Chef Ari Taymor founded Alma in 2012 as a pop-up, which became an established restaurant that same year. His Southern California-inspired cooking has garnered attention both domestically as well as internationally. In 2013, Alma was named America’s Best New Restaurant by Bon Appétit magazine. In 2014, Taymor was named Food & Wine’s Best New Chef. He also received a James Beard nomination as Rising Star Chef in both 2014 and 2015. Taymor’s food is influenced by his commitment to supporting the farmers and ranchers of Southern California.
Taymor recently took the time to talk with Pursuitist about the state of the culinary and mixology world in Los Angeles.
Pursuitist: How has the LA culinary and mixology scene evolved in the last few years? Where do you see it going?
Taymor: I’ve seen it become more location based. For a long time LA would look outside for inspiration, giving way to a lot of Italian and French restaurants. Now, LA is developing its own flavor palate and identity and is looking to include more of a mix of the local culture and nature. It also coincides with younger people stepping up to take on more creative and leadership roles.
Mixology-wise, it started with Julian Cox and the bar programs around the city that he has touched. He’s created cocktail menus that you didn’t see elsewhere around the country and are very LA-inspired. Food-wise is similar, also becoming more personal, unique and LA-based. By “LA-based,” I mean in terms of ingredients and inspirations. Farmers markets have always been huge here but they’re being used differently now, especially with the way products are plated and seasoned.
Pursuitist: Where do you derive your inspiration from for your dishes? Do you solely play off what ingredients are available to you or do draw more from personal experiences and then work within the constraints of what ingredients are available?
Taymor: I draw my inspiration from the California coast – the weather, physical landscape, the seasons, the way things smell, textures, the way the light hits. Especially when I’m outside, in the environment, away from the city – I’m really inspired and feeling most connected to what I do.
Pursuitist: You recently created several custom cocktails using BACARDÍ Gran Reserva rums to be served at the James Beard Foundation Taste America. What was unique and/or enjoyable about the experience?
Taymor: It’s using a totally different part of the brain from doing food. I got to speak with bartenders I know and think about flavors profile in a different way and was able to use sweet flavors more. Overall, it was a fun, different challenge.
Pursuitist: Speaking of rum, in your opinion, how would you incorporate rum into your dishes? What kind of effect can rum have on ingredients (i.e. what type of flavors can it highlight or mellow out?)?
Taymor: We’ve used rum in the past when we did a play on a traditional baba (French rum cake) with a pumpkin brioche soaked in rum and syrup. It created a great boozy decadent flavor. On the other hand, I try not to use rum in savory dishes. Rum works better in desserts since it is a sugarcane/molasses based liquor and tends to do better in sweet dishes.
Pursuitist: What is challenging about creating cocktail recipes versus creating a dish? Are there any synergies or similar processes in developing the recipes?
Taymor: To me it’s the exact same. It’s about getting an inspiration that feels authentic, it’s about the flavor profiles, simplicity, and then translating it into the finished product. It becomes a process of trial and error and tweaking and refining the recipe until you get the desired outcome. But I treat them the exact same way.
Pursuitist: In the culinary and mixology world, what’s something (such as a food or a drink or a restaurant or a trend) that has surprised you (this can be in a bad or a good way)?
Taymor: Nothing necessarily surprises me. It’s just great to see people creating more authentic, unique things. Whether its flavor profiles they grew up having and appropriating them into a cocktail or using ingredients like herbs you wouldn’t usually see in a cocktail like sage or rosemary. Basically, more people taking interesting leaps when creating things.
Pursuitist: The cuisine at Alma has always been driven by seasonal and locally-sourced ingredients. Would you ever consider incorporating that ethos into a featured cocktail or drinks menu?
Taymor: Yes. I believe that you can’t do one without the other. When I speak with bar managers at the restaurant I really push them towards what’s available in the market – herbs, citrus, things that make Southern California really special and looking there for inspiration. Food and cocktail menus really influence each other and if they’re not harmonious you have a discordant program, between bar and food.
Pursuitist: If you could give advice to a new chef, what would you say based on your experience?
Taymor: It’s really important to be very picky about where you work. Find people you respect and admire and put in the time there. There’s a lot of instant gratification in our culture and it doesn’t really translate to success in the workplace, especially in the food industry. It’s important to put in the time with chefs. You don’t have to work in 15 restaurant for 6 or 7 months anymore, instead if you spend 4 or 5 years in 4 or 5 restaurants you’ll get more out of that experience. It’s also important to be committed to the hard work and being a team player, learn how to operate under stress. Wait for the right position/opportunity and don’t just jump at an opportunity that seems glitzier.
Pursuitist: Tell about the latest incarnation of Alma? What does the future hold for Alma?
Taymor: Right now we’re doing residency at The Standard in West Hollywood. This incarnation of Alma is in a lot of ways similar to what we were doing before in terms of sourcing from downtown and how we approach flavors. What’s different is that it’s a more casual vibe, with an a la carte menu and the price range is more approachable for an everyday eating experience. It’s generally a more approachable, accessible way to do what we were doing before and seeing how we’ve evolved.
Pursuitist: What’s your favorite film about the culinary world?
Pursuitist: When it comes to food, name your favorite guilty pleasure?
Taymor: I love burgers, although I don’t feel there is any guilty pleasure food when its made with quality ingredients and sustainable ingredients. Like grass-fed beef in burgers.