(Originally published November 16, 2012 on Examiner.com).
NOTE: Despite awards and accolades, the original stand alone location of Alma closed in the fall of 2015. This article was written well before that. But even though some details of this article are now dated, Ari’s culinary journey hasn’t changed, that journey has just continued to grow (despite the trials and tribulations).
Not often does a chef’s food remind one of a graduate semiotics course, but to understand Ari Taymor’s plates at Alma Restaurant (at 952 S. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles) literary analysis seems apropos to grasp this chef’s authorial intent. Though when eating off of each plate, there may be a tendency to dissemble it in order to savor the intense flavors separately, the intent of the cuisine seems not so much a lesson in deconstruction, as it is one in decoding, recoding and re-associating not words but flavors and textures made with both familiar and unexpected ingredients, herbs and seasonings.Thus understanding Taymor’s cooking is not an exercise in categorization, but rather an exploration of Taymor’s memories, influences, philosophy and motivation that are the basis of whom he is and why he cooks what he plates.
The pages of this culinary novella begin in Northern California in Palo Alto in a family of Russian Jewish ancestry but not any cooks. Hopping quickly ahead, Taymor crossed the country to Washinton D.C for college not culinary school. He studied international affairs at George Washington University. After a brief hellacious stint as a salesman for a software company, Taymor begged his way into the kitchen of Lalime in Berkley, a restaurant his family frequently visited growing up. Taymor started off washing vegetables and cleaning the walk-in. The forty year old chef there at that time, Steve Jaramillo, was Taymor’s first mentor and instilled within him ideas regarding seasoning, and doing a little bit more, with unexpected care.
But then in 2008, the economy imploded, and Taymor was off for his next culinary adventure with the young aggressive Chef Thomas McNaughton, at Flour + Water. According to Taymor, McNaughton’s sourcing of product is impeccable and McNaughton is fanatical about always receiving, butchering and utilizing the whole animal. During Taymor’s year in this kitchen, McNaughton’s attitude toward sourcing and whole animal utilization made a lasting impression.
Next stop was France to work for Chef Armand Arnal, the head chef at La Chassagnette for four months, this restaurant’s season limited to when only all of the food can be taken from the restaurant’s farm. La Chassagnette is the only certified organic Michelin star restaurant in France. Though Arnal worked seven years for the legendary Chef Alan Ducasse, Arnal’s cooking is unlike Ducasse’s more traditional French fare. Arnal’s food is very contemporary, light and of its specific region of France. With the farm immediately outside the kitchen’s door, produce is quite literally picked before it’s used. Learning the difference between when food is picked, and the intensity of its flavors, especially herbs, was a lasting lesson that Taymor took with him from this chapter of his career.
Returning to the states, Taymor worked for the next ten months for Chef Chris Kronner at Bar Tartine in San Francisco until the restaurant concept changed and the chef left. Kronner according to Taymor was a fanatic about sourcing the best product. The next four months were spent in the kitchen as a chef de partie working all of the stations at Plate Shop for Chef Kim Alter, who Taymor definitively stated had the biggest influence on his cooking. Alter, who Taymor stated is “totally underrated,” marries “rustic and refined, tasty and unusual.” Ari continued to note that she’s an exceptionally hard worker who cares deeply about what she creates. Moreover in Alter’s kitchen there was no competition, every one worked together as a real team. Alter is one of many chefs that graduated from David Kinsh’s Manresa Restaurant, one of the country’s pre-eminent restaurant destinations. When she left Plate Shop, Ari did as well. Alter is now the executive chef at Haven in Oakland one of Daniel Paterson’s group of restaurants.
What Taymor took away from his next two stops in Santa Cruz and Santa Monica (before starting the pop-ups in Los Angeles and Alma Restaurant) was that never again would he work for “restaurateurs who aren’t doing it because they love it.”
With a very small budget of less than fifty thousand dollars, Taymor opened up Alma Restaurant in one of his former pop-up locations that once housed a kabob spot. Most of the infrastructure was already in place.
The restaurant’s frequently changing menu though isn’t due to its pop-up root origins, rather this frequency is a product of Ari’s produce driven cooking philosophy, a philosophy born in part from his prior experiences in other kitchens that has made him adamant about freshness, sourcing and utilizing the whole animal. Thus the menu (which is also almost updated immediately online) depends on what’s the best available and most in season meat, herb or vegetable as well as maximum utilization to minimize waste. So for example, if his (non-factory) supplier for rabbit, Devils Gulch Ranch, has rabbit available at a specific time, the availability of this protein and its utilization will drive a dish or dishes as will what are the freshest most flavorful foraged or farm to table items available. Due to this philosophy as well as due to a lack of refrigerated storage space (i.e. no space for a walk-in), once anything is prepped, it isn’t held more than one day before it is thrown out. The only thing kept in the small freezer is ice cream.
Taymor feels he’s just now becoming more refined and mature as a chef, growing a lot faster limiting himself to no more than four items on a plate with a lot more attention spent on each component. So like an author whose literary work becomes less as easily referential to his mentors and literary heroes, Ari’s cooking is evolving and developing its own distinctive voice by decoding and then recoding all the prior lessons he learned in other kitchens and through his travels as well as studies and memories. For example recoding includes taking flavors from new ingredients and re-associating them with more familiar textures. One such item is Taymor’s triple sage ice cream made with three types of foraged sage (black& white sage, and sage brush) used to give ice cream an amazing intense flavor profile unlike any flavor of ice cream available.
