Chef Ari Taymor Talks New Downtown Alma Restaurant (Q&A)
These days, it's not unusual to be a great restaurant in Los Angeles; it's exceptional, however, when a restaurant dishes out a genius menu that generally reflects decades of experience. Alma in downtown L.A. has unanimously swooped up best restaurant of 2013 accolades from L.A. Weekly to Bon Appetit, thanks to chef Ari Taymor, a highly touted California-born chef who's only 27 years old. He's flaunting inventive techniques that seasoned chefs can only dream of, thanks to his heightened sensitivity to ingredients, with dishes centering around one sensation or feeling (in addition to innovative presentation and textures).
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Taymor on Alma's success, what it means to be a young chef today and the food show that he would consider signing on for.
Did you know your restaurant was going to be this successful?
Honestly, no. I never thought we were going to be big. There was talent here and potential to be big but I didn't know if it was the right moment to do what we were doing. I didn't know if people wanted to be pushed and challenged with the food that we serve. Anyway, this is the only food I can cook, so it's either this or nothing.
Did you secretly want Alma to be big?
I can't say I wasn't ambitious. I wanted a restaurant with national recognition. So, I hoped. If I said I just wanted to open a neighborhood restaurant, I wouldn't be honest. I was pretty blindsided with our success. We were doing 12 covers a week when we opened, and sometimes we wouldn't do any at all. To have even gone here since we opened is still a surprise to me. Now, we do close to 90 covers a night. We're booked out to the end of November.
Many critics have said that you're doing things no other restaurant in L.A. is doing. How do you think you fit into L.A.'s dining scene?
I think L.A. was missing a restaurant that really thought about Southern California cuisine as a unique physical and cultural landscape that could really speak on its own. We work with local ingredients, and I'm California-born and raised. I really try to look at the history and geography and environment and different cultures, and the impact that they've made on the physical landscape. We try to work with things that are wild, like fennel and seaweed, and we try to articulate what I feel, like what it means to be in LA in whatever time of year we're cooking.
If there's such a thing as "the next level of L.A. dining," do you think Alma is taking it there?
That's not really our intention. I don't think that's something I could ever achieve. We just want to progress this restaurant, and I don't know what that means for the world at large. But I know we're trying to push ourselves. If there's some sort of influence outside of this, that's great.
How do you see L.A. dining in the next five years?
I see it progressing pretty rapidly. Lots of other younger chefs are doing their thing. For example, Kris at Night + Market is cooking the best Thai food in the country, the best Thai food I ever had. And he's such a good person. I think he'll be an authority on Thai cooking in this country for sure.
Many chefs now seem to be getting fame while they're young, like Kris, or Rebecca Merhej at Terranea Resort's Mar'sel. Is this a trend? Younger star chefs?
Younger chefs have always been around. All the people that were considered the older generation opened when they were about my age. Suzanne Goin wasn't that much older than I was. Daniel Boulud was my age when he opened Daniel. Marco Pierre was getting Michelin stars when he was in his mid-20s…it's been like this forever.
What are your thoughts on young chefs?
I think people are attracted to youth in general. They navigate toward younger, for better or worse…often for worse.
A lot of times people that pave the way are left out of the conversation. Some younger chefs don't have an understanding of what was happening before. You have to have a lot of respect for what came before, like traditions, and to do something new, you have to know what came before. There are legendary chefs who have allowed us to get where we are now, and there's a reason for where they are and who they are and why. It's up to the younger generation to know who they are and learn about them.
Why, specifically, did you choose downtown to open Alma?
Downtown is the only part of L.A. where we could do this food. Downtown isn’t fully developed yet and it's a microcosm of old and new, and I feel like our food is as well. People come downtown for an experience so they're open-minded, as opposed to a neighborhood restaurant on the, say, east side. I moved down here to open this restaurant.
If there's one chef, dead or alive, you could meet, who would it be?
I guess Andoni Aduriz. He's a pretty mind-blowing, avant-garde chef. He opened his restaurant super young, and it progressed to the point where it's one of the top five in the world with three Michelin stars.
Would you ever consider doing a TV food show?
I wouldn't ever but there's nothing I wouldn't do, really.
But if there's one show you would do...
Iron Chef. It's real cooking and it's really creative and fun and could be challenging, and we try to make it as real as possible here at Alma.