LIVING PROFILE: ASHLEIGH PARSONS
Ashleigh Parsons is the perfect dinner host — warm, charming, and brilliant to boot.
She founded Alma with partner and head chef Ari Taymor in 2012 to become one of LA's highly celebrated restaurants
with the best of locally sourced ingredients and unwavering dedication to wellness.
Alma is more than a restaurant.
It is a place for a community of artists and creators to come together to share a meal and nourish our souls.
How do you spend the first hours of your morning?
I like to rise early and start in quiet to lead into the many things going on in the day waiting for me.
I need quiet time to center around 6:30 AM and then head to my yoga studio Ashtanga in Silverlake with meditation to follow.
When did you start yoga?
I started yoga and mindful mediation in 2008; after college I was a little lost with my friends off on their own tracks for powerful jobs. So, I went to SF to do a yoga teacher training and fell in love with the city. Then I moved to LA in 2012 to open Alma.
How did Alma come about for you?
Ari is my partner and the chef running the menu. But we have always had a shared interest in bringing people together through food.
As the creative director, I have more of a draw into the experience of the meal — the wine, the service, big picture of how things come together.
Were you always invested in cooking — like from when you were a kid? Moments where you could look back and see the beginnings or memories that strikes that for you?
I think it was the absence of those experiences after college that led me to my interest in wellness. I’ve always been interested in being a host of a dinner as a kid, but the idea of giving people food and experiences that nourishes them came out of the absence from my youth.
I totally understand that. NOTO Botanics is my own attempt to cultivate community that shares a passionate lifestyle and mindfulness — as I can tend to be a loner and now this is my chance to build a world through that loneliness. I am ENFP — an ambivert. Feeding off other people, but needs to be the right type of feeding.
I think that’s so beautiful — how being an introvert even if it may be difficult… building a community that matters. Love it.
Do you remember the first time of making a meal for friends?
I remember it really well. Friends from abroad all came together after going to the Ferry farmers market during the summertime. We all came together in SF and got fresh fish, it was so beautiful —- yellow from corn…red from tomatoes… the big green salad for everyone… plenty of wine. It felt like an experience of nourishing your soul with the food, but really from the people that were there.
Did you get a high from that? I get a high from just hearing about it.
Like how it feels when you go to the farmers market, you get this connection to everything you are inputting and thats the beauty of it all. You are part of the process, and the process is a part of you.
You didn’t necessarily have a specific plan…How did you decide to launch Alma?
Alma in its early thoughts… was a place to integrate wellness fully. With yoga and community, but with ambition and working with Ari realistically… it transformed. But its roots dedicated with wellness and mindfulness are always coming through Alma at all times.
Tell me about the community outreach program.
The outreach is an nonprofit that was founded in tandem with Alma that works together but it is definitely separate. Now, the program focuses on a wellness curriculum with cooking and gardening.. in the future we are looking to add an artistic element like pottery. We work with low income students in LA on a weekly basis… a 3rd grade class and two high school classes and go in during their school day to make accessible and simple recipes that they can find and make at home.
That’s incredible. It is so inspiring and proving that you can actually create a path and live our dreams. Do you think it is possible to do so and a specific moment you realized that you could create that?
With my background going to a college that breeds 9-5ers, I felt like an outcast and strange because I did not fit into that and wasn't surrounded by any other options. My modeling was do the 9-5, but coming to CA and being exposed to artists making their own living has helped me see clearly that 'I can do this and I can crave out this dream to live a different sense of life'.
Was there any fears or nerves about making the plunge and starting Alma?
I believed in the idea and success of it. But the nerves came from my modeling of — How do you make a sustainable living? How do you buy a house? I still don’t know the answers to those questions, but I know I am on the right path.
Were there any big challenges to overcome in the beginning?
Most definitely...How do restaurants run and the challenges that came along from the early days of the project. The lessons are still sinking in. Surrounding yourself with people that you trust and can depend. If you have an intuition that it is not right, then it is time to let them go.
What do you think makes Alma different from others?
The beauty is in how you see more and more restaurants dedicated to sourcing. More of community spots like — Grand Central Market, Sqirl, Amara. Alma is not such an anomaly, but its dedication to sourcing and creating a sustainable model for the Earth and our employees…is definitely unique to the restaurant business. We make it a serious business to make sure we are taking care of the cooks, dishwashers, and front of house.
Is there a reason why? Did you recognize the injustices or past experiences?
People don't talk about this. Often a cook works 70 hours a week and cannot make a proper living. It has always been important for Alma to take care of our own.
