How Zarah Khan Is Transforming the Legendary Rustic Canyon
Last fall, Rustic Canyon chef-owner Jeremy Fox made headlines when he announced that Zarah Khan would be stepping into the role of executive chef at his storied, hyper-seasonal Santa Monica standby. Khan is the first female chef in the restaurant’s history, and she is making her mark on the menu.
Khan, who is half-Pakistani and half-German, was born and raised in Seattle. Her culinary career began there in pastry and eventually led her to the role of executive chef at the acclaimed New American restaurant London Plane. In 2020, she moved to Los Angeles to lead the kitchen at Silver Lake’s Botanica, where her vegetable-forward, Mediterranean style of cooking was a natural fit.
Last October, she brought her spice cabinet and her measured mentality to the West Side, and she’s been slowly settling into a rhythm at Rustic ever since. We caught up with the chef to hear about her new role, how her menu is shaping up, and what she has in store for Rustic Canyon ahead.
Resy: Now that you’re three months into your new role, how are you feeling?
Zarah Khan: It’s been super hard. But my sous chef came with me from Botanica, and we had a moment the other day where we were like, ‘It’s our team now.’ When we first came in, it was Andy [Doubrava]’s team, and it’s weird to walk into a house that someone else built. It was a really nice moment to be like, “Okay, these are my people now.” One of my cooks brought in wellness shots that her mom made her and we all did these little ginger-turmeric shots before service. I came from Botanica, which is female-owned, and it’s definitely a softer space. So I’m hoping to make Rustic a little softer, too. There are a lot of things that I have in mind about being here, so I’m just trying to stay focused on those things, even when it’s only month three of six [working] days in a row. I’m trying to remind myself of my missions and why I’m here, and how I want to change the culture and put my stamp on this institution.
Rustic Canyon must have a big built-in base of regulars. How has it been engaging with them?
My style is so different from Andy’s. People are hopefully gonna roll with it, and the ones who don’t won’t. I’m anticipating that some people won’t like it, and they won’t come anymore. But I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback. Also, the clientele in Santa Monica is older [than that of Silver Lake]. I definitely want to bring in more young people and make this a hip place to be. I’m still gathering information, but also trying to be true to who I am and cook what I want to eat.
How are you bringing your sensibility as a chef, and the ingredients you like to work with, to the Rustic universe?
There’s a lot of outside noise and I want to live up to the expectations and be good enough. We’re in this foundational phase where I’m trying not to be too fancy or smart about things. I’m trying to redo this fish dish right now, and it’s not flowing. So, I just have to get really quiet and think about how I want to eat it. Let my energy go where it goes. I’m doing the pastries now, too, and for some reason my creative energy is working better with that. I’ll let it happen as it happens.
Is the menu totally your own now? Or is there anything that remains from before your time?
The beets and berries salad [with quinoa, mint, fuerte avocado, and pistachio], which is classic Jeremy Fox, hasn’t come off the menu in 10 years. At first I was like, “We gotta change it.” But now I’m like, “You know what? That’s perfect. It’s totally fine as it is.” There’s a fish that chef Fox put on semi-recently, too. Everything else is mine.
How do you collaborate with Jeremy Fox?
Last night we were texting about this pasta that I’m working on. It’s kind of intimidating working with him because he’s such a genius. This sounds weird, but the way that he touches things and lets them be — he doesn’t try to force [ingredients] to look different — is really cool. It’s the ultimate consideration for the thing, whatever it is, be it ricotta that you made or treviso from the farmers market. Especially as a female chef, you can tell when it’s a male kitchen. Things tend to be very heavy-handed and manipulated. But next to him, I’m like a big oaf — he’s so refined and nice and delicate. He’s really amazing to talk about food with. Sometimes I’ll be like, “I have this idea, but maybe it’s too crunchy.” He’s also trying to meet me where I am, and sometimes we’ll have the same idea, and that’s cool. I’m like “Okay, maybe it wouldn’t be too much to put bee pollen on this.”
You’re the first female chef at Rustic Canyon. What’s that like?
Most of the executive team is male, it’s a very historically male and white male space. If you’re not a brown woman you might not feel it in the way I feel it. I’m in this phase of asking myself, “Can I do this? Can I create this space that’s softer and more collaborative than it typically has been?” And I don’t know the answer, only that it felt like that at Botanica, so I think I can do it here. It’s definitely a bigger, more old-school world. But I can’t make myself smaller to be in this world; I have to just take up the space that I take up and hope that that’s okay.
I can’t make myself smaller to be in this world; I have to just take up the space that I take up and hope that that’s okay.— Zarah Khan, Rustic Canyon
What are your staple ingredients as a chef, that you’ve brought with you to Rustic?
