein and put in beef.’”
Kahn disputed these assertions, as well as the notion that “peacock” was ever a negative designation. “Every guest who dines at Vespertine gets an opportunity to speak with me prior to their meal to discuss their likes and dislikes, allergies, aversions, and preferences. I then tailor the menu according to the guest’s preferences,” he said. The term peacock, which “was discontinued years ago,” he says, allowed service to be customized so that guests had ample time and space to document their meal. “It is absolutely false that diners from China were served anything different than guests from any other country,” he said. “Many of our most loyal customers happen to be Chinese and we find it vulgar and offensive that anyone would suggest that ethnicity is a consideration in the shaping of our menus.”
“We go to extreme lengths for our guests,” he said. “It would be inconsistent and counterintuitive to go to such great lengths and spend all of the energy and resources to ensure our guests happiness while at the same time belittling them with negative terminology.”
For every staffer who felt ground down by their time at Vespertine, another says that they thrived, drawn by Kahn’s ambition and the possibilities embodied by the restaurant. “My mindset for Vespertine was 100 percent focused and I was 100 percent ready to jump into this new experience,” Ostrowski, the former sous chef, said. She remembers interviewing with Kahn back in 2017 when the Waffle was still under construction. As he walked her through the unfinished building, Kahn shared his hopes of creating a restaurant that married architecture, music, art, and food, and his desire to turn the hospitality industry on its head while collecting Michelin stars along the way. She started working at Vespertine on day one and only left in early 2020 “for a better opportunity.”
Staffers also say they were regularly privy to Kahn’s charm and magnetism. Aleks Visser, a former front-of-house staffer who provided written statements to Eater in support of Kahn, recalls gestures like picking up late-night pizzas or burgers after a grueling service and celebrating staff members on their birthdays.
There was, however, a clear division between staffers who were in Kahn’s good graces and those who weren’t, according to numerous former employees. “It’s definitely a place of major favoritism, and I was on his good side,” Jane said. “I think that he got along with me because he is very much one of those people who’s weird for the sake of weirdness.” While Jane found it easy to connect with Kahn, she witnessed colleagues struggle to find their place. “If he didn’t like you, you would know he didn’t like you, and you wouldn’t really be there for very long,” she says. “I don’t know if there’s any rhyme or reason as to why some people he just didn’t like.”
The result of that divide, former workers say, was an environment that could feel cliquish, with people who pushed back against Vespertine’s culture ostracized — a feeling that they say could be exacerbated by the restaurant’s management company, Sprout LA. “Everything was a ‘he said, she said’ and favoritism, and it just didn’t feel legitimate,” said Simone. Even “if you would talk to HR, there was really no HR in sight.”
Valerie*, a server from late 2018 to spring 2019, says that she was considered a top performer by Kahn and other managers, and was on track to advance to a more demanding role as an expeditor. In March 2019, she contacted Sprout LA to allege a hostile environment and unfair treatment regarding her hair and clothing. Shortly after speaking to Sprout LA’s director of human resources and Stephen Schmidt, Sprout LA’s management consultant, she says that she received low marks on her performance review, with damaging plateware being cited as the main cause. “I was so upset because we were in that mindset where even thinking that you were performing not up to standard was just devastating,” Valerie said. “Jordan is not the only problem, but it is also Sprout as a whole, and HR doesn’t actually help any of its employees.”
When Scribner alleges that he was sent home by Kahn after the language-barrier miscommunication incident, “I didn’t come in the next day, I refused to. I was not in the mindset to work because I’d been kicked out of the restaurant and disrespected and mistreated,” he says. “I got a call from our management consultant telling me that I was letting everybody down. And he told me about all the times that he’d been abused by chefs and how it’s something that you just have to deal with.”
“I don’t feel like HR was a real ally,” says Alex, who worked at another Sprout restaurant after leaving Vespertine. “No one is going to be an ally to you, they’re only going to do what [is] necessary and so you feel kind of apathetic.”
In a statement, Schmidt said that Sprout LA “investigate[s] and work[s] with the teams to resolve all complaints and grievances brought to our attention,” but “does not speak on behalf of its partners, associates, and clients,” and otherwise declined multiple requests to answer specific questions or otherwise comment for this story.
Kahn denies any allegations of retaliation, claiming that “all of the concerns were addressed and proper due process followed.” More broadly, he said, “I have been told by people who have moved on to work at other establishments and by those who return that our environment is one of the most professional, nurturing, and supportive cultures of any kitchen.” He also noted that “about 20 employees who have left and pursued careers elsewhere have come back,” which he describes as “highly unusual especially for a restaurant that’s only three years old.”
When city-wide mandates prohibited indoor dining in March 2020 in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Vespertine closed its doors and initially laid off its entire staff. Within a week’s time, Kahn converted the restaurant’s fine dining operations into a takeout-only model that allowed him to rehire all of his former staffers. Nearly two years later, Vespertine has yet to reopen for indoor dining — Ephemera, a pop-up announced in fall 2020 that would recreate some of the classic Vespertine experience, with the return of the Jona Sees uniforms and new music from This Will Destroy You, never materialized — but the restaurant retained its pair of Michelin stars this past fall.
Since its debut, Vespertine has represented the pinnacle of the Los Angeles dining scene on a world stage that hasn’t always understood, let alone respected, the city’s breadth of culinary offerings and formats. But the values of the hospitality industry have undergone considerable transformation over the past two years. In a restaurant universe increasingly dotted with experiments in form and reconceptions of the relationship between worker and restaurant, it remains to be seen, whenever fine dining as we once knew it returns, whether the elevation of food to the level of art will still be prized as it once was without considering equally the ambitions of a virtuoso chef and the context in which they are brought to life.
For those who believed in Vespertine and what it aspired to be, the personal cost was worth it, at least for a while. “Most of us felt like cogs, but we felt like we were cogs that were part of something important,” Miller said. “I got to be a part of something special for one month. I had no idea how long I’d pay for it.”
If you or anyone you know is considering suicide or self-harm or is anxious, depressed, upset, or needs to talk, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. For international resources, here is a good place to begin.
Cathy Chaplin is the associate editor of Eater LA.
Brittany Holloway-Brown is an illustrator and designer based in Brooklyn.
Fact checked by Shreya Chattopadhyay