Kensho Group Founder/Owner David Wynn often skates around LA thinking about his to-do list. There are the hotel rooms he has to open and the spaces around town he plans to turn into restaurants, bars or event centers. There are a seemingly endless number of tasks involving design, food and beverage, amenities, and operations. But skateboarding keeps him calm and focused as he moves from point A to point B.
Wynn is building an Asian-American hotel empire, and it’s doing it with a clear purpose. Wynn, who is half-Korean and was born in Los Angeles but spent about a decade of her childhood in Seoul, is here to show you that many things can be true at the same time. You can be Asian and American. You can be refined and showy. You can create stylish, moody environments that make people want to eat, drink, and party together. You can do things for yourself that are also enjoyable for many other people.
After creating the eclectic kensho restaurant/wine and sake bar, hidden in the Hollywood Hills, Wynn and Kensho Group are working on projects in the Arts District and West Hollywood. Wynn also has spaces in Venice and Chinatown that it plans to transform in the future.
“It started in Hollywood, but now we’re building (the brand) into something that can grow and evolve in a way where all of our friends who are beverage professionals or chefs or a design team can work together to create concepts ranging from small to large and everything in between,” he says.
In April, Wynn- and Kyoto-born executive chef Yoya Takahashi (who previously ran the kitchen at Michael Ovitz’s Hamasaku restaurant) opened Kodo, an izakaya in the arts district. Takahashi, a jovial, music-loving, bearded chef who is known for his shameless dancing at Grateful Dead concerts, likes to color outside the lines. He’s noticed a trend towards small Japanese restaurants, so he’s thrilled to have a new wave izakaya with a sprawling patio that feels big and loud. At Kodō, which seats about 80 people (not including a fire pit out back where guests can gather for drinks), Takahashi offers omakase sushi but also cooks deeply funky eel liver skewers and scallops. whole with their liver and eggs.
“I want to create my own style of restaurant,” says Takahashi. “I want to present every part of the scallop that has taste. I just believe in myself. If I like it, it goes on the menu.
Kodo is part of Rykn, a ryokan-style boutique hotel with nine rooms that Wynn plans to open this summer. Guests will enjoy in-room dining (including Takahashi’s version of a kaiseki dinner and Japanese breakfast) and spa/sauna time in a Japanese-style bath, all doing part of a luxurious package that can range from $1,000 to $2,000 for two people. And Rykn has already opened its coffee all day for coffee, sake, wine and casual dining with egg sandos and noodle bowls. The location, right next to the Yangban Company and on the corner of Bestia and Damian, is also ideal for food tours, and Wynn plans to organize arts district guides for its hotel guests.
After opening Rykn’s rooms, Wynn and Takahashi will turn their attention to Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, where there’s a two-story space they plan to unveil this fall. There will be an izakaya/bar with a kitchen setup and robata grill similar to what Takahashi uses at Kodō.
“It’s going to be downstairs, but we have a second floor,” Wynn says.
“It’s going to be a secret, don’t say anything,” Takahashi interjects and laughs.
“The floor is kind of like a secret TBD experiment that we’re working on in the studio,” Wynn says, also laughing.
Kensho Group also has a site in Venice (which Wynn says is “a garage for our architects”) that has been converted into an equally secret location. retail store/tea room/ephemeral space which could eventually turn into something else. The hotel company is also thinking about what to do with a gigantic Chinatown space that could house a market, a food hall or a collective of chefs and collaborators.
Wynn, who has worked as a creative director in video production, uses Kensho Group to connect the dots between the things that inspire him in Los Angeles. He started skateboarding as a teenager because it was a way for him to assimilate into American culture. He thought about going pro but now realizes his skateboarding adventures were leading him down a different path.
“It’s a fun way to learn about the city and learn about the people,” says Wynn. “It kind of shaped my view of everything, film, art, storytelling, design, clothes, fashion, food – everything. is a tough street thing. My formative years were all about skateboarding. I like to bring that kind of fun punk skater mentality to the restaurants that I open. Yoya is like that too. He’s not like a Super traditional stiff gentleman. He’s so much fun. He’s like a skateboarder in my head.
As free-spirited as Kensho Group is, Wynn and Takahashi understand that it’s a privilege to create Asian-American experiences on their own terms. There was a time, not too long ago, when that didn’t seem possible.
“I mean, I’m a mixed-race kid,” Wynn says. “So living in Asia and living in the United States, I was always quite conflicted about whether to put an American face or an Asian face, or what to hide and what to show. It’s been a challenge, just like as a person, to have an identity crisis all the time. But this restaurant that we just opened, and everyone involved and the community that’s built around it and Asian-American food culture, has really empowered me and our brand to embrace who we are. I think being Asian-American is an LA identity and an LA experience at this point. So I’m really grateful and proud that we are in a city and have a culinary group that truly embodies it. It can become a platform that other people can look at and say, “This is huge.” And that’s what they do. It sort of aligned everything for me.
When you build your own path, the whole point is to create something new and different.
“Food changes,” Takahashi says. “Every restaurant was the same. But now many restaurants have something unique. I think the younger generation appreciates that. It’s Los Angeles. It’s a beautiful thing.