Animal’s former Chef de Cuisine, Jonathan Whitener, steps out on his own with new restaurant.
By Elaine Morgan Cutting
With whacky, one-of-a kind bamboo bar tops, taxidermy goat heads, and the tantalizing smell of roasted meats, there’s a lot to take in when walking into the new Los Angeles hotspot, Here’s Looking at You. Owned by the famous Animal restaurant’s former Chef de Cuisine, Jonathan Whitener, this new venue is a fantastic blend of wildly unique designs, crazy dishes, and fantastic flavors. We spoke with Whitener about this newest venture as well as his history with cooking and his hopes for the future.
LA CANVAS: Why are you passionate about cooking?
Jonathan Whitener: Cooking has been something that’s deeply rooted in my childhood. Especially since my mom is an amazing cook. She’s Mexican and we have a huge family, so cooking on the weekends and holidays is a major thing. One day, I got thrown into this recreational program to cook. The chef that ran this class explained that he’s worked in Japan and he’s cooked for the president and all this cool stuff and I was like “maybe this is for me”.
LAC: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
JW: I got this job at the Hyatt Regency off PCH. The cooks took me under their wing and taught me about up-and-coming chefs and things that I should pay attention to. We were just cooking hotel food, but the cooks showed me the refinement of fine dining. I went to the Culinary Institute of America. I came back and worked in this place in LA called Marche Modern, traditional French food, cooking fresh with market ingredients. That’s when I really fell in love with cooking and wanted to do it as a career for sure.
LAC: What inspired you to strike out on your own and why now?
JW: I met Lien at Animal. She was working there as a manager. We became close friends and she always expressed to me that she wanted to open a place. A friend and I did a menu for her birthday. We started talking about really doing something. I don’t really know why now, it just all came together at the right time.
LAC: How did you decide on the feel and style?
JW: Lien and I decided to do it ourselves. Everything is low, the dinner tables are very modern. We wanted to be a little funky. We wanted the reclaimed wood, a little bit of color. I like taxidermy so we added taxidermy. Morrissey is on the wall. He’s a huge activist for PETA and veganism. It’s just funny and ironic because I love Morrissey as a musician, but it honestly looks like he’s judging you as you’re eating your pork belly.
LAC: Where did the name “Here’s Looking at You” come from?
JW: I’m a huge Tiki fan. Lien sent me a thank you card and It had this little Tiki pin-up on it and she was holding a cocktail and it said “here’s looking at you”. That clicked for her. Lien really dove into it and it’s actually a 1920s toast. We’re hosting people, so every time a guest comes in it’s like our toast to you “here’s looking at you”. It worked well because it got people to talk about it and it created a great exchange with guests.
LAC: What’s the most rewarding aspect about running Here’s Looking at You?
JW: I have such a great team. It really is like family here. The cooks are really invested in the food. There are dishes in the menu that pretty much everybody has contributed to in some way. Also, we get some of the best guests I’ve ever encountered. We have a decent amount of locals, a lot of younger millennials hang out at the bar, serious food veterans come from Hancock Park, and the Mayor loves eating here with his wife and kid.
LAC: Walk us through some of the highlights of the menu.
JW: Our signature dish would be our Beef Tartare. It was the first dish that Lien ever tried from the actual restaurant menu. It made her cry a little bit. That and our Soft-Shell Prawns with the sauce diablo, the Foie Gras, our Yuzu Tart, and our strawberries and sour cream ice-cream. That plays on a Latin dessert. Its sour cream mixed with strawberries and brown sugar.
LAC: What are the inspirations for your dishes?
JW: We have so many backgrounds and styles of cooking. My kitchen alone is multi-cultural. I’m Mexican and German heritage, my sous chef’s Japanese, my pastry chef’s Venezuelan, my other sous chef is Japanese and Syrian. We have a pork belly dish, it’s traditionally fried pork belly, more French technique, but has Thai, Vietnamese, a little bit of Japanese and Middle Eastern influences. The strawberries and creme is something I used to eat as a kid. So, there’s just all types of influences that come together.
LAC: What about your cocktails?
JW: Danny and Allen do our cocktail menu. Those guys are like mad wizards with their cocktails. I don’t even know how they come up with their stuff sometimes. I told them I wanted a blue drink and they used the Violet to make the Weston, this blue-violet martini. The Sacred Squirrel is made of brandy, but it tastes like A Christmas Mai Tai. The way they make their things is just as funky as my cooking, so it’s a great marriage of the two things.
LAC: When you’re not here, where in LA do you like to go?
JW: If I don’t end up sleeping in all day on my one day off, I end up going to Tiki-Ti. It’s this legendary tiki bar here. The Buhen family has owned it since 1961. I go for the nostalgia of going somewhere with history. Usually, I go down the street to El Cochinto and get a Cuban sandwich.
LAC: What do you hope to see in the future for Here’s looking at You?
JW: I just want to see how it progresses. I will always obviously be a part of it; this is my baby and it always will be, but the only way for this restaurant to progress is to bring in new blood. I cannot always be here making the same stuff because it’ll get stagnant and boring. I’m not afraid to give someone else the freedom to make dishes. Even now, I let these guys come up with what they want. As long as we all approve that it’s delicious.
Here’s Looking at You: Koreatown — 3901 W 6th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90020 (213.568.3573)