If Los Angeles really is the most “important place to eat in America right now” as food critic Ruth Reichl recently declared, then 26-year old Ari Taymor of Alma and Jason Bernstein of Golden State and Bludsos are a pair of Young Turks on the scene. Both have been racking up rave reviews in the local and national press culminating in Bon Appetit selecting Alma as the best new restaurant in the country in 2013. Everyone in L.A. it seems, talks about opening a restaurant of their own one day. These two guys actually did it, with great success and they are just getting started. L.A. Currents corralled them into an online conversation about the challenges that they have respectively faced with their ventures, why they chose the cuisine and neighborhoods that they did and whether Los Angeles merits all the attention it has been garnering in recent years.
Jason Bernstein: I’m not a chef by trade so I don’t see the construction of food in a vacuum to be a particularly compelling motivation. Rather I find the motivations of why a particular chef or owner decides to put a particular type of food in a particular place FASCINATING. So, what made you open your place in Downtown L.A.? Why did you choose to serve that type of food in that restaurant? And how does the expression of your food reflect your participation in the neighborhood you chose?
Ari Taymor: The food that I cook at Alma is an expression of my experiences, past and present. Much of the inspiration comes from childhood or more recently as a young adult figuring out what I had to say. Even being in Southern California, much of the inspiration comes from the large chunk of my life I spent in Northern California — first as a kid and then again returning after college. I had a pretty solid idea of the food that I wanted to cook before I ever opened a restaurant. The search was about finding a space where that vision would make sense. The space was small, off the beaten path and in a part of downtown that was still creating its identity. And I saw a chance for us to help mold our neighborhood. The broadway/theater area of downtown has these beautiful run down buildings that have been neglected, so I figured that our food, which is based on classic techniques but with newer and more confrontational flavor profiles would stand a chance there more than anywhere else.
JB: Los Angeles seems, to me at least, a changing landscape. But one of the most interesting “evolutions” that I have observed in the last decade or so is a kind of “hearkening back” to what we perceive as the Los Angeles of yore. I think the activity is a kind of revisionist history when it involves areas like Silverlake or Echo Park – there weren’t any sort of real lost gems in those neighborhoods that new denizens are bringing back – it’s like Williamsburg in New York. Downtown Los Angeles, on the other hand, was like a faded flower. And now there are a lot of people coming in and saying, “Hey. We don’t have to make it exactly like it was. Rather, let’s take some of these beautiful existing architectural wonders and re-understand them for the modern citizen.” Alma, having opened in downtown, seems to be right in that wheelhouse. I’d like to know how you chose your space and how you like it so far?
AT: While I love Silver Lake, Echo Park, Los Feliz etc. I felt that there is an undercurrent of gentrification that as an outsider I didn’t feel was my place. Echo Park was an original site for our restaurant as it is resurgent, filled with artists and young creative people who are looking to create something new. But these neighborhoods are home to 3rd, 4th and even 5th generation Angelenos. People who have seen their neighborhoods change many times over and are now being in danger of being priced out. This is something I saw in San Francisco and in Oakland where I spent most of my time cooking. And while I feel that new restaurants, boutiques, galleries etc. bring much good to these neighborhoods, the new owners are sometimes insensitive to the role and value of their neighbors. I didn’t want to be lumped into this kind of gentrification; to be seen as someone who was coming in from the outside and trying to exploit the rising quality of life in these areas.
JB: Were there any major concerns about opening Alma in downtown L.A.?
AT: Not really — I saw downtown as a blank canvas, a chance to remake what a modern city could look like without as much displacement. (Skid row being a problem I can’t comprehend, and its solutions so far out of my league) I wanted a restaurant that was firmly entrenched in its community via its price point, atmosphere and open and friendly service. I also wanted to be in an area where we would be able to be a positive influence on a younger generation. My partner Ashleigh has a background in early childhood education and psychology and heads up our community outreach program. We work with 2 schools, one elementary and one high school. We offer cooking classes, gardening and nutrition classes. This, for me, is as essential to Alma as the food we cook on a nightly basis. So, for all of these reasons, downtown felt like the right fit. Question for you Jason: I often feel that (Alma’s) food, which has more ephemeral reference points is less risky than cooking food that many people have grown up with. Almost every person has strong memories of hamburgers, BLT, hot dogs and caesar salads. How do you interpret your menu so that you feel like you are able to add something new? Or is your food an expression of how you remember or maybe more importantly how you WANT to remember these things?
