Last year, Ari Taymor and Ashleigh Parsons opened Alma in downtown Los Angeles, an intimate restaurant that surely and steadily won praise from the local critics. In August, those accolades blew up even bigger when Bon Appétit named Alma the best new restaurant in America. In the following interview, Taymor talks about Alma's evolution from a restaurant he feared might have to shutter into one that is soon to take on a prix-fixe-only menu. The Palo Alto native also reflects on opening a restaurant in LA and the community chefs are building in his adopted city.
I know you were already booked out every night when Eater LA talked to Ashleigh back in March. What's it like with all the national accolades now?
We kind of trailed off during the Summertime. Everyone was out of town. Now we're pretty full through November, but we also tend to get a little bit of flexibility night to night because people do cancel or don't show up for reservations. So [the dining room does] tend to open up later on the evening for sure. If people walk by we try to do our best to take care of the neighborhood.
What has the whole Bon Appétit experience been like for you?
It's been a really humbling experience. It's been one of those things where you question, do we really deserve this? But overall it's really exciting. My staff, my kitchen especially, felt really validated. They'd been putting in a lot of work, so it was really nice for them to see that their work has been well-rewarded and noticed, which was really cool.
And you recently announced you're switching to prix-fixe only in November. Was that prompted by this onslaught of attention?
I don't know if it was prompted by it. It's definitely something I've always wanted for the restaurant. I feel like it's the right move for a restaurant this size in terms of our storage space. We don't have a walk-in. We have like two refrigerators and one low boy for service, so we don't really have any storage space to run an a la carte menu. I'm at the market five days a week, which I'll probably continue to do anyway, but I think it's going to allow us to focus our food, our prep, and our energy. And it'll allow us to bring in other products.
Why didn't you want to open that way?
LA's a tricky town. It's really difficult being an outsider to navigate what diners in LA really want or what is going to be a successful concept here. I'm already doing food here that's a little bit outside of the norm, and I didn't really want to come in and dictate to people how to eat or what they should be doing when they come into the restaurant. I wanted to make it more of a user-friendly experience.
And now do you think you have their trust to do so?
I hope so. It's more that we're getting more requests for our tasting menu, and we can't really accommodate it with the amount of covers that we're doing. I feel like people are trusting us a little bit more, and I want to curate the experience a little bit more so they can understand the full abilities of the kitchen and the full sensibility of the food.
We're keeping our check average more or less the same. [The cost of] our five-course [menu] is pretty much what people are spending here anyway, so it's not really a price change. It's more just a closer focus on keeping everything tight and organized for us. [It's] also giving people a wider array of the dishes and pushing them to try some stuff they wouldn't normally try on their own.
Alma. [Photo: Elizabeth Daniels]
It's interesting what you said about being an outsider in LA. I know you were cooking in San Francisco. Is that where you're from?
Yeah, I grew up in Palo Alto. I went to college in DC and came back to San Francisco to start cooking.
Did you go to culinary school?
I didn't, no. I just kind of begged my way into kitchens. I told people I would clean, peel, whatever they would let me do just to get some experience. I helped open Flour + Water, and then I went to France, came back and first job back was Bar Tartine.
I was talking to Sarah Simmons about the concept of paying your dues in restaurants. You're young, but you've paid your dues at some pretty well-respected places. To what extent is it important to do that and when do you cut loose?
I think you definitely need to have experience seeing how other restaurants run. It's really important to see how other people's visions come to life and the nitty-gritty, non-glamorous side of restaurants. It's really important to have a feel for how that functions before you do your own thing. I don't think you need to work for somebody forever, but it's important to get some experience, to see different chefs and different styles, and learn fabrication skills. [It's also important to] learn how people clean, or why they do what they do, and be able to make your own decisions based on having a different array of experiences.
How do you know when it's time to move on from that?
