Ari Taymor on Fame, Growth, and the Lawsuit that Could End Alma
You likely know about the numerous accolades bestowed on Alma and its chef, Ari Taymor, but let's run through them again for good measure: Bon Appetit's Best New Restaurant in the country, 2013; one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs, 2014; James Beard Rising Star Chef nominee, 2015. These are the titles and awards young chefs dream of. To get one of them is often considered career-making. To have all three should mean superstardom, and all the financial security that comes with it.
So the food world was a little bewildered last week when Taymor and his business partner Ashleigh Parsons announced that they are in dire financial straits. Specifically, they're fighting a lawsuit brought by a former customer who became a friend, Michael Price, who works in Hollywood as a manager and producer. The public declaration of financial hardship was in conjunction with the launch of a crowdfunding campaign to help with the cost of fighting the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, which was printed in full by the Hollywood Reporter, makes claims that Parsons and Taymor agreed to a partnership with Price and then reneged on that agreement (as you'll see from the conversation below, Taymor denies there was ever an agreement). But it also airs a lot of embarrassing details about the running of Alma. Within the contents of the lawsuit, Price seems especially intent on discrediting Parsons. The document refers to her repeatedly as Taymor's "sometimes girlfriend," while referring to Taymor as a "very talented chef." Most of the allegations about the mismanagement of the restaurant are focused on Parsons.
While the lawsuit is undoubtedly the thing that brought Alma to the point of going public, the restaurant's financial difficulties are complicated. For such a small business to have so much attention at such an early stage was a blessing and a curse. When that happened, Taymor made the decision to go to a tasting-menu format, which was a choice I questioned at the time. Alma also got a reputation as a restaurant that's impossible to get into, something that was true for the few months after the Bon Appetit award but hasn't been true since. There's a sense that, because of the reputation for being hard to book and the high price and time commitment of a tasting menu, people weren't even bothering to consider Alma as a dining destination, despite the continued accolades.
Recently, the restaurant went back to offering an à la carte menu during the week, and it's trying hard to fight the impression that it's hard to get a table. The $40,000 fundraising goal was met with three weeks left in the campaign, but the future of Alma is still uncertain. We spoke to Taymor about the way Alma opened, about the mixed blessing of so much attention and about the lawsuit.
We also reached out to Michael Price through his legal counsel for comment, and to give him a chance to respond to some of Taymor's comments below, but have not heard back as of press time.
Besha Rodell: I just want to start by saying I’m really sorry you guys are going though this. It sounds like a bit of a nightmare.
Ari Taymor: It is a nightmare but it’s also a good lesson about the realities of protecting your business and protecting your ethics. It’s a good test for us to see if we can stand up to a lot of pressure.
You guys opened with hardly any money, very little business experience, and that is a big part of what attracted people to you. It was the food, too, obviously, but I certainly found myself attracted to the romance of the story: A couple of kids open a restaurant in a storefront, and how cool that was.
I think a lot of us saw ourselves in that. I always talk about the high school dream where you’re talking to your friends and you’re like, “I’m gonna open a thrift store, and we'll sell records, but it’ll be a bar, and bands will play there, and we’ll have pool tables!” I think Alma has a bit of that feel to it, of people just doing what they want to do, whether it makes sense or not. I wonder though, if looking back, you feel as though it was a little foolhardy?
I don’t think so. There are all sorts of pitfalls that can happen to any business. There are all sorts of unforeseen challenges. It’s just part of life, to be honest — it never goes the way you expect it, and we see it now as a challenge and an opportunity to talk about why we opened the restaurant in the first place and why we opened it in the manner that we did. I don’t regret anything about the way we opened the restaurant. It’s been definitely a struggle, but even when from the outside everything was perceived as being really great and the press was really great, that was when it was the hardest for us. So since day one, it’s never been easy. I’ve learned and grown so much and Ashleigh has learned and grown, and there’s just no way I would have any regrets about how we did it.
Do you want to talk a bit about that, about why you opened the way you did? Why didn’t you go the traditional route of trying to find investors and all that?
We opened this way in large part because we didn’t have access to investors. We didn’t have family or friends who were willing to take on the risk. Neither of us had a name in the industry. I had worked in a lot of good restaurants but I was working for 14 to 18 months and then traveling and cooking for free … and the lifestyle of a cook is really hard. It’s really hard to do that for 10 to 12 years. I have a ton of respect for the people who do that, but I wanted to take a crack at something. I wanted to create a culture in a kitchen.
