It’s a warm, fall day in sunny Los Angeles as I walk with three gentlemen to a secret loft in the Arts District. The building is around the corner from the famous Biscuit Company Lofts and across from our friends at Urban Radish—the local market. I have been told that the place I am about to visit goes by the name “Apartment A” and its construction is currently being finalized. We enter the old-style, brick building, reminiscent of San Francisco or old New York. Brandyn—one of the fellows escorting me—unlocks the door and invites me inside.
It’s important to note that I am naturally a skeptic and I am not one to fall for hype or someone else’s enthusiasm in a heartbeat but as soon as I walked into Apartment A, I knew immediately that I was on the ground floor of something very special.
The three gentlemen—Brandyn Tepper, Max Kestenbaum, and Matt Landes—are all from the cocktail world in Los Angeles and New York City. The three of them represent their newly founded company, Cocktail Academy, which is a culmination of many things. One being the Cocktail Academy bar that acts as an exhibit, gallery, and event space for everything and anything art-related while also pairing libations and food with each respective theme. The other project, which is now in it’s opening stages, is Apartment A—a loft dedicated to experimentation, cocktail development, and intimate, curated events and dinners.
Not long ago, Los Angeles was known for nothing other than the Hollywood lifestyle and its inability to create a long-lasting impression in the food and beverage world. Things have changed—in fact, they’re still changing—and LA is going through a renaissance from the west side to the east side. Downtown LA (DTLA), specifically, is booming with an increase of quality artisans, specialty shops, farm-to-table restaurants, and underground supper clubs. It’s exciting because DTLA was nothing more than the forgotten side of LA’s sprawling metropolis that people were too scared to venture to or lacked culture for today’s highly-opinionated, young generation.
“The reason we chose ‘Academy’ was because it has a universal reference used for education, for arts, for business, even for photography or fashion,” Matt says. “All the art we create happens to be drinkable, happens to be in liquid form and is alcoholic. We want to be viewed in this community the exact same way a great sculptor or photographer is viewed.”
An artistic space is exactly what they created with Apartment A. It’s the right combination of grunge with urban characteristics, nature, and nostalgic references from a time that no longer exists. You are transported into a different world where plants and foliage cover the majority of the red-brick walls and ceiling, and antique furniture surrounds the space evocative of prohibition or… Boardwalk Empire.
The concept behind all of their projects is ambitious, but their goal remains consistent as each space will play a role in the overall journey of the team of Cocktail Academy. They all compliment each other in offering a place where as soon as you enter, the world behind you no longer exists and the only thing that matters is the experience you have.
“When you are in Academy—when it opens—it’s going to feel like you’re in an artist’s studio,” Matt began. “Maybe it’s Andy Warhol in the ’80’s and he’s in Hell’s Kitchen in a huge brick, warehouse and you’re not sure what he’s creating but the music is playing and it’s crazy and our back bar aren’t bottles but paint brushes and cans. Then a drink hits the table and it’s amazing. You notice the drink you’re drinking, the music you’re hearing, the food you’re tasting and what you’re seeing all plays in this artistic experience. We can pair our drinks with art. We didn’t come in here to kick artists out and put in a club; we want to add to it and be a part of this to create something. We want brands to use the space and people to live it and feel it.”
The ambition of what these guys want to create with Cocktail Academy and Apartment A are endless. I wanted to learn more about their history and dig deeper on the dynamic of their team.
“You notice the drink you’re drinking, the music you’re hearing, the food you’re tasting and what you’re seeing all plays in this artistic experience.”
Matt Landes — The first thing you notice about Matt is that he is tall. Extremely tall. His whole family are New York transplants and moved to Los Angeles in ’93—just in time for the Northridge earthquake. He has always had an infatuation with ultra, luxury experiences.
“When you walk into a five star hotel or an establishment that is well done—like La Cirque in New York, or La Bernardin, or Thomas Keller— you feel completely taken care of every need anticipated. So I asked myself: how do you create that?” Matt recollects as he tells me he decided to study Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Denver.
