How L.A.’s Ari Taymor and NYC’s Mads Refslund Mastered the Long-Distance Chef Collaboration

BFFs Ari Taymor and Mads Refslund.
BFFs Ari Taymor and Mads Refslund. Photo: Lani Trock

On Friday, Acme’s Mads Refslund (who also happens to be the co-founder of Noma) cooked at Alma, Ari Taymor’s critically acclaimed restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, which he co-owns with Ashleigh Parsons. They’re two trailblazing, ambitious chefs with two very different cooking styles, so they make for an interesting match. Their menu was filled with earthy dishes like Asparagus and Smoked Trout, which featured just two ingredients served six different ways: smoked trout, trout mousse, trout roe, trout chicharron, compressed asparagus, and asparagus velouté.

Fortunately, this wasn’t a one-off event: Taymor’s scheduled to come cook at Acme at the end of April. They’re certainly not the first chefs to do a cross-country collaboration, but they’re approaching the challenge in a smart, practical way that prioritizes the experience of the diners, while still satisfying their own creative desires. Grub called them up to chat about how they connected, why it’s important to get outside of their comfort zones, and what’s next for them both, independently.

How did you two first meet?
Ari Taymor: We met in October, in Mexico City, at a food festival. It was a shit-show: Nobody had any ingredients, everything was fucked up, so everyone was just helping each other out.
Mads Refslund: It was not a shit-show —
AT: It’s a happy ending to a shitty event.
MR: We got a friendship out of it, so you know, that’s good.

What made you decide to collaborate?
MR: We just started bonding and talking, and as chefs, sometimes you just want to go and see what other restaurants are doing.
AT: We started talking about doing it just because the way we conceptualize food is very similar, but the end product is so different — the style, the seasoning, the plating, everything. It comes from the same emotional place, though, so I thought it’d be really interesting to have him come and show my kitchen he seasons and cooks, and then to go to New York and see how he does it as well … And when I went to his restaurant and I was able to try his food, I thought it would fit really well here.
MR: We both use local products, and hyperseasoned vegetables and proteins — that’s why we’re similar in a way, I think. I also just thought it would be fun!

Asparagus and smoked trout.
Asparagus and smoked trout. Photo: Lani Trock

What can you do to ensure that the meal feels cohesive? Do you work on particular dishes independently, or collaborate on each one?
AT: When I cook other places, I never like sharing a dish. I never like when one chef picks one thing, and then another picks another part of a dish, and then you make one group dish. I think that’s always bad. So what we like to do is we have Mads come and tell us which product he wants to use, and where his dishes will go on the menu, and then we work around him. We like the guest chef to feel like his or her stuff is being featured, and that they’re able to set the tone of the menu. We’re not going to change really how we cook, but we’ll alter components and portions to fit in with what Mads is doing.

Mads: Which California ingredients excite you?
MR: All the citrus fruits. We don’t have those in New York. Of course, we can get everything we want in New York, because it’s such a melting pot, but Acme is very seasonally driven. When I come here, I actually think about flying ingredients in from New York.

Fois gras and spot prawns with walnuts and burnt lime.
Fois gras and spot prawns with walnuts and burnt lime. Photo: Lani Trock

Ari: When you come to New York, you bring produce with you, right?
AT: People ask me to come out and show what we do at Alma, and a lot of what we do at the restaurant is based so specifically around the kind of produce I’m used to cooking with here. Even if you’re getting carrots or root vegetables or tomatoes, and you’re cooking with them and they come from, say, New York, they’re different. The flavor profiles are different — the texture, the way they cook, the moisture content.

Independently, what other projects do you have going on?
AT: Right now, I just have Alma — the restaurant and the garden. We’re definitely looking at potentially doing something else down the road, but it’s still way too early to say anything. It’s really just about pushing and progressing and refining, and elevating the experience that we have here. We’re such a young restaurant, so I don’t want to lose focus on attention from what we’re doing here just yet.
MR: For me, it’s the same. I’m still at Acme. I will probably do something soon, but there’s nothing concrete — there’s nothing I can tell you. But yeah, I will do something in the future.

Grilled fatty ocean trout with cucumbers, buttermilk, and horseradish.
Grilled fatty ocean trout with cucumbers, buttermilk, and horseradish. Photo: Lani Trock

Mads: You’ve worked all around the world. Do you think you’ll stay in New York?
MR: I’ve been here for three and a half years, and I think that before you do your own thing, you have to learn about the place where you are. Sometimes, when you just go to another country and you open up a restaurant there, you don’t capture the city’s vibe. I’ve fallen in love with New York, so I will stay there for a while. I know for a fact I will not stay there for the rest of my life, but I will definitely stay there for a longer time. I want to open a personal restaurant one day, and I feel that I’m starting to get ready for that step.

When I first got here, I was asking if anybody was foraging, and people were like, “Are you fucking crazy? This is New York — you cannot just pick things up from parks or whatever.” But I have these foragers coming from upstate and New Jersey and Long Island, and it’s really interesting what we’re getting. We’re getting cactus from Long Island; we’re getting poplar fruit from Pennsylvania. It’s amazing what New York has to offer.

Being a chef is always about learning. You should always be creating and searching for new ingredients and new flavor profiles. If one day, you just stop learning — if you don’t have the passion — I think you should stop working as a chef. You have to have a passion for cooking and learning if you want to succeed in the chef world because you’re putting a lot of fucking hours into it.

Oysters. Photo: Lani Trock

Certainly. And I’m sure collaborations like this are a great way to keep learning.
MR: Building up friendships is very important. Where I’m from in Denmark, it’s such a small community, and all the chefs talking to each other. You go to a restaurant and eat something amazing, and you call a chef up the day after and say, “Okay, how do you do this?” Not because you want to steal the recipe but because you can get an idea from it, and build it into something else.
AT: Here, we can get really closed off, and every restaurant is seen as competition. I think, to a large degree, the media wants to build up this idea of rivalries, and there are certain personalities that want to perpetuate this idea that they invented a dish and trademarked it. Everybody needs to relax about their intellectual property. As long as you’re progressing as a cook and progressing as a chef, people aren’t going to steal what you’re doing, because you’re constantly changing and evolving. When you’re able to answer questions, or give people ideas about how things are made or where the product came from, it elevates the entire community.
MR: It’s also an honor to inspire someone else’s cooking. Everything is done before! There’s nothing new. It’s not because we’re invading their space — it’s just about putting new flavor profiles and making things a little bit different than the original founders of the dishes.

Winter citrus and jasmine.
Winter citrus and jasmine. Photo: Lani Trock

It’s definitely beneficial to the guests. Your dinner sold out, correct?
AT: It sold out immediately. We haven’t had a reaction like this before. We’ve had guest chefs that I find really talented, but for whatever reason, guests in L.A. connected to the kind of food that Mads cooks, and we sold out within an hour. We had a waiting list of 100.

When is your dinner at Acme scheduled for?
AT: In April. It’ll be the second or third week.

Ari Taymor x Mads Refslund Collaboration