JB: I have reflected on this more than almost any other food related question I can think of. This is because the two restaurants I have are in diametrical opposition in terms of how I have to conceptualize the food we serve. While chronologically second, Bludso’s is a much easier food concept for me to wrap my mind around. Another guy (Kevin Bludso) honed his recipes over many years and presented them to us. It was then our job to represent and “re-present” his food in a different location from Compton. The paradigmatic ideal of this food already exists. And I believe we are fundamentally judged by our ability to accurately and soulfully represent Kevin’s recipes and techniques in a new setting. If it were sheer mimicry, that would be boring. So while the meats are all Kevin’s recipes, we had to craft the rest of the menu in such a way that it allows his meats to shine but also gives us creativity in ‘sides’ and ‘drinks.’ But the most important thing is to do justice to Kevin’s knowledge of BBQ. So Kevin may be appealing to a long tradition of Texas smoke. Kevin might be creating some riffs based on classical technique. Kevin may be hearkening back to the food that his grandmother made. But fundamentally, we are trying to make great barbeque. This restaurant is still less than a year old so it’s impossible for me to make any assessment of our competence at this point. But down the line, I would say, if we do a good job at appropriating these techniques in an authentic fashion then our place will succeed (hopefully) and if we don’t do a good job appropriating these techniques in an authentic fashion, then our place probably won’t do so well. So basically, the success or failure of Bludso’s isn’t really about personal inspiration or a hearkening but rather great care and attendance to time-honored techniques.
AT: Does the same hold true with The Golden State?
JB: With The Golden State, I might be more able to come to an actual answer as it pertains to my own past. None of the food we serve is the Proustian madeleine of my youth but it’s definitely closer to the food I ate as a kid than say, Bludso’s is. If there is an overarching tenet that governs The Golden State, I would say it’s probably “build a better mousetrap.” When we initially formulated the menu 5 years ago, the culinary landscape in Los Angeles was a little bit different. It was certainly growing and vibrant, but a lot of the food was VERY influenced by new-modernist techniques. So we kept saying to each other, “what if we just buy super great quality ingredients and try to stay out of the way.” We are certainly not trendsetters in any sense of the word, but I think there was an undercurrent and Zeitgeist emerging around that time with that exact ethos. So our BLTA has no magic and no tricks up its sleeve. It’s just good ingredients presented very simply in a humble restaurant. The mindset we try to carry with us (because, as I have said before, we are not chefs) is, “Hey, if we like it, maybe other people will like it too.” So, Ari, I’m thinking that if the hallmark of your craft is “creation” the hallmark of my craft is “curation.”
AT: Did you change the way you did things as a response to your guests or do you feel as though you knew exactly what you wanted to say from the very beginning?
JB: I have always assumed (though correct me if I am wrong) that the hallmark of creation is the seamless and transparent execution of technique as it pertains to the task at hand. That is, we all have, in our back pockets, a slew of techniques at our disposal. And when you have an idea, you sort of rummage through that toolbox and utilize those techniques that will allow you to best express your idea. (You want to be sure that you are the master of the technique as opposed to the other way around. That’s why listening to Joe Satriani is so stupid and annoying. A guy with an armful of talent but gets bogged down by showing off his various techniques. It’s irritating and exhausting.) So an idea comes to you and you want to be sure that you can execute your idea in a significant fashion utilizing techniques at your disposal. That doesn’t happen to me. The hallmark of curation is a kind of openness and readiness. I don’t create anything new. Rather I want to look at myself and others and say, “What is it that interests me? What is it that others are interested in but is not adequately represented?” Now there seem to be a billion restaurants doing what The Golden State is doing so it seems less novel. But five years ago we asked ourselves, ‘How come no one is doing the local food thing with craft beer in the Mid City area? Could we do a good job with that?’ And a year ago (though it’s only opened up 8 months ago) we asked ourselves, ‘How come no one seems to be doing proper Texas barbecue in Mid City? And why aren’t people doing cocktails with barbecue?’
When restaurant workers are off the clock they swap war stories about diners that have been difficult. I’d love to hear how your relationship with the plate (and the diner on the other end of that plate) has inspired your cooking and creativity. Given your choice to really understand the community that you are ensconced in (a choice, by the way, that I am thrilled with), I’d love to know how this new endeavor has shaped your cooking?