Do you have a mentor?
It has been difficult to find a mentor — there are not a lot of women leading restaurants that I know, but have met some amazing people who I have leaned on. But my sisters who went down very different paths have been incredibly supportive and encouraged me along the way.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
In my world when I decided to take the plunge, there were definitely people who expressed hesitation. But it was the ones that encouraged me to take the risk has been really helpful. In business, asking questions is key. Especially in early stages, don't be afraid of asking questions to understand deeply whatever craft it is you are doing.
Forced to do uncomfortable things… has this made you become a stronger version of yourself?
Definitely it has — the tough lessons give you a tougher shell. But this year, I am working on the tough shell but softer insides. As a woman in a leadership role, our experiences define us to be a stronger version of ourselves and now I want more and more women to take that on.
The backlash of feminism at the forefront can be the idea of the ‘hard woman’. The beauty of what you are saying is that you can become stronger and more compassionate, but not hardened. We all face failure and pain, but it also fuels success and pushes us to grow. Can you share a moment of this?
The challenge with Alma and the unfortunate lawsuit we faced forced us to close. There were many dark moments of that last year where I could have given up and moments when I wanted to — but so grateful to have had really strong support that held space for me. I was able to use that negative energy to really crate something powerful and come out of the experience to create what Alma is now in its new form.
Giving another chance to be reborn into something new, but still you. Do you feel like what you are planning now is different from before?
Alma is really different — it’s humbled. There was some bit of ego where it was not as accessible and expensive. Now Alma at the Standard is the opposite of that and we both realized we had to return to our roots — cooking for the community. Part of the challenges came from how we were moving away from that.
You have the wings, you have the strucutre. Now you can bring it back to what your original version is. Alma is super creative in how it connects the food and concept. Do you feel creative blocks in expressing yourself and for Alma?
I often feel the block — whether I am working with an illustrator on a poster or designing the menu — when projects are running with so much excitement, the block comes when I ask what is next? You cannot push anything to happen, so there aren’t really any tactics of clearing the block. For me, what I find helpful is to go into nature.
So, speaking of things coming…how did you know what to do after the challenges last year? How did things come about with the Standard?
We didn’t know what to do and what the future would be… except for staying open. We were exploring quite a few different projects, but the conversation with the Standard happened very organically with their diner moving in a new direction. We were very honest about us closing in downtown and it took flight.
So cool when things come together with the perfect storms. What is one word of advice you would give others starting their own endeavors?
Taking risks and the plunge is beautiful. But it important to understand what you are getting into. If you are running a small restaurant, you need to know the labor laws, licenses, people to hire… Take the risk, but know what risks exist. Educate and then plunge!
What happens a lot is that you study a field but you never take the plunge. It is all about the balance.
Balance, balance. What do you ultimately wish to achieve through your work?
Experiential education. Alma Community Outreach is in nature very political and personally feel strongly about the lack of access to healthy food opportunities in our cities and country — forget about it. I want to change the food system, but I know I am not a politican. With Alma, it is realizing these issues in a beautiful way and working with the community to make serious change.
You can make change one seed at a time and think it is a beautiful thing you are achieving. You practice mindful living — where you know there is a ripple effect. Can you describe a instance where you have seen this effect?
Mindfulness and yoga saved me. After college, I was pretty unhappy and anxious. The yoga training changed my life in so many ways and awakening my senses helped me out of that time. I am totally an advocate for this kind of mindful living.
What is your biggest dream — anything you can fathom for Alma?
I would love a space for the outreach program… land that students could come to in Los Angeles. To encourage urban farming and an entire curriculum to realize that there is an economy to creatively take advantage of. For the restaurant, it would also be for more land. Mint straight from the garden and meat from our own farm.
Farm to table…for real!
Hahaha yes, the farm is right there.
What is success mean to you?
Going to bed at end of night and feeling satisfied — with all you did that day and people you interacted with. Courtney does a mindfulness class called 'Flower Fresh' with our third graders where you have to speak kind words with people you meet and remind yourself to do so.
Am I present? Am I mindful? Am I kind?
Knowing that I did well with myself and others. Being content with work whether it is a 9-5 or a creative project.
What are you grateful for?
My health and wellbeing — that I can do what I do everyday.
And the community in LA of likeminded thinkers and creative minds who have to be selfish, but have a strong desire to come back together with one another.
True selfishness is how you can evolve and grow. Taking the time to be with yourself in a caring way.
This has been so much fun...now let's brunch.