Chef Ari Kolender has deep roots in the South and its cultural traditions, but he has embraced California cuisine and its emphasis on seasonal fare and made it a key element of Hayden, a new Culver City café and wine shop.
“We’re using the best of what’s in season now,” he said in the Hayden kitchen, pointing to cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, eggplant and other ingredients he largely finds at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market.
Hayden opened in July, formalizing Kolender’s return to Los Angeles after spending a few years back in his hometown of Charleston, S.C., where he raised his culinary profile and was named a James Beard Award semifinalist in the Rising Star Chef of the Year category.
Kolender, 33, comes from a family with strong ties to Charleston. His maternal grandmother was born there, and his paternal grandparents, both Holocaust survivors from Poland, met and settled in Charleston and remained part of its Orthodox Jewish community. Kolender attended Jewish day school through eighth grade and became a bar mitzvah at an Orthodox synagogue there.
He gained his love for the kitchen as a child, despite being a picky eater. “I learned from a young age that if you help cook, you don’t have to help clean,” he said.
So, he trailed his maternal grandmother, and “I was always her helper in the kitchen.” Meanwhile, his mother cooked full meals at least five nights a week in their mostly kosher household, where they ate “traditional Jewish food with some Southern ingredients like corn, tomatoes and okra.”
He began working in restaurants in his early teens, and after an attempt at college didn’t take, he came to Southern California in search of culinary experience and training.
After getting started with low-end jobs in area restaurants — his first job was as a dishwasher — Kolender studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and worked four years in the trenches at Michael Cimarusti’s consistently top-rated Providence in Hancock Park. He then went on to flex some modernist cuisine muscles as sous chef at Red Medicine with chef Jordan Khan, now of the avant-garde Vespertine restaurant in Culver City.
As he was laying the groundwork for a successful culinary career in L.A., however, the pull of family became strong, and so in 2012 he moved back to Charleston, a city with a deep and complex culinary heritage that at the time was enjoying a boom in its restaurant scene and tourism.
“There’s a lot of history there, you can feel it,” Kolender said of the city and its centuries-old Jewish community. “And honestly, it feels great.”
In Charleston, Kolender went to work at The Ordinary, an oyster and seafood-focused restaurant where he was part of a team that drew accolades for its emphasis on local traditions and ingredients. He then partnered with Brooks Reitz, the former general manager of The Ordinary, to open Leon’s Oyster Shop, where he was the chef and was nominated for the James Beard award.
“I very much enjoyed my time back home,” he said. But, he realized, the city had its limitations.
“There are a lot of restaurants in Charleston, and a lot of people doing amazing things,” he said. “[But] people want to eat a certain way and eat certain things.”
He left Charleston in August 2015 to return to Southern California.
“From art to food, it’s the place to be,” he said of his second home. “A lot of younger chefs are being given the opportunity to be themselves and put their craftsmanship out there.”
After several short-term chef gigs, he was contacted about taking on his new role in Culver City. The project came about when restaurateur James Starr of Golden State, Bludso’s and Prime Pizza played matchmaker between Kolender and the owners of the Hayden space. Kolender and Starr are partners in the business, with Starr overseeing operations.
Hayden is located in the new Platform development on Washington Boulevard, near the Expo Line’s Culver City station. A partition separates the restaurant from the glam Tom Dixon decor and home goods showroom at the Platform development near the Expo Line Culver City stop, but the design savvy carries over.
At the laid-back Hayden, the casual service and menu smoothly transition from breakfast, lunch and dinner. Morning meals feature buckwheat waffles, grains served in bowls with heaps of avocado and shiitake mushrooms and healthful beverages to win over the crowd from the nearby SoulCycle. The patio, set beneath the elevated Expo Line tracks, makes for an urbane vibe, ideal for happy hour lounging over sommelier Anthony Cailan’s wine picks, along with charcuterie and cheese platters, creative veggies and hearty proteins.
The restaurant’s extensive counter area becomes a raw bar at night, which Kolender is comfortable running from his days at The Ordinary and Leon’s. He also uses his beloved cast-iron pans for specialties such as banana bread.
Hayden has become somewhat of a family affair, too, with Kolender’s younger brother, David, working alongside him in the kitchen.
The restaurant’s menu doesn’t have any particular hints of Southern or Charlestonian cuisine, Kolender said, “but it’s something I’m looking forward to showcasing.”
Hayden, 8820 Washington Blvd., Suite 101; (310) 593-4777; hayden.la