I had a hard time with a lot of the structures you find coming up in kitchens, whether it was the culture or the pay structures or the opportunity to contribute. I felt that it was very limiting and frustrating. And I wanted to create an environment where people’s ideas were taken into account and their lifestyles were taken into account, where people were able to work really hard but also spend time outside of the kitchen and see culture and travel and see family and friends. And the environment I was working in, in a lot of higher-end kitchens, wasn’t conducive to that. It was conducive to head down, six days a week, 95 hours a week. And that wasn’t a model I wanted to continue to be a part of for the next eight to 10 years of my life. I saw a lot of cooks burn out, I saw a lot of cooks quit. And it’s really disheartening to see that. So that’s a lot of the reason why I wanted to run a kitchen.
I remember Ruth Reichl in an interview talking about Union Pacific and Rocco DiSpirito when he started out, and she waited a year to review it for The New York Times, because she said that even though it was already a three-star restaurant when it opened, she didn’t write it then, because she thought the place couldn’t handle it. That she would kill the restaurant if she gave them three stars that early on.
I remember reading that interview too. I haven’t thought about it in a long time. I think it may have also been in her book.
It crossed my mind when thinking about you guys, because I’ve got to say, from the second Bon Appetit named you Best New Restaurant I was worried. I was like, "Man, I don’t know if this is going to be good for them. I don’t know in the long run if this is going to help or hurt them." And obviously, in terms of recognition, it must have been so gratifying to get that label and get someone who really understood what you were trying to do. But also, we have this media obsession with being the first to name something the BEST NEW THING. We don’t necessarily give people time to grow into what they can be, or what they’re going to be.
I totally agree with you. It was humbling; it felt like a recognition of the work we’d put in. At the same time, we never felt like we deserved that award. We never thought we’d even be considered for it. And even after we got it, it was never, “How do we live up to this?” It’s always been about progression. So it’s always been about growth, discovering our style. What was unfortunate was, that was our second year, and for me in terms of creating, that time period was when I was taking the most risks. The award came out and it coincided with a period where I was really trying to figure out what I was trying to say.
In our first year, our food was very derivative. It was variations on what I’d cooked in other restaurants, or things I’d seen from other chefs, and I was itching to get out of that. So when that press came along and we got super busy, it was during a time when I was changing the menu a lot, and changing it too often, and changing it in an unsustainable way. And so the people who were coming in were coming to a restaurant that was nothing like it had been described, even from week to week, so there was no ability to fulfill their expectations because they had expectations we could never even begin to fulfill.
So in that regard it was hard to satisfy people because they were almost set up to dislike it. It wasn’t until last summer, toward the end of the summer and into the fall and winter and now, that I’d say we have a style of cooking, and we have a culture of the way we season and how we cook and how we layer flavors and how we plate. Now the restaurant is so different than it was in the fall of 2013, even how it was in January of this year. I do think that’s different for L.A. I do think that restaurants are either given an identity or they label themselves with an identity, and then they spend the next five to 10 years seeking consistency to maintain that. And I think that’s really wonderful and people are doing a great job at that, but we had to find our voice before we could even start to think about that.
I see more in common with you — in terms of your thought process and the way you’re going about it and the way you’re growing — and Craig [Thornton] from Wolvesmouth than I do with other chefs in town. And his reaction to the pressures you’re talking about has been to just opt out of the restaurant world altogether. He’s like, “I’m going to do what I want to do, and I don’t want to have to answer to anybody," even the public. That spirit is really refreshing but it’s hard to build a restaurant around.
It is, but also I’ve seen it so much here with art and music and design, and L.A. has really started to define itself culturally. Especially with the younger generation here. We really wanted to be part of that conversation, and it’s going to be the way L.A. becomes the green city that it’s telling everyone in the press that it wants to be, that its civic leaders are saying it is. And we have the ability to put ourselves on the line to be a part of that conversation. To say: You can do something different, you can make mistakes, you can do something stylistically that might put people off or upset people, if it’s all in the role of contributing to the conversation about what makes Los Angeles such an amazing city. Why is it so culturally vibrant and how can we better express that?
While I have a ton of respect for what Craig does, and he’s been so successful at it and he is really outspoken, we want to subject ourselves to the criticism, because we’ve grown so much from it. While less-than-great reviews sting and comments on the Internet hurt, I’ve grown so much as a creative person and as a manager and as a leader because I’ve read so many critical things about myself. It forced me to self-evaluate and think, "What am I trying to say, who do I want to be?" And so I kind of relish that. And while it’s painful, it’s a much better way for me to live. And a much better way for me to be able to communicate to the people working for me — that when they step out on their own, they should be OK with the good and even more OK with the bad.
It’s a funny thing in L.A., coming at it from the opposite side, and having been in New York and Atlanta before here, I feel like there’s a real culture of boosterism here, even within the media. Critics here are not harsh the way they are in New York or Chicago.