Though not a transitional gastronomist, Taymor recently further expanded his flavor repertoire by adding a number of unusual foraged ingredients (provided by Urban Outdoor Skills) many he hasn’t seen before, and many with much more intense flavor than their domesticated cousins
Soon too Alma will be getting its liquor license, and will feature organic natural wines made withbiodynamically grown grapes and natural yeasts from the United States and France. Locally crafted beers from the region as well as some sake wines will also be available.
So Taymor at Alma is always learning and growing with ingredients, as well as with the liquor license. He’s also learning from the different people in his kitchen who he encourages to come up with dishes to add to the menu. For him every one he works with is both a student and a teacher. “You’re only as good as your kitchen,” Ari said. To this end, to expose his team to other chefs or teachers, Taymor plans to have guest chefs cooking in his open kitchen with his team. The first chef scheduled in December is ChefJason Mattick of Milo & Olive. A number of other prominent names will follow. Taymor wants his kitchen to become one that others will want to come to work in from Los Angeles and elsewhere. Though, Taymor is just starting and small in scale, he has high goals.
Compared to San Francisco and New York, Ari notes that that Los Angeles really doesn’t have the “institutions”, that is those restaurants like Manresa or Coi in the San Francisco region that draw chefs for work from other parts of the country and world. Thus Los Angeles also isn’t a city that is a magnate for what Ari defines as “authorial” chefs (not necessarily avant garde ones) whose cooking is based on personal experience rather than more neatly defined categories and or concepts which is more the norm in this region.
Taymor’s high goals don’t only pertain to his kitchen; they also pertain to his community. His team’s general manager Ashleigh Parsons (with her master in education from Harvard University) is developing an outreach program to the community via its schools.
In 2008, Ari Taymor met his future general manager for Alma Restaurant, Ashleigh Parsons, at a yoga studio. While Taymor was working away in kitchens (as previously noted in Part 1: Alma Restaurant’s Chef Ari Taymor’s culinary odyssey), at this time Parsons, a Harvard grad with a Masters in Education, was a program coordinator at the Tenderloin After School Program [TASP], a free after school program in a low-income neighborhood and food desert (i.e. no groceries stores). The San Francisco program was not food related, but it was where Parsons became really interested in food policy, since the kids in this program would arrive to the program with cheetos and coke for breakfast and lunch because this junk food was the cheapest and often only option.
During her job at TASP, Ashleigh started working with Ari doing Alma pop-ups around SF with usually 10-12 people. These were low key events with friends and family. So through her experiences with these pop-ups and at TASP, she became interested in food access as well as providing high quality ingredients to consumers.
Now with Alma Restaurant’s outreach, the Alma team ultimately wants to increase knowledge about healthy options and ingredients, which, in turn, has the potential to change the attitudes and decisions that are made when people purchase ingredients or food from various locations including fast food chains, grocery stores, and other outlets. Further, their team believes that providing learning opportunities that are hands on has the ability to positively impact a child’s experience in the classroom. They feel that this is a sustainable business model. A model where high quality restaurants providing high quality education about food and consumption to young people, may ultimately be a way to make positive change.
Parsons says she’s already seen a positive impact through the program her team started this past September at Esperanza Elementary in Los Angeles. The kids participating are asking for the recipes of the items they’re making. Their curriculum consists of monthly classes that teach a “harvest of the month.” Please see their featured lesson plan in Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard Project. The aim of these lessons is to teach seasonality, nutrition, and recipe writing. In each class, Taymor, Parsons and their team make a recipe that can be easily replicated at home. They also have a small edible garden at Esperanza Elementary where they, with the kids’ direct involvement, are growing herbs, such as mint and sage, as well as cauliflower, radishes, and lettuces.
Local farmers and other chefs Alma’s team works with have been very supportive of Alma’s outreach. When Alma’s team built the edible schoolyard at Esperanza Elementary, Eric from Flora Bella Farmscame and donated his time and plants. His girlfriend, Wendy, who is the sous chef at Melisse, also joined them along with their friend/photographer, Brian McGinn, and Andrea Bricco, a food photographer for LA Magazine. Parsons stated this “was a wonderful event.”
Recently, Alma’s team has expanded their out reach to the New Village Charter High School. Currently Parsons noted that Alma could feasibly work with three schools: one elementary, one middle school, and one high school. But as her team gains momentum, funds, and volunteers, she believes that her team could grow the program significantly, while maintaining the quality of classes that are taught in the schools.
Like with Ari’s aspirations for Alma Restaurant becoming a place for chefs to come (see Part 2: Alma Restaurant’s Chef Ari Taymor’s authorial intent), learn and share their learning, Parsons also has a grander vision for Alma’s outreach. Starting small, she believes that they can increase the scale of their program and firmly believes this model is sustainable. Further it can be replicated in other places across the globe. So in both the restaurant and through its outreach, Taymor, Parsons and their team are all finding small ways to make real change by thinking globally, while acting locally, and thus having a real tangible impact upon their community.