For Alicia Kemper, general manager and beverage director at Fundamental LA in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, the important mantra to remember seems to be just start. The forward momentum of beginning a process, whatever that process is, means there are fewer barriers to entry by the time you arrive at your destination. You start moving fast enough, and almost nothing can slow you down.
The notion is especially true for Kemper's own restaurant journey, which began in her teens working shifts at Skyline, the beloved local Cincinnati chili shop. "My very first job, spring of my 8th grade year," Kemper says now, sitting near the window inside the sleek, modern restaurant she presides over. "You had to move really quickly, because the restaurant would get packed, and you don't have any support team or anything. You had to do it all by yourself."
Working a fast food gig at a chili restaurant at 15 doesn't always lead to a career in the culinary arts, but without taking a second breath Kemper says of her unglamorous start: "That was a great experience."
From there, college — and stints at restaurants far and wide. There was Cosmopolitan in San Francisco; a wine restaurant in Breckenridge, Colorado; Mélisse in Los Angeles; an Italian wine bar in New York; Boca in Cincinnati; and even The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley. Always learning, moving, growing, and experiencing.
The restaurant needed a wine geek and a floor manager
Along the road, Kemper picked up her sommelier certification and a penchant for service. By the time she landed back in Los Angeles three years ago, the job at Fundamental LA seemed tailor-made for her. The restaurant needed a wine geek and a floor manager, someone to work the room and keep the wine list in check as they transitioned into a full service dining experience. Space is at a premium inside Fundamental LA, which operates out of a narrow glass storefront along Westwood Blvd. that doesn't get much bigger as you go deeper inside, so there's a need to be nimble, fast-paced, and to think on your feet with customers. The 29-year old does it all — six days a week, 12-hour shifts — with a smile.
With her years of training and sommelier background, Kemper took a similar approach — just start — to her first wine list at Fundamental LA. Today, half of the restaurant's five-page menu is devoted to bottles, wines by the glass, tasting flights, and notes on the producers themselves, which are almost exclusively natural and organic winemakers, and all far afield from the mass produced, low quality bottles found in a lot of other equally approachable restaurants.
"I find wines you can truly get behind"
The trick to getting the locals in on what she's up to, Kemper says, is to get people to start on the wines they know, the pinots and malbecs and rieslings, and take it from there. A few nights spent over a few glasses with Kemper, and most regulars won't believe how far they've come in trying the more esoteric teran rosés from Slovenia, or glasses of jacquere from Savoie, France. "I don't put wines on the list just because I think they're going to be a huge seller, and I want to move through a lot of bottle," she says. "I find wines that you can truly get behind."
Her customers have done exactly that. With cooking from chef Philip Pretty and Kemper's own guidance, the restaurant is growing at an incredible rate, rounding out lunch and catering service, and formulating plans for a second location Downtown. Eventually, Kemper says she has plans to open up her own wine shop, where she'll be free to stock the bottles she wants and bring in even more customers for a curious taste. The idea still seems like a long ways off to her, especially for someone routinely pulling 12 hour shifts on the floor. But she's already a far cry from that chili restaurant back in Cincinnati, and she's already pulled off the most important step in making her dreams come true: she's started.