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

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.

(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 Bolsa Avenue in 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.

“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.”

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.

“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.

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

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