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Jonathan Whitener, chef of Here's Looking at You, dies at 36

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 18: Here's Looking At You Co-owners Lien Ta and Jonathan Whitener outside their re-opened restaurant in Koreatown on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
Jonathan Whitener, right, and Lien Ta opened Here's Looking At You on a corner of 6th Street in Koreatown in 2016. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

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

A representative at the L.A. County medical examiner's office confirmed he was pronounced dead on Wednesday at 7:38 p.m.

The cause of death was not yet known, pending additional investigation.

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

At their restaurant All Day Baby in Silver Lake, regulars hugged staffers as they showed up for the evening shift.

Jonathan Whitener in March 2020.
Jonathan Whitener in March 2020. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Whitener was formerly chef de cuisine at Animal and had cooked at restaurants including 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 road from Little Saigon.

"He was inspired by just the variety of Southern California — from fast food, every variation of a food stand," said Patric Kuh, the former restaurant critic for Los Angeles Magazine 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 the Arthur J in Manhattan Beach, said Kuh, who is the restaurant's assistant general manager.

Read more: Review: Silver Lake's All Day Baby is brightest at breakfast and lunch

"He knew Vietnamese food inside and out. He loved diners for breakfast and the everyday food that motors Southern Californians," Kuh said. "It was framed by incredible respect for technique. He loved flavors whether in a classic kitchen or from a short order diner flat top grill."

To a large class of L.A.’s culinary talent, Whitener was a skilled and prolific chef who spurred both creativity and competition, setting the bar for what Los Angeles cuisine could be.

“He always set a trend and he did it in a way that’s creative and technical and so true to Los Angeles,” said friend and Bar Le Côte chef-partner Brad Mathews. “He was such a Los Angeles chef; he had the voice of the city through a soft-shell crab that you were like, ‘What? How did you do that?’ Jonathan set a standard for creativity and finding a way to be technical but creative and off the cuff and hyper seasonal — and then to do it all effortlessly. He did so effortlessly.”

That seasonal focus matched Whitener’s creativity, with dishes in frequent rotation. This was especially the case at Here’s Looking At You, which closed due to the pandemic but reopened in early 2022 to great fanfare — setting the bar for L.A. cuisine once again.

Whitener and Ta met while both were working at Animal, the former Fairfax Avenue restaurant from chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, and decided to open a restaurant together. Here's Looking at You immediately drew crowds for its sharp cocktails, pie served at the bar and Whitener's menu of kaleidoscopic flavors that nodded to the cuisines of Mexico, Vietnam, Japan, France and elsewhere.

Read more: Review: The return of Here's Looking at You is a serious win for L.A. dining

“Almost every chef in town has flirted with shishito peppers in the last couple of years," wrote the late L.A. Times critic Jonathan Gold. "But Jonathan Whitener's version may be the best: hard-seared and arranged on the side of a large, rustic bowl at whose bottom puddles the sauce you usually find drizzled onto a summertime veal tonnato.”

Here's Looking at You was named a restaurant of the year by Food & Wine in 2017 and was on The Times' 101 Best Restaurants in L.A. list. Whitener and Ta opened their second restaurant, All Day Baby, in late 2019.

"I am so heartbroken, he was one of my dearest friends," former All Day Baby pastry chef Thessa Diadem told The Times. "He was one of the people who really believed in me and supported me all throughout my career.”

Diadem met Whitener in 2011 when he served as executive sous chef at Mezze and she as pastry cook. Whitener and Ta opened All Day Baby with Diadem as pastry director for the new restaurant, and later Here’s Looking At You.

"He’s also one of the most talented chefs I’ve ever known,” she said. “I remember him being incredibly creative and inspired. He would shoot out ideas and just do them. I knew I wanted to work with someone like that.”

Times staff writers Gustavo Arellano and Stephanie Breijo contributed to this report. This is a developing story.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.