After graduating, he worked at Montage in Beverly Hills and became the bar manager which included creating a cocktail program for the lobby of the hotel.
“That was my first experience with craft cocktails. My first experience where it mattered to me about what it was I was using, the glassware I was using, learning about vermouths, and bitters.”
After working at Montage, Matt ventured off into 41 Ocean—a private members only club in Santa Monica—where he met Max and Brandyn. He spent six months getting the concept off the ground.
Landes was ready to embark on something new and something of his own, but little did he know that a simple call would point him in a new direction.
Max Kestenbaum — Max embodies the characteristics of a clean-cut gentleman with perfectly combed hair and a well-groomed beard. He is full of enthusiasm and I often wonder at what speed his mind must travel at. There is no such thing as tomorrow, only what Max can accomplish right here, right now.
Max grew up in west LA and then moved to New York in 2008 to study communications in business. Through college, he supported himself by bartending and got increasingly interested in the craft by way of osmosis.
“I actually started as a bar back at PDT (Please Don’t Tell), a world famous cocktail bar,” he says. “My first introduction to cocktails was with a guy named David Slape. I saw him and had never really seen someone use a jigger before or any classic technique or anything. The way he moved and did everything was so precise and spot on. At the end he flamed a lemon peel and I have never seen that before. The drink I ordered was called the Westside since I just had moved from LA to New York. It was blue and it was the coolest drink of my life. That was the single moment when I said, ‘holy shit, this can be cool’. That’s when I realized you drink with your eyes first.”
Brandyn Tepper — Out of the three, Brandyn seems to be more reserved and speaks in a softer, more relaxed tone. He was born and raised in Santa Monica and Venice. After graduating Santa Monica high school, he went to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo to wrestle.
“In a competitive, division one wrestling school, you really learn a lot about competing in a classroom and competing on the mat,” Brandyn recalls as he treats everything in life as a competition and a way to excel himself.
In 2010, he graduated and landed a job as a busboy at a beach restaurant. After starting at the bottom of the barrel, he quickly rose to be on the bar staff and eventually moved back to Los Angeles where he worked at 41 Ocean and Hinoki & The Bird—a respected restaurant owned by Chef David Myers.
To this day, Brandyn is still fanatical about craft cocktails and learning everything he can about them.
“There isn’t a bar article, bar video, or anything that comes out that I haven’t seen or read about,” he says.
“Literally, this is how it happened,” Max begins to recount the story of how Cocktail Academy manifested itself. “I call Brandyn one day to meet for a beer. We’re sitting there and staring at our beers and I turn to Brandyn and say ‘we should open a bar’. He goes ‘uh huh’. And I’m like ‘No really, we should. You down?’ and he’s like ‘I’m down.’ Who should we call? Lets call Matt. I call Matt and say ‘I met with Brandyn. We want to open a bar. Lets open a bar.’ He says ‘okay’.”
Shortly after, the three of them are touring spaces in Downtown Los Angeles.
“The reason I had the energy and optimism originally was because I had the opportunity to interview both Brandyn and Max,” Matt assured me. “I saw their strengths. Brandyn is more of a quieter guy, and Max isn’t. Where Max is missing some organizational skills because he is more of an outgoing, creative left-brain—Brandyn has that.”
The three of them make for an interesting team and are among some of the most ambitious people I’ve met—which I respect. Far too often, people tend to remain content in mediocrity—whether it may be a job or a relationship—and never take the step to something more meaningful.
Passion is something we are all capable of achieving, but only those that are hungry enough will act on it in order to surround your life around it. It may be scary, it may be risky, but it will be worth it.
People like Brandyn, Max, and Matt are why Los Angeles is changing for the better. Rules don’t apply anymore and the norm is irrelevant. Their journey is just beginning; we’re excited to be there documenting them along the way.