text MICHAEL FRANCESCONI
photo RACHEL MANY
After a slow start that saw the brink of closure, Alma, the first brick-and-mortar from 28-year-old Ari Taymor, has surged to the front of LA’s chef-driven must-try list. A mountain of recent press and praise from foodies alike has the restaurant poised to be one of the most sought after seats in 2014. LAC sat with the young chef to review the year gone by and look at what’s ahead.
A year ago you said: “We’re looking to do everything the right way. From the way we build To the ingredients we use. To the way that we treat our staff. We’re looking to do something different.” Any update?
You know, I’m really happy with the way those things are going. With the success of the restaurant, we’ve been able to move closer to those ideals—in terms of compensating staff, growing our own food, working with individual farmers, cooking unique, delicious food.
You’ve been open for a year. You’ve been in LA for two. Thoughts on Los Angeles?
Truthfully, I love it. The markets are the best in the country. The produce here is untouchable. I’ve said that it’s hard to do conceptual food here, but we’re here because we have the best product and it allows us to the cook the best tasting food.
Will you elaborate on conceptual food?
We’re not necessarily cooking from a regional background. Conceptual cooking is trying to bring the essence of some dish you had in Italy or France or Spain into the kitchen. Personally, I have these memories and emotions that I want to articulate through food, and Alma is my venue to do that.
What made you start cooking?
I went to Atera in New York where Matt [Lightner] was serving a beet ember I think they cooked for thirty-six hours. And you look at it and think ‘this is a beet’ but everything that went into it, the way it was eventually dressed and plated, made it taste more than of itself, like the platonic ideal of what a beet should be. When I experienced cooking that made food taste more like itself than it would normally, I realized I had to do it for a living.
Speaking of hyper-realized food, you have to explain your lament of the Cronut.
[Laughs] Look somebody spent all this time and care to make this thing that hasn’t been made before. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s original. If people can use that to articulate something else, and make something that’s equally beautiful and original and delicious, then that’s great, but you can’t just take things from people like that. There’s no copyright on it, but that’s intellectual property. There’s borrowing and there’s chefs sharing things with each other, but I don’t hear anyone thanking Dominique Ansel for making this thing we’ve all been inspired by. They’ve just hacked together a crude copy. It doesn’t seem fair when you consider he probably spent a couple of years perfecting it. What I’d love to see in LA is less of that and more people looking inside and deciding how they can express LA and what we do here and what we love.
Is there anything indicative of LA cuisine yet?
I think it’s still so open. The pervasiveness of second and third generation guys that are straddling both worlds—between immigrant parents and a modern California culture—and are finding authenticity in their cooking without looking for it are going to be big shapers of defining LA cuisine. I guess it’s going to be very personality driven.
Is Alma personality driven?
I don’t think Alma is necessarily about me, Ari. I think it’s more about the memories and emotions that I try to convey to people, the care I show to the staff, the sourcing, the preparations. I think those are things I could eventually instill in a chef de cuisine and no longer be here and Alma could exist and succeed.
Are you working on anything else?
I would love to get the support to turn this into a prix-fixe restaurant. As we grow to utilize the garden more, the easiest way for us to use 100 percent of the vegetables is to have a more focused menu. But that requires trust—guests coming in and feeling comfortable, giving up total control. And I think in LA that’s a little more difficult than it is other places. And that trust takes time. This restaurant is 20 percent of where it could be. We can get so much better. So much more refined.
Goals for the next year?
Be full every night. Continue to grow the staff and give them a bigger voice. Continue growing our social and community outreach. I want more time to do research, to discover how to better articulate through cooking. You know, really, to just keep making better food.