Former Employees Make Shocking Claims Against LA's Vespertine

The treatment of workers at one acclaimed LA restaurant has come under scrutiny this week, thanks to a new Eater LA report that shines light on the notoriously demanding and high-pressure world of fine dining. The sprawling report accuses the Culver City, California, hotspot Vespertine and owner Chef Jordan Kahn of fostering a toxic restaurant culture that failed to respect workers' physical and emotional boundaries.

The story, which draws on the experiences of 18 former employees of the award-winning restaurant, alleges that Kahn's behavior often stepped over the line, even by the stringent standards of fine dining restaurants. Although none of the interviewees alleged sexual harassment or physical abuse, the employees reported that their mental and physical well-being suffered during their time at the star chef's groundbreaking restaurant.

Chef Kahn first gained culinary notoriety as the youngest cook to ever work in the kitchen of Chef Thomas Keller's famed restaurant, The French Laundry, at age 17. The Keller mentee went on to work as a chef at the acclaimed restaurants Per Se and Alinea before opening his own restaurants, Red Medicine and Destroyer (via Star Chef).

In 2017, Kahn opened Vespertine, his most ambitious culinary project yet. Prior to opening, the high-concept restaurant garnered lots of attention thanks to its location in an iconic architectural landmark building known as "The Waffle," and its reported $250 tasting menu price tag (now priced at $295), which made it one of the most expensive culinary experiences in Los Angeles (via Eater).

The high-concept restaurant received 2 Michelin stars, despite mixed reviews

According to the restaurant, the high-concept eatery aimed "to re-imagine and explore the experience of dining," intersecting the worlds of "food, art, architecture, music, and sculpture ... to create an immersive, multi-sensory event."

Vespertine opened to mixed reviews; while New York Times food critic Pete Wells noted that the rambling tasting menu of "17 unrecognizable courses" had left diners a mix of "perplexed, impressed, annoyed, or all three," famed LA Times critic Jonathan Gold gave the new restaurant the No. 1 spot in his rankings of the city's 101 best restaurants that year (via Los Angeles Times).

Despite the somewhat tepid critical reception, the restaurant received two Michelin stars in 2019, making it one of just six Los Angeles restaurants to earn the coveted two-star status (via Michelin Guide). 

According to Eater, while many of the restaurant's former workers found their time working at Vespertine to be a positive and formative learning experience, others felt more negatively about their physical and mental treatment under Kahn's tutelage.

Some servers, who were instructed to walk quietly on their tiptoes in sound-dampening goatskin slippers up and down the building's numerous staircases, experienced foot pain, blisters, and bleeding as a result of the practice, and allegedly weren't allowed to provide their own supportive footwear despite reporting their injuries. In one extreme case, a worker had to seek extensive physical therapy and pain killers as a result of the strain on his Achilles tendons.

Workers claim harm to their physical and mental well-being

Female servers reported having to go through strict pre-shift inspections to ensure that their appearance was up to the restaurant's exacting standards — including being told how to do their makeup and cut their hair. Meanwhile, some front-of-house workers reported frequently being expected to work into the early hours of the morning without overtime pay.

Other workers reported receiving passive-aggressive treatment, beratements, or perceived demotions after making even minor errors. In the most severe case, one Vespertine cook appeared to fall into a depression after receiving repeated lectures by Kahn, according to his co-workers. A few weeks after leaving the restaurant, the cook died by suicide. Although the restaurant offered grief counseling to its staff in the wake of the death, workers were expected to carry on dinner service as usual after receiving the news.

In response to the accusations included in the report, Kahn insisted that "Eater is being misled by a handful of former servers who have orchestrated what they refer to as a 'smear campaign.'" The chef stated that "a substantial majority" of the report was "based on false information and mischaracterizations of the facts." 

Although the potential impact of the story on one of Los Angeles' most sought-after tables is unknown, the report provides valuable insight into the changes that the fine dining world needs to undergo to foster a healthier and more hospitable work environment for restaurant workers everywhere.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.