Q&A: Alma’s Ari Taymor
This week, for the third year running, Portland becomes an international capital of culinary wonderment as eaters and cooks alike flock from coast-to-coast for the non-stop food party smorgasbord that is Feast Portland.
You know the drill: Over the course of four days, Bon Appétit Presents Feast Portland takes over the city’s public parks and private dining rooms for a gluttonous celebration of all things edible, unleashing everything from a swaggering sandwich smackdown and wild night market to sour beer tasting panels, classes on butchery to candy making, and special dinners cooked by locals paired with celeb chefs. As PoMo’s own Karen Brooks put it last year: “It’s an opportunity to celebrate the food town that defied the gods of gastronomy, sit in on conversations with leading food thinkers, and inhale everything that makes Portland's food scene awesome.” Many of the fest’s 30 events are sold out, but there are still tickets available for Thursday’s kickoff Sandwich Invitational, Oregon Bounty Grand Tasting, gala High Comfort at the Nines and a flurry of classes and tastings. (Check out tickets here.) Psst: It’s not all about gorging, either. As in years past, net proceeds benefit Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon and Share Our Strength. In its first two years, Feast has raised more than $99,000.
To prep for the event, we've interviewed some of the visiting cooks poised help make Feast 2014 a gastronomical wonderland. Check back for more Q&As, slideshows, and foodie fest tastiness as the week progresses. First up: Benjamin Tepler talks with Ari Taymor. —Kelly Clarke
Q&A: ALMA'S ARI TAYLOR
Ari Taymor is the 28-year-old wunderkind behind Los Angeles’s Alma, and an early success story in the pop-up wave still cresting across the country. In 2013, Alma was crowned “Best New Restaurant in America” by Bon Appetit, while Taymor was named one of Food and Wine magazine’s “Best New Chefs.” Plus, veteran LA Times critic Jonathan Gold really likes eating there. We caught up with the young visionary to talk pop-ups (what else!?), cooking with rose petals, and his top PDX dining spots.
PoMo: LA looks like the next big food frontier. What did it look like 5 years ago and what sets it apart from other destination food cities?
Ari Taymor: Five years ago, I think the bones of where we are now were being set up: The Animal guys and Suzanne Goin (chef/owner of The A.O.C., Lucques, and Tavern) were, and continue to be, those LA icons kicking us into gear. Michael Cimarusti too, at Providence Restaurant, has been laying the foundation for those of us coming up now.
What sets LA apart is the geographic area of the city. I think that people have the ability to set up their own little outposts and exist—to a degree—outside of each other’s influence. We all eat in one another’s restaurants, but it’s not like you are next door to other restaurants the way you are Portland, San Francisco, or New York.
You jumped from the pop-up world to a brick-and-mortar destination. How do pop-ups change the game?
They give you the ability to see if what you are doing has a public appetite. At the same time, I feel like people approach pop-ups with this really amateur mentality, like it’s just an experiment. We tried to perform as though it was a real restaurant, every day. It’s okay to experiment, but you need to be delivering something other than whatever haphazard menu that you’ve written. It’s fifty-fifty. You get some guys who are getting ready to open a restaurant, like Ravi Kapur in San Francisco—he’s been approaching his pop-ups like they are a restaurant.
That said, I think the pop-up culture here has really died down. I don’t think you would call Wolvesmouth (the LA-based primal art instillation/dinner party) a pop-up. The last 18 months have seen them really peter out.
Is the pop-up creator fundamentally different from the cook who takes a traditional route to his or her own kitchen?
I wouldn’t say that. I’ve had a pretty traditional upbringing in restaurant kitchens. I just chose to start my restaurant without taking other people’s money, which is what pop-ups offer. I think the holdup for a lot of people is trying to find a way to make a name for themselves to get investors. For a lot of cooks that’s resume building, spending two or three years in this-or-that high-end restaurant. You keep logging those years, and by the time you get a crack at it, you’re burnt out.
In terms of one type of chef looking down to another, I think people always want to talk shit when new people burst onto the scene—it’s the same in any industry: movies, music, art. It happens.
What ingredient are you obsessing over theses day. Why?
Right now it’s rose. When I cooked in France, the restaurant had this huge rose garden that was right next to where the tomatoes were growing. You’d walk outside in the hot afternoon sun, and get the comingling of the tomato vines and really strong essence of rose, so that became embedded in my mind as the smell of summer. We use it in a first course with tomatoes and watermelon and as a dessert with tomato ice cream with candied rose petals. It has that overripe feel to it, the way that roses almost smell like they are rotten sometimes. That’s what this time of year is really about—everything has been sitting in the sun so long it’s almost rotten.
What’s on your must-eat Portland food list?
I want to go to Ox very badly. I really like Greg and Gabi [Denton] I think they are just the raddest. I want to go to Castagna; I was a fan of the restaurant when [Matthew] Lightner was there and everyone says Justin [Woodward] is doing amazing things. I always want to see what Gabe Rucker is doing at Le Pigeon…Vitaly Paley…there’s just so much. It’s going to be hard to choose.
Ari Taymor will cook at two sold out Feast Portland dinner series events: The Hot 10 Dinner: Celebrating Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurants in America on Sept 18 and Ari Taymor and Sarah Pliner at Aviary with Archery Summit on Sept 19. Portland Monthly is one of the sponsors of Feast Portland.