Ari TaymorAlma, Los Angeles
"How do you make an artichoke taste even more like an artichoke?" asks Ari Taymor.
The chef of Alma, a 40-seat restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, is sifting through a basket of flowering herbs the way a fashion designer might flip through a book of fabric swatches.
There are a lot of young chefs doing good stuff with vegetables in small kitchens around L.A. these days. What distinguishes Alma is Taymor's sensitivity to ingredients--and the fact that he and co-owner Ashleigh Parson took what began its life in 2012 as an ambitious pop-up with "four burners and a broken oven door" and turned it into one of the country's most exciting new restaurants. Bon Appétit magazine named the place Best New Restaurant of 2013.
Taymor graciously gives credit to the local talent. "The produce in Southern California is so vibrant," he says. "Our job is just to ensure that we're bringing out the best aspects of whatever we're cooking. Our dishes have lots of elements to them, but they're usually centered around one sensation or feeling."
Like those delicate baby artichokes. Taymor pairs them with a purée of white miso, apple juice and roasted sunchoke, as well as smoked brandade.
"The miso adds umami, the apple adds sweetness and the sunchokes add a particular mouth feel," the chef explains. And, in spite of all those components, it's a heightened artichoke-iness that you really taste and remember.
Like many a young California chef raised on the Gospel of Alice Waters, Taymor is particular about his ingredients. "We have farms that grow product specifically for us; we have a plot in Venice where we grow different herbs and raise chickens. We're currently scouting spots for a rooftop garden," says Taymor with an intent look. "It enables you to start mapping out what you want to cook long before you're even in the kitchen."
But despite Taymor's earnestness, Alma doesn't feel self-serious about its ingredient-driven ethos. Taymor hangs out behind the kitchen pass inspecting some caramelizing sunchokes while his line cooks bob their heads to A Tribe Called Quest. Many of his creations--on what will soon be a tasting menu-only list--reveal a good-natured playful streak, like a "sunchoke split" dessert: Sunchokes are roasted until sweet and served with birch ice cream and ash meringue.
Soon the restaurant will move solely to two tasting menus, which will be either six- or twelve-to-fourteen-course experiences.
"Every dish we serve is based upon a specific memory we want to share," says Taymor. "If you don't incorporate your personality then you won't stand out. "