Contagious energy and genuine warmth literally pours out from Ashleigh Parson, creative director and founding owner of Alma restaurant in Los Angeles, and within two minutes of being in her company (and brimming smile) I feel recharged and strangely positive.
Opting for a change of scene to her usual Front of House position, a picnic was suggested in the quiet and leafy hills of Mount Washington, but the constants were prevalent in her vision for food and the way it should be celebrated; fresh and simple, locally sourced produce, made with intention and eaten with joy.
A picnic is perhaps a wonderful metaphor for the state in which Ashleigh seems her happiest — sharing and building community. With a background in psychology and a Masters degree in education from Harvard University, Ashleigh extends her passion for uniting people with their place through Alma Community Outreach 501 program, a skills-based program for students in low decile rated schools, which emphasizes experiential learning, promotes urban transformation and provides ways to support the physical, social and emotional wellness of young people.
In your own words, how would you describe what you do?
I am a creative entrepreneur and activist that works within the realm of food, health and wellness. I founded Alma with my business partner and chef Ari Taymor in 2012. Originally Alma was a pop-up concept that transitioned into a brick and mortar restaurant in downtown LA. We closed the restaurant nearly a year ago due to complications of a lawsuit and now we are focusing on consulting projects such as that with The Standard, Hollywood, with our mission to provide food and product that is seasonal and sustainable. This work entails projects such as revamping a food and beverage program, creating collaborative dinners and events on property and speaking to the importance of supporting a local food system.
Alongside Alma Collective, I founded Alma Community Outreach 501(c)(3) in 2012 with a community of activists in Los Angeles. The program teaches a Wellness Curriculum to students and families in the Rampart neighborhood of Los Angeles, a low-income region of the city. We have four partnerships with local schools and an after school program and we provide weekly cooking and gardening classes with an eye toward mindfulness, reaching over 150 students and family each week.
Where do you think your love for food and source of ingredients stemmed from?
Like many young women, I didn’t have a very healthy connection to food growing up. My family didn’t cook often and my sisters and I each battled with our own version of an eating disorder at very young ages. It wasn’t until after college in 2008 when I moved to San Francisco and enrolled in a yoga teacher training that I began to develop a positive relationship to food and my body through mindfulness practices. At this time, I also met Ari Taymor and we began visiting the farmers markets together and discussing our dream to open a community restaurant called Alma. We were both working in the food industry at restaurants that were dedicated to sourcing the highest quality ingredients and I couldn’t help but fall in love with California and its produce. The taste, the colors, the textures of the varied fruits and vegetables made me feel the most alive and awake I had felt in my 22 years.
I also worked at a free afterschool program in the Tenderloin from 2008 to 2011. I observed the lack of connection many of my students had to food, mostly because they didn’t have access to the beautiful produce I did, located at the farmers markets and shops like Bi Rite and Whole Foods. Many of them lived off of hot Cheetos and coca cola because it was cheaper and more readily available than a nutrient dense breakfast or lunch.
One Saturday I arranged a field trip to the Ferry Building Farmers Market. I took 25 students, ages 5 to 18. We had $25 to spend. They tasted Frog Hollow Pears and melted. They sucked on fresh honey sticks. We bought an assortment of fresh fruit and prepared fruit salad back at the program. They asked for seconds and thirds. They requested we return to the market again sometime.
I left the program soon after because I felt overwhelmed by the complicated issues around health and wellness that existed and I wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. I traveled to France for a six-month stage at La Chassagnette to study Michelin starred service. I received my Masters in Education from Harvard University, focusing on Out of School Time Learning. Somehow the two conceivably opposing experiences seemed congruent in my head.
What are some of your favourite things about the area in which you live?
Los Angeles feels like home to me even though I’ve only lived here for four years. I’m very attracted to this city: the creative pulse, the energy, the focus, the community. I live in Silverlake and have access to many incredible coffee shops and diverse culture that captures the essence of this dynamic city.
Now coming into the autumn season, what produce/ingredients are you focusing on at the Alma farm and menu?
At this time of year, I get most excited about apples and citrus. The farmers market begins to transition out of stone fruit, which marks the end of summer. At the farm, we focus on vegetables and fruit that grow well in the hot climate and urban area of Los Angeles: lettuces, bok choy, peppers, strawberries, herbs. We just planted our edible school gardens in September so we will be harvesting within the next month, which is exciting. It’s very meaningful to observe students grow, harvest, cook and eat the produce; ultimately through this process they are able to reconnect with their bodies, their minds and one another.
Can you tell us about your chosen picnic snack of melon and mint?
To me, this snack is Southern France in late summer. When I traveled to the South of France in the summer of 2010, the melon were so ripe that you could literally taste them when you put them close to your nose to select the best one. I think we tend to get twisted up in recipes that are too complex but when you have the best produce from the farmers market, you don’t need to do much. For example, we chopped a bit of mint and added it to the melon to add depth of flavor. But that was it. Nothing else needed to enjoy the perfect summer snack.
The self realization center on Mount Washington was such a special place to be, what do you love about visiting this place?
It’s a very special place. I learned about the Self Realization center through my ex boyfriend who lived on Mount Washington. We would wander there to escape the craze of the world, mostly on Sundays. It became sort of this sanctuary, a quiet place to quiet the mind. I try to seek out the places in Los Angeles that offer a sense of peace. As much as I love the city, I’m a woman of nature and I immerse myself in nature as often as possible.
What would be the three most used items in your own personal kitchen, edible or not?
Coconut oil – I use coconut oil all the time and I’m convinced it’s one of nature’s secret miracles. I make nightly coconut masks, which hydrate the skin, I cook with coconut oil and I even do coconut pulls to whiten the teeth.
Lemon water – One of our employees at alma that was a healer told me once that lemon water was a cure-all so I’ve been drinking lemon water ever since. I always have a pitcher of it in my refrigerator and it makes drinking water feel luxurious.
Avocado – Avocados and farm eggs are my spirit foods. I always have avocados (preferably Laura’s avocado from the farmers market) in the house and I’ll eat it as a snack with olive oil and salt or add it to any recipe to get those good fats that make our hair and skin glow.
What are some other ways you like to take time out?
I take time out every day because I believe that taking time out for ourselves should be part of a daily ritual. The mornings are my sacred time and I usually take my dog Sage for an early morning walk before the buzz of email ping pong begins. On a day off, I escape to Rincon beach, south of Santa Barbara to read and swim or I go into Ojai to embrace the quiet, small town vibe.