Yeah, I was happy that you guys brought the star system back, because here ... there is that sense of boosterism, and it’s also good to understand when people are being reviewed that there are certain technical aspects of cooking, like: "Is this piece of meat properly cooked? Has it been rested?" The flavor is a little more subjective, but there are certain objective measures of cooking and certain things in terms of technique. That’s something that you guys brought back that we had definitely been missing.
L.A. is a place where everything is so glammed up, and everything gets talked up in the same way, and everyone oohs and aahhs over the newest shiny thing and then they forget about it. And if there’s no serious critical look at restaurants, it becomes this cycle, and I do think it hurts us. It’s a cycle where we are not taken as seriously by the rest of the world, or feel that we haven’t been taken as seriously, and so we feel bad about saying anything bad about ourselves, but then we aren’t held to the same standards and aren’t taken as seriously as a result.
I totally agree, and it’s hard for chefs to grow. You see this a lot in New York with chefs, where there are certain aspects of their cooking that are not up for debate and they get called out and they listen to that and it becomes a rallying cry and they get better. I think that’s really important.
I know initially, our first proper review was from Patric Kuh in L.A. Magazine, and he called out the cooking of our sweetbreads — he said they were under[cooked]. And that really forced me to evaluate how we were cooking that protein and how we were cooking all the other proteins. To be called out for things that aren’t style and scene was really helpful in terms of how we cook and how we teach people to cook. But yeah, I feel like until the restaurant culture here is getting properly evaluated, it’s going to be hard to really motivate the younger cooks coming out of the really high-end restaurants to not leave.
I know a lot of cooks from Providence come out of that kitchen really well trained and they feel like there’s no room for them here. They feel like the culture isn’t going to be accepting of that style of cooking. It’s not pasta, it’s not burgers, it’s not some easily defined regional style of cooking. And so they end up leaving and going to the Bay Area for 10 years. And I think that we have a lot of great restaurants, but we’re losing a lot of talent because it’s hard to get supported doing a more personal style of cooking in L.A. And while there are people blazing that path, like Josiah [Citrin, of Melisse] and Michael Cimarusti [of Providence], it’s been very hard for that generation underneath, whether it’s me or Miles [Thompson, of now-defunct Allumette] to get that mainstream support that restaurants like Bestia get right off the bat.
Yeah, the thing with Miles I found just heartbreaking.
It was for me too. Not only was he a very talented chef and cook who was just starting to find his voice, he’s just a good person and was such a great representative of the L.A. cooking scene. If there was someone who was going to be an ambassador, going out and doing events and talking to people and representing L.A., it would be him. It was so hard to lose him. I feel like we lost someone who was going to develop into one of the brightest chefs in the country. I mean, he still will, it just doesn’t seem like he’s going to be doing it here.
I could be wrong about this — maybe it’s just your Twitter persona — but you come off as someone who’s quite proud. This crowdfunding thing must have been a little tough for you.
I mean, we’re proud of the work we put out there, and we’re proud of our values, but we also started as a community restaurant and it was built as a restaurant where we wanted people to be able to come in and have conversations and contribute and give us their feedback. So we feel like this is just kind of an evolution of the process. We’re about transparency, whether it’s our sourcing or labor practices, whether it’s our outreach program, we want people to know the inner workings of our business. And if they want to judge us for the things that we say and the way we back them up, we need to open ourselves up to all of it.
So it wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but once it happened, it was great to hear people from other small businesses, whether they owned design studios or were ceramic artisans, say[ing], "You know, we’ve been through something like this and we just kept quiet. And it was really refreshing to see someone put it out there."
There’s a reality with small businesses, that we are the tip of the spear in terms of being the most progressive but at the same time the most exposed. We’re the ones who are getting bullied by the Health Department, we’re the ones being bullied by Building and Safety, we’re the most affected by large-scale developments. So we want to stand up and say: Small business is going to be the thing that’s going to progress L.A. into the future. It’s not going to be corporations, it’s not going to be Hollywood. It’s going to be personal businesses run by people, and the communities that form out of that.
So what we’ve seen is a conversation about that start to take place, and if we can be a vehicle for that, whether we stay open or close, I consider that a success, more than any other piece of press or praise that we’ve ever received. We opened this restaurant because we’re just so committed to making this city a better place, getting more attention on the farmers, more attention on the environmental side of things, more attention on the socioeconomic realities of living here while this expansion is going on. It’s crazy, but these last two weeks have been the most rewarding time I’ve had with the restaurant.
In terms of the lawsuit, I've read over it briefly, and it seems as though there was never any written agreement [between Alma and the other party]. Is that correct?
