Here’s Looking at You chef Jonathan Whitener dies at 36

Jonathan Whitener, a chef and partner at Los Angeles restaurants Here’s Looking at You and All Day Baby, died at his home Wednesday evening, according to a Los Angeles County coroner’s report. He was 36.

An LA County coroner’s representative confirmed he was pronounced dead at 7:38 p.m. Wednesday

The cause of death was not yet known pending further investigation.

“Here’s Looking at You,” which Whitener opened with managing partner Lien Ta in Koreatown in 2016 to immediate critical acclaim, was sombre Thursday night. An Instagram post said: “We are very sorry but HLAY will be closed tonight for family reasons.”

At her Silver Lake restaurant, All Day Baby, regulars hugged employees as they arrived for the evening shift.

Jonathan Whitener in March 2020.

(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Whitener was formerly head chef at Animal and had cooked at restaurants such as Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo and Mirazur in Menton, France. He grew up in unincorporated Midway City in the heart of Orange County, down the street from Bolsa Avenue in Little Saigon.

“He was just inspired by the diversity of Southern California — from fast food to every variation of a concession stand,” said Patric Kuh, the former Los Angeles Magazine restaurant critic who wrote the book “Becoming a Restaurateur” based on the experiences of Whitener and Ta at Here’s Looking at You. Whitener also was a research and development chef for Arthur J in Manhattan Beach, said Kuh, the restaurant’s assistant general manager.

“He knew Vietnamese food inside and out. “He loved breakfast guests and the everyday food that drives Southern Californians,” Kuh said. “It was characterized by incredible respect for technology. “He loved flavors, whether in a classic kitchen or from the flat-top grill of a short-order restaurant.”

Whitener and Ta met while both working at Animal, the former Fairfax Avenue restaurant owned by chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, and decided to open a restaurant together. Here’s Looking at You immediately drew crowds for its spicy cocktails, cake served at the bar, and Whitener’s menu of kaleidoscopic flavors reminiscent of the cuisines of Mexico, Vietnam, Japan, France, and elsewhere.

“Almost every chef in town has flirted with shishito peppers in recent years,” wrote the late LA Times critic Jonathan Gold. “But Jonathan Whitener’s version is perhaps the best: seared and arranged on the side of a large, rustic bowl with the sauce that one would normally drizzle on a summer veal tonnato pooled in the bottom.”

Here’s Looking at You was named Restaurant of the Year by Food & Wine in 2017 and was named to The Times’ list of 101 Best Restaurants in LA. Whitener and Ta opened their second restaurant, All Day Baby, in late 2019.

Times staff writer Gustavo Arellano contributed to this report. This is a developing story.

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