When I first met Ashleigh, I had just sat down at a table at Alma, ready to eat after starving myself all afternoon in preparation for the 10-course tasting menu. I was scanning the room trying to figure out, which of the friendly staff buzzing around us, would be the woman, managing the restaurant, that Bon Appetit magazine named "The best new restaurant in America 2013". In my mind, I had already selected a couple of possible contenders, as a petite elf-like blonde with a captivating smile floated over to our table and introduced herself: Ashleigh.
Boy, was I off. There and then, I made a virtual note to myself, to not fall for assumptions again, but she did get me again - at least once. It's been a little over 2 years now, since she opened ALMA together with her business partner and chef Ari Taymor next to a 5 story strip club in LA's hip Downtown area. Shortly after, The Ace Hotel opened an outpost on the same street and on the hotel blog, is literally worshipping the inventive creations, that are cooked up across the street. Alma is open 5 nights a week and you can feel the warmth and passion in Ashleigh's voice when she refers to what she does in the restaurant as "putting on a dinner party."
What sounds so light, playful and easy and what the 38 guests each night enjoy as a delightful dining experience, requires a lot of discipline, preparation and coordination behind the scenes. Ashleigh is a master of time management and her well over 12-hour workdays are meticulously planned out, especially because at Alma, everything is done in-house.
From 10.30 in the morning to just before Midnight, Ashleigh takes care of organizational and administrative work like press inquiries, employee payroll and scheduling and is involved in all operational tasks like reviewing menu additions, setting tables, lining up the team for service and taste checking every sauce before Alma opens its doors. During dinner service from 6-10pm - she expedites, which is serving as the communicator between the kitchen and the dining room. "I love this job. I control the pace of the service and I handle any issues as they arise so we can dance the service together and make it beautiful." The only little breather she allows herself, is during the 25-minute daily family meal at 5pm.
I'm already exhausted by the pure thought of doing this on a daily basis, but did I mention, Ashleigh also runs the restaurant's garden with farmer and forager, Courtney Guerra, and their community outreach program? The program just became a non-profit and over the summer, they set up an edible garden at one of the charter schools, where Alma offers cooking classes twice a month. For the fall they are trying to expand this offering to a local elementary school.
Ashleigh's eyes light up when she talks about these initiatives. It has always been her genuine, heart-felt need to not only cater to the selected few able to afford a meal (and get a table) at her restaurant, but from the get-go, the Alma outreach program has been one of two essential pillars of what Project Alma is all about: Helping people across all social classes enjoy and reconnect with healthy food and nutrition.
I ask about her background, wondering how she got from New Jersey to opening a restaurant in LA, plus I'm curious about what it takes to prepare for a job as eclectic as hers.
She jumpstarts the conversation with "After college, I didn’t know what I wanted. All I knew was, that I liked psychology, I liked education, I liked yoga and I was interested in health and wellness. So, I decided to get my yoga teacher certification in San Francisco and I enjoyed California so much, that I moved there."
(I'm backing up just a little to specify. College here means: She got her Masters in Education from Harvard University. And I really don't mean to rub this in, but to me the fact, that she would just let this detail fall under the table, speaks volumes about her humble and soft-spoken nature.)
After her yoga teaching program ended, she continues to work as program coordinator at a free after-school-program in one of San Francisco's lower income neighborhoods: The Tenderloin. A year and a half later, she takes on the next adventure - together with her then chef boyfriend - she moves to Southern France to work at La Chassagnette, a restaurant decorated with 1 Michelin Star. She learns how this league of cooking temples functions, from a kitchen as well as from a service perspective.
And to me, it all starts to make perfect sense now: Ashleigh stitches all her past experiences together, into a career and a passion project, that is continuously expanding. Knowing that she will never feel quite ready for anything, she just dives in. She feeds her ever curious and multi-facetted self new experiences and dreams up seemingly far out visions, only to slowly grow them into something more tangible. She cultivates the dance between challenging and preserving tradition. I think there will never be a word that captures all aspects of what Ashleigh does and is going to take on along her journey. So, for me she just is … Ashleigh.
What would you say were the biggest obstacles and challenges you had or have to overcome on your way?
I think the biggest obstacle I’ve had to face is to be more discerning. I tend to trust people and I can be overly enthusiastic and excitable. Owning a restaurant and running a non-profit has taught me, in a very real way, to learn to say No and make intelligent decisions when it comes to hiring staff and to working with new vendors. I also try to put work aside when I’m not at work. This has been a constant learning process for me.
What helped/helps you overcome them?
As much time as I spend with people, I am a very introverted person. When I face a problem, I like to go inward and evaluate what is going on in my mind and in my behavior. I also am fortunate to have a close family and a close group of friends that I lean on for professional and personal advice. They are my support system and I go to them with issues as they arise.
Is there anything you would say, you had to learn the hard way?
I’ve learned most things the hard way. Because I’ve entered into an industry with very little experience, I’ve learned most things as I’ve gone through them for the first time. Furthermore, our restaurant Alma received accolades at a pace that we were very grateful but certainly not ready for. We were developing systems in a retroactive way in order to survive and stay afloat. These learning experiences can’t be learned inside the classroom. They can only be learned through living them. And I strongly believe that learning through our own experiences has a greater value than we sometimes realize.