In 2007, after a meal at Alice Waters’ Berkeley-based Chez Panisse, 21-year old Ari Taymor knew he wanted to cook. Five years later, after stints at San Francisco Bay Area hot spots flour+water, Bar Tartine and Plate Shop (plus La Chassagnette in Arles, France), he opened his own restaurant, Alma. A few months later, the Los Angeles eatery topped Bon Appetit magazine’s list of the 10 Best New Restaurants in America. At age 27, this is heady stuff. But this Zen chef keeps his head humbly on his shoulders, practicing being present while creating amazing dishes that tell a story. We caught up with him at The Taste to find out how his tenacity helped drive him towards success, along with his go-for-it attitude.

Do you attribute some of your success to your tenacity – calling chefs, asking to work for free?
Yeah, I’m a pretty single-minded person. If there’s something I want, I go after it. You have to be your own best advocate—no one else is going to do it for you or make it easy for you. If you want it, you have to go after it. The universe will provide it, as long as you set yourself in motion.

Is it true you cook with almost no butter and lots of vegetable stocks? So dishes can actually be flavorful without fat?
Yes, it’s really just about seasoning, care and mindfulness when cooking. I watched a documentary on [San Francisco Zen monastery] Tassajara, which has a Zen-Buddhist cooking school in Marin, and it’s about presence. Be present with what you’re doing, be present with the activity, be present with your seasoning, and be present with your staff. With that level of mindfulness, you’ll be able to know how to add more flavor.

When you smell something, it transports you immediately. When we cook, we can see people react and take it in their own direction, which to me is the best part.

In your demonstration, you were cooking with grapeseed oil. What’s the difference between grapeseed oil and olive oil?
A higher smoking point. Olive oil has a lower smoking point. Once you take extra virgin (olive oil) above 150 degrees, it gets rancid. When cooking, you can smoke grapeseed oil to maybe 400-500 degrees.

Where did Alma’s concept originate?
Ashleigh Parsons, who’s my GM and 50/50 partner, wanted a restaurant that had a different philosophy than other restaurants where profit, money and investors weren’t the drive behind it. We wanted it to be sustainable in every sense of the word. Sustainable in the product we use. Sustainable in how we compensate our staff. Sustainable in how we structure our restaurant so that our staff has time off, the ability to take vacations, and has enough money to go out to eat and be inspired. There’s an educational component as well. We do an after-school program that’s run by Ashleigh and go to a charter school twice a month to do sustainable recipes with the kids.

What inspires you the most in your cooking?
Memories and products. My parents cooked, but it wasn’t a big part of my childhood. I have sense memories of growing up in Northern California, like wood smoke and pine trees and cut grass. When you smell something, it transports you immediately. When we cook with that, we can see people react and take it in their own direction, which to me is the best part. You allow people to interpret food in their own way and have this really beautiful interaction with it on their own terms. I really like that.

Ari TaymorTaymor at The Taste, probably saying something mind-blowing. Photo: John Sellars

The arrival of fall means football games. What dishes do you recommend for tailgating?
Chicken wings are great. Anything quick that can be marinated ahead of time and made without a lot of effort, so you can actually enjoy yourself on the day, is best. I feel that way about cooking for friends and family.

Do you have any favorite comfort foods?
Thai. That’s what I like to eat now—any time, all the time. Night Market is my favorite Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. Yeah, it’s my favorite restaurant in the world right now.