AT: As for how the service shapes the restaurant — I have two answers for that and they are both equally true. One is not at all and the other is that it influences everything we do. The community service aspect of the restaurant has absolutely no bearing on the conceptualization or execution of the food. The flavor profiles I choose either myself or in conversation with my kitchen staff tend to come from trips to the market, trips to our garden or very specific moments in time we try to recreate emotionally. We source everything that we serve either from our own garden or from the farmers market. We hesitate to use refined sugars and a ton of salt and fat because we want our food to feel good to eat as well as taste good. These are the examples we try to set in our cooking classes about how to eat and we try to practice what we preach on our plates as well. Overall we want the experience to be open, welcoming and thought provoking. When we do our cooking classes with the kids, we often bring some of the simpler dishes from the restaurant for them to make. Sometimes they like it and sometimes they don’t but they are pushed and forced to think.
As I continue to run kitchens I am faced with situations of disciplining both large and small. I was curious how you react when you see things that upset you, things that are not up to your standards or that are otherwise detrimental to your restaurant?
JB: Great question and one that likely pervades every industry on the planet. I wish that I had some sort of sage insight or advice but I’m sure there are a billion books on management that get to the heart of the issue. Front of house staff management is quite different than kitchen management. There are general tenets that govern what it means to be a good employee – conscientiousness, perceptiveness, desire to improve, not stealing, etc. But I guess a restaurant is interesting because it’s an odd intersection of what I would call “task based” jobs and “creativity based” jobs. Added to the mixture is intense pressure to perform in a timely fashion and (in the case of front of house staff) be nice about it. I’m pretty mellow by nature and I try to aspire to a sangfroid detachment when it comes to management. So for me the biggest conundrum happens when I’m faced with an employee who is good at their job but is also a jerk. That’s when we really have to weigh what is most important for the strength of the business. Sometimes excellence wins out, sometimes attitude wins out. For example, one of our biggest tenets is that employees arrive on time. We had a situation where an employee, who was GREAT at their job showed up really late twice in one week. We were really torn. On the one hand, this person did an excellent job. On the other hand, we want to maintain consistency with the application of our principles. Clearly, if they were late and not that great, it wouldn’t have been a very hard decision. (I would like the record to note that, in writing this response, I actually had an entire paragraph drafted that made use of moral/legal philosophy terms like general vs. specific deterrence and retribution as modes of applying punishment. Probably the most ridiculous tangent ever made within the context of a “dudes on food” conversation.)
AT: I know that getting upset isn’t a worthwhile emotion, but sometimes I find myself at the whim of my emotions. How do you react?
JB: That’s an incredibly tough question for me to answer. When creating anything, it is a form of speech and expression. It would follow that anything you engage in is a kind of imprimatur, an extension of you, a kind of signature if you will. So you want to stand behind that expression. Those are the standards that I want to adhere to. A restaurant has so many moving parts and different tasks. There are truly so many standards of excellence that each employee strives for. I’m so tempted to answer the question in such a stupid dodgy fashion:
(What follows is the dodgiest answer on the planet)
There are many tasks in this world. Most of them can be taught. But the desire to “strive for excellence” cannot really be taught. It is an instinct and desire that is endemic to a person. To that end, when I observe that something is not up to my standards, I would first want to express what that standard ought to be. What is it that we are attempting to create or showcase? My next task is therefore not to “make the situation right” – that’s relatively easy in an isolated circumstance – but rather to use the situation as a chance to review the nature of what our standard ought to be. We are all collectively in service to “excellence” so I usually don’t try to think of things as “not up to my standards” but rather “falling short in the pursuit of excellence.” I think it’s most important to underline the element of “pursuit” because otherwise these repetitive tasks might become rote and boring (End of super dodgy answer).
Since I presume your last question stemmed from a (somewhat) autobiographical origin, I will make my next one come from a similar place. Last night, I went to a sort-of fancy pants “farm to table” restaurant. One of the courses was three raw (presumably fancy) carrots, skin on, stem attached, on a plate. On that plate was what they called “house made ranch” dressing. I think there were some breadcrumbs drizzled about. I love the idea of getting out of the way of ingredients and allowing them to speak for themselves. This, however, just seemed dumb.