There was never any written agreement. There was never any transfer of funds from the opposing party to us. There was never any verbal agreement. There were negotiations. There were conversations. And then when we tried to formalize those negotiations into an actual agreement that made sense to us — if this individual is going to be a part of the business, then we’re going to start negotiating at this point — we sent over a terms sheet and the response to that first terms sheet was a lawsuit. There was no response, there was no negotiation.
It was just: "This is what we feel like we can do, and this is what we feel like would be most beneficial to you, and have you take on the least amount of risk in what is an extremely risky restaurant." The restaurant industry itself is really risky, but a restaurant like ours is beyond because of the sourcing and the labor practices, it’s just not the kind of investment that somebody like that would be looking for. So we tried to hedge that and think about both our side and his, and the way that was taken was … a lawsuit.
It seems to me that if there’s no written agreement ever, and no transfer of money ever, that this is a pretty shaky claim. Is that what your lawyers are telling you?
Yeah, I mean everyone we’ve spoken to says that there is no basis for a contract that has ever existed. And not only that but it’s not like we were ever closed off to including Michael Price in the business, I mean he was a close friend of mine. He’s someone I had reached out to before this was even an option, just for the opinion of someone who was a successful businessperson who was self-made. I valued his opinion. I thought he was smart, and creative and successful at doing things differently. He definitely was a supporter of the arts. So we weren’t trying to cut anybody out — we were trying to find the best way to be inclusive and progress and grow without compromising our values and independence. So it was really shocking to see … the legal system kind of aids and abets bigger entities versus small.
Do you have any recourse? Would you have to countersue to get your legal bills paid?
Exactly. For us, should this progress all the way through trial and should we win, the only way to get re-compensated would be to start another lawsuit. It’s just continuing to progress this cycle of negativity. And the taxpayers don’t need to be paying a judge to hear this case once, let alone twice. It’s a waste of a courtroom, it’s a waste of all the clerks and resources that have been spent on it. There are so many more important things the justice system could be doing, there are so many more important things we could be spending our time on. It’s been, like, 18 months where I’ve been pulled out of the kitchen quite a bit. And it doesn’t seem necessary.
It really just is such a tiny business with such a tiny profit margin. And just to see justice, just to see a courtroom is going to cost $150,000, and to get through that process will cost another $150,000. The price of justice for anybody, it seems, is close to half a million dollars, and there are very few small businesses that can absorb that and stay open.
Do you understand at all why the situation went this way? Do you have a sense of why Price made the decision to sue?
To me it feels very vindictive. It would be hard for me to go into his mind and figure out why we weren’t able to negotiate. For somebody who has spent his career doing business deals and negotiations, how it devolved into, like, a kid fight, it just seemed like there’s no reason for it. It’s hard for me to know why. There are no sensible business practices that might lead to this being a legitimate tactic. It feels very personal. And it’s hard for me because this was a very close friend and it completely came out of left field. Early in the morning we’re sending over a terms sheet and later that evening I’m getting a phone call letting me know we’re going to be sued for some pretty heavy things that are mind-blowing considering the tiny economic impact of this business.
You are definitely going to reach your crowdfunding goal. And you’ve said that you don’t know if it’s going to be enough. It sounds like it’s a much bigger financial burden you’re going to have if this goes to trial. Do you worry, if it’s not enough, that you risk closing and not be able to deliver on the things you’ve promised? Or do you wish you had asked for more?
Once we’ve reached the goal, we’re going to continue to try and fundraise on top of that. For the reasons you’ve just said, because it is so expensive. We’re also looking at legal counsel that is really receptive in terms of small businesses and flexible in terms of payment. We’re just going to fight as long as we can.
Looking at the whole process, it can become very overwhelming, the gross amount of money we're going to spend and everything else. So we just figured we’re going to go week by week and day by day. Which is more or less how we’re been forced to run the restaurant. It’s been an existential crisis through the Bon Appetit thing, through Food & Wine, through Jonathan Gold’s review. We’re exposed. And every time we’ve had the press that has brought a lot of people into the restaurant, we’ve been forced to spend a lot of money to get systems and staff in place to absorb that.
When Bon Appetit came out, we went from doing like 30 to 40 people a night to doing 95 to 110. And we didn’t have anything in the restaurant that made us capable of being able to handle that, whether it was plates or silverware or dishwashers or cooks. So it’s always been: Here’s this challenge, let's think on the fly and try to figure out a good solution to it that’s going to make sense. We take a lot of heart reading about other investors and entrepreneurs. … I was listening to the radio recently and heard how Elon Musk was at one point at risk of having both SpaceX and Tesla go bankrupt at the same time. So if we’re going to get through this, if we’re going to come out stronger, we’re just going to have to be creative about it. We’re really proud of L.A., and the community response to this, we just feel that doubly.
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