Week one, I set up shop: start making yogurt, preserve some lemons, order five gallons of tahini. So definitely those three things, and then all the herbs, all the time, forever. Those were the things that made this feel like it was my home now. I definitely brought a lot of spices in.
What are your five top spices?
Coriander number one, forever. Then sumac, aleppo, urfa, and za’atar that we’re making in house, which is fun. Nigella seed is also high on the list.
Has your relationship with the farmers market changed at all, now that you’re working in Santa Monica?
I don’t think it’s different mainly because I’ve been going to the market at least once, if not twice a week, for the last three years. So, I already had relationships with farmers. We’re working with Karen [Beverlin] of FreshPoint Produce, the New York Times wrote an article about her, she’s sort of like the godmother of the farmers market. So, that’s been a cool connection that I’ve made. She has obviously been working with those farmers for longer than I have, so she’ll give me hot tips on what’s really amazing right now.
Is there a dish or two on the menu right now that really showcases what it is you’re trying to do at Rustic Canyon?
The chicken set I really like right now. It has carrot in all of these different iterations. I made a carrot muhammara. I’ve been making muhammara forever. I’m divorced now, but when I got married, we made it for our wedding. It has carrot molasses, roasted carrots, and carrot top yogurt. And then the chicken is brushed in yogurt that we made that’s seasoned with turmeric and ginger. I like that because it’s a really strong set. The carrots could be their own thing, but then there’s also this beautiful chicken on it. If I’m going to cook meat, we’re going to bring it really hard. It’s not just going to be a piece of meat on a plate.
And then there’s a salad right now that has all of these different types of citrus from the market. The blood oranges that are going off right now are on it, and they’re so beautiful. It’s the most beautiful salad I’ve ever seen, and it’s not even because I did anything. It’s just farmers market fruit that we cut nicely and there’s tehina and passion fruit and Persian lime. I always laugh because Dave Chang said that thing about Californian chefs just putting figs on a plate, and yeah, we did slightly more than that, but not too much more.
How do you approach making desserts?
I’m sort of always like, how crunchy can I go? Will people like it? I don’t eat sugar, so for me, the things that I’m making for the restaurant are really sweet. People will be like, “Amp up the sugar!” And I’m like, “Maybe we should all collectively amp it down.” There are three plated desserts on the menu right now. The one I just put on is a fig leaf and vanilla panna cotta. There’s this crunchy layer of macadamia nuts that are toasted and pulsed with Persian lime and salt and sugar, and then I just slice kiwi really thin and tile it over the top and drizzle it with more fig leaf oil. It’s really clean and crunchy and fruity and sweet. There’s also a chocolate-date halvah that will never come off the menu that I’m obsessed with.
How do people tend to eat at Rustic Canyon? Do they get their own mains, or share?
I also want to change that. People are not super share-y here. The way that our menu reads is very linear, and I want to change the way the menu physically looks on paper. I’m tip-toeing into, “You’re sharing things, and they’re coming as they are ready.” I want everything to be small or medium-sized, and for you to share everything and get a lot of stuff. Yesterday I was like, can I put hummus on the menu? Maybe, why not? I think I always want to have a dip on the menu. If it’s going to be Mediterranean, if it’s going to be me, then there’s going to be a dip.
Have you learned anything over the last few months that has really stuck with you?
The first one and a half to two months, I was literally just going to work and then coming home, and going to work and coming home, and maybe going to El Prado and then coming home. My dad has always said you need all of these different rooms in your life. I realized I need to be really intentional about my time before work every day. So, I got a yoga membership and I’ve been going to yoga more seriously. That’s been really helpful, having something to do in the morning that’s hard. Knowing I already did a really hard thing is a nice way to come into my day, so that no matter what happens, A, I had this time for myself to not think about work, and B, I can do this. I’m in this transformative time and I’m trying to not be super self-conscious. I’m trying to find happy moments and calm moments. Someone wrote something mean the other day on a review, but then someone else came in and wanted me to come talk to their table and they were really nice, so I was trying to let that hit me. If you let the negative really hit you, it’s hard to let the positive things in.
What are you excited for? What’s on the horizon at Rustic Canyon?
First of all, I can’t wait to actually hit my stride. I’m excited to continue working with this team; I feel like the team we have in the back of house right now is really good. I like to ping things off people whose opinions I respect and whose energies I work well with, so I’ve always felt that the food that comes out of the kitchen is a reflection of the environment of that kitchen. I’m excited to take up space in this old-school world. I’m trying to put together a dinner with Yola [Mezcal], so I’m excited about that. If you had told me three years ago that I’d be the chef at Rustic, I’d be like, “Lol, what?” I’m excited for the things that I don’t know are going to happen.
Emily Wilson is a Los Angeles-based food writer from New York. She has contributed to Bon Appétit, Eater, TASTE, The Los Angeles Times, Punch, Atlas Obscura, and more. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.