I think you just kind of have a feeling. [I think you need] at least a year in a kitchen at the very least to be able to have a semblance of what they're doing. After that, a good chef will send you on your way when they feel like you've gotten what you need from them. They'll be like, okay, it's time for you to go. They'll usually set you up with a job and send you on to the next place. I had a couple of chefs who were really helpful in terms of being like, "Listen, it's been really worthwhile, but I think you should see something else and I can give you a hand with that." I think that's what a good mentor will do.
So when did you know that Alma was what you wanted to do?
Always. When I started cooking, I always wanted my own place. I always wanted it to be small. I always wanted to have a really intimate experience and to have an open kitchen where people could see what was going on. That was really always the dream. It was a matter of gaining some leadership skills, learning how to cook properly in a restaurant, and learning how to manage people and stress to be able to do what I wanted to do. So I always knew what I wanted, but the ability to do so took some time to develop.
How was that learning the management skills? Did you get some of that working in restaurants or has it mostly been on the job?
Yeah, that's an on-the-fly learning experience. Learning how to motivate people, how far to push them, and when to pull back has been the most challenging. Especially the first year, I pushed people just too hard, and I lost staff because of it.
I saw you tweeted last week that "happiness is being able to create every day with no one telling you what to do." Can you tell me a little more about that experience?
I had run restaurants for other people and it was really challenging. People will tell you whatever they want to say when they want to hire you, they'll be like, "full creative control, I believe in your vision." But at the end of the day, it's their profit, their restaurant, and their money you're playing with. If you're the restaurant owner, your financials are on the line. I would get into arguments with owners about what I wanted to do and what they wanted to do and it was just a really frustrating experience. I would have rather been working for somebody else that I really trusted and believed in as opposed to running a concept that was half my food, half somebody else's.
And on the flip side, now it's like I can buy whatever products I want. I can support the farms I want. If [my cooks] want to bring a product in that they're really excited about, we can bring that in. It becomes a more collaborative experience where everybody is learning from each other. It's really exciting to work in a place like that.
Ashleigh Parsons and Ari Taymor. [Photo: Elizabeth Daniels]
What is the biggest thing you've learned since you guys opened?
To really trust myself. Being young and doing this, it's very easy to get into a place of self-doubt, especially early on when we were really dead slow. We came really close to closing a couple of times. It was in that situation that I had a choice to either give up, change the concept, or just sit tight and hope people would come and see what we were up to. I believed in myself and I believed in my staff and [in] Ashleigh, my business partner. We felt like we had something to say. That was validated, I guess.
Matt Orlando at Amass said something about how changing your concept is the most deadly thing.
Yeah absolutely. I think that's a death sentence for your restaurant because then you get into an uninspired place and people don't think you believe in yourself. If you don't believe in yourself, they're definitely not going to show up.
So what's going on looking ahead?
We're looking for space for our rooftop garden. We still have our garden in Venice which we just put chickens in and we're planting for the Winter. Ashleigh is running our social outreach program, which we really love. And really just gearing up to switch over to prix fixe. We're all really excited for it. It feels like it's really going to be the best expression of what we're doing. I think it'll change the vibe of the restaurant and make it a more fun place to eat, I hope.
Is there anything else on your mind?
We're really excited about the LA food scene right now and being a part of it. Some of the older chefs have been really cool to us and really supportive and helpful. It means a lot to see a restaurant culture that's very similar to the ones in New York and San Francisco where chefs eat in each other's restaurants and shout each other out. That's really cool, and I think it was missing for a little bit down here. It's so exciting to see that happen. That's probably the most rewarding part about cooking.
That's cool. How has that developed?
I just feel like you're getting smaller restaurants that aren't owned by restaurant groups, which I think is very instrumental. Just getting a lot of chefs willing to give back and wanting to continue to be a part of LA. They're excited to be down here. They want to keep fostering the next wave [of chefs], and they're as excited about your success as they are, it seems, about their own. Everybody understands that another good restaurant isn't competition. It's just another draw to bring people to the city.