When Ari Taymor announced Thursday that he'd be closing Alma later this month, it didn't come as a surprise to many. This is not because it wasn't a very good restaurant, or because it didn't get the recognition it deserved -- Taymor and Alma have been loaded with accolades. It was because Alma had been on tenuous financial ground since it opened, in a barely marked, tiny space jigsawed into a grungy part of South Broadway in a not-quite-yet-gentrified quadrant of downtown Los Angeles.
Maybe both Alma and its chef got too famous too fast -- Alma was named Bon Appetit's best new restaurant in 2013; Taymor was Food & Wine's best new chef in 2014 and a James Beard Rising Star Chef nominee this year. Maybe that neighborhood couldn't quite yet sustain them. Then there was the legal battle that Taymor and partner Ashleigh Parsons have been fighting for the last year, after a regular diner who offered them business help sued them, alleging a broken ownership agreement.
Taymor, who turns 30 in a week, is the first to admit that he had a lot to learn, both in terms of running a restaurant and handling all the accolades. "We've learned a lot of lessons about operating a business, about having goals that are meaningful and goals that are not meaningful," Taymor said a few hours after he announced, via Instagram, that he was shutting Alma down.
And, he added, "I was more miserable [being nominated for] a James Beard award than I am closing the restaurant."
Taymor says he's already looking into new projects -- Alma began life as a series of pop-ups, after all. "We're not going anywhere -- there's no defeat. We're feeling very positive that this was just something that needed to happen. We're OK going back to a nomadic state."
Closing Alma may well be the redo that Taymor needs. He wants to settle the lawsuit -- "we don't want to continue the negativity" -- and move on. Although this does not, he says, necessarily mean a geographical move. He lives downtown, and he likes both that part of the city and its particular energy.
Alma got so much attention so quickly for a lot of reasons. Taymor is a supremely gifted chef, and he was building artful plates around local ingredients well ahead of the curve. The conceit of Alma -- a jewel-box of a restaurant hidden in an uneven part of downtown, helmed by a strikingly young chef who created beautiful plates right in front of you -- was critic bait. It was also bait for all of the rest of us who wanted to prove that our city center, so recently derelict, could draw youth, talent and beauty.
We wanted Alma to succeed in the same way we want a pro football team downtown, a little needily, as both confirmation and justification. This was a lot to put on a pair of then-27-year olds trying to figure out how to make a viable business out of an eight-table restaurant.
But it's also why we should probably go try and pull up a chair at one of those few tables in the next few weeks, before Alma closes its nondescript doors and Taymor once again takes his show on the road.
Cooking is hard work, sometimes desperately so, and running a restaurant can be even harder. Yes, Taymor's exquisite plates -- hay-roasted potatoes, goat's milk and sorrel; Carpenter's pigeon with yeast and fermented cherry; seaweed and tofu beignets -- are a little precious, maybe a little expensive, for where they are. But that's exactly why we love them so much, maybe even too much.