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About this episode
During the episode Kiki candidly discusses the challenges of starting a culinary career without formal training, the exhilaration of catering for NBA players and other large events, and the intriguing fusion of influences in Hawaiian cuisine. Learn the truths behind Hawaiian food misconceptions and the cultural amalgamation showcased in dishes like the famous Hawaiian plate lunch.
Plus, gain insights into Kiki’s bold decision to write an article about the closure of her restaurant, a move that earned her a James Beard Award nomination, and her perspective on why more chefs should be contributing to the food media landscape.
Where to find Kiki Aranita:
Where to find host Josh Sharkey:
What We Cover
(2:44) Kiki’s background
(4:30) Being a Jäger Girl
(9:06) Teaching the classics
(11:44) Opening Poi Dog
(16:31) Hawaiian food misconceptions
(19:33) Writing a Restaurant Obituary
(23:58) The struggles of closing a restaurant
(28:42) On becoming a food writer
(32:32) The benefits of being a personal chef
(34:12) What Kiki kept from closing Poi Dog
(37:05) Why more chefs should write
(41:43) What food writers inspire Kiki
(48:41) Why Kiki started selling Poi Dog sauces
(59:34) How Kiki got into crocheting branded products
Josh Sharkey [00:00:00]:
Welcome to The meez Podcast. I'm your host, Josh Sharkey, the founder and CEO of meez, the culinary operating system for food professionals. On the show, I'll be interviewing world-class entrepreneurs in the food space that are shifting the paradigm of how we innovate and operate in our industry. Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy the show.
My guest today is the multi-talented Kiki Aranita. Kiki is a chef and a food writer and the founder of CPG brand called Poi Dog, which is an offshoot of her former restaurant of the same name in Philly.
And she's also a fiber artist, which if you don't know what that is, I also didn't know what it was until I met her, but it's really amazing and she recreates these packaged food brands like Fish Sauce and Spam and other really cool products out of yarn and other materials that she finds to repurpose.
And the art is so good that it's been on display at Philadelphia International Airport and show fields in Nordstrom's in New York City, and it's just pretty incredible the creativity and artistic talent that she has. I was introduced to Kiki by a close friend of mine who said, I absolutely need to meet her, and she could not have been more right.
I was so impressed with her diverse background of skill sets and her ambition and perseverance and creativity when Kiki closed her restaurant, Poi Dog. During the Pandemic, obviously a publication called to talk about the closure, and she did something that, man, I wish I had thought of. Kiki decided that she wanted to write the article herself in her own words, and it was such a bold thing to do, so much so that she was actually nominated for a James Beard Award for the article. So obviously we talk about this and restaurant closures in general and much more in the episode. So I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
All right, Mrs. Kiki, so nice to see you today.
Kiki Aranita [00:02:02]:
Josh Sharkey [00:02:03]:
Thanks for joining the podcast. I was pleasantly surprised when our mutual friend, the Brocks, Megan Brock, introduced us and I didn't know much about you, but when she introduced us, I sort of looked you up a little bit. And then after our last conversation I left like, holy shit, this is gonna be such an incredible conversation because I've never met anybody that's done what you've done, at least the way that you've done it. So I wanna kick it off just right away. We'll do a little bit of background on you and then I have some questions I wanna dig into to talk about your writing and some of the things that you do with your writing. So maybe just for the audience may not know about Kiki, little about yourself, your background, how you got to be, where you're today.
Kiki Aranita [00:02:44]:
I started off in classics, sort of. I grew up in Hawaii and in Hong Kong. I have a parent from each place, and I know we're going far back in time, maybe farther than you expected, but the fact that I have a parent from each place has definitely shaped my current careers. So I majored in comparative literature with classics and Renaissance Italian, started NYU in Florence, and then finished off the rest of my bachelor's here in New York.
I was in two different PhD programs at CUNY and then at Bryn Mawr studying first Renaissance Italian literature and then classics, so Latin, Greek spent long summers in Rome and in Athens with the American Academy in Rome and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and I know this is a little bit sleepy, but my academic background definitely shapes who I am today.
I taught a whole bunch, and while I was teaching, of course, I was not getting paid very well, so I worked as a jaeger girl for about three and a half years. I did wine tastings. I obviously went into bars and decked around in the East Village Halloween Parade, encouraging people to consume as much Jägermeister as humanly possible and throwing t-shirts into crowds.
Josh Sharkey [00:04:13]:
We gotta talk about that.
Kiki Aranita [00:04:15]:
Did I not tell you about this before?
Josh Sharkey [00:04:17]:
No, you did. I have a note about it and I see it here. It's just smaller in my fonts. But what's the craziest thing that happened during your time as a jäger girl and are there still jäger girls that exist today?
Kiki Aranita [00:04:30]:
I believe there are still younger girls that exist today .I'm actually in touch with a lot of the girls and dudes that I worked with back in the day
Josh Sharkey [00:04:35]:
Oh, there's jäger dudes as well.
Kiki Aranita [00:04:37]:
Yeah, there were yager dudes and they were like the most handsome male models that you could possibly imagine. And so they have careers now and they're in LA and like doing cool things and I was the random jäger girl who didn't want to become an actress or a model like I was very much in classics and I was a terrible jäger girl.
Like I wasn't good. I would like hide in the back of bars. I'm so, oh my God, I'm so sorry if anybody from jäger is listening to this, but I would like grade papers. I am in bars. So two stories from my jäger days. My very first Jägerrmeister promotion, I was chased out of a bar by a woman who shouted at me saying that she hated crosses.
And the Jägermeister logo, of course, has a cross with antlers. And I had given her jagrer t-shirt with the logo on it, which had a cross on it. But yeah, she chased me out of the bar screaming that she hated crosses and how dare I give her something with a cross on it? And that was my first night on the job. Thankfully got a lot better after that, but going back, I was born in New York, didn't really grow up here, obviously went to college here.
Josh Sharkey [00:05:54]
Did you get back to the bar by the way? I did go back to the bar and it was fine.
Kiki Aranita [00:05:56]
Yeah, like everything turned out fine, but it was just like this moment of being like, what did I get myself into? And so I wasn't great at talking to people about jägermeister and I'm probably better at it now than I was when I actually worked for jäger. But I am an absolute expert when it comes to navigating Manhattan. This was like before I had an iPhone and I didn't go over to smartphones until like later on in life cause I was stubborn.
So I would go travel around Manhattan and go to all of these different bars and restaurants and event venues with a compass. So that's like my secret trick for getting out of the subway and knowing exactly where you're going. Like I literally had a navigation compass in hand on my keychain.
Josh Sharkey [00:06:42]:
A compass. I can't say I've ever heard anybody using a compass in Manhattan. That's crazy.
Kiki Aranita [00:06:47]:
I can find my way, like perfectly.
Josh Sharkey [00:06:49]:
I can imagine that spending that many years as ajäger girl or guy, you learn a little bit about people and selling, which obviously you need a little bit about that to, to own a restaurant.What, what were some takeaways there outside of don't give a random person a t-shirt with a cross unless you know that they're not atheist.
Kiki Aranita [00:07:04]:
I'm still not great at selling. That's something that I never picked up. I think I'm good at telling a story. I'm good at absorbing facts and translating them to people, but that's something that, you know, went hand in hand between jägermeister marketing and, and teaching, which was my day job.
But I did learn about the flow of restaurants and bars and talking to random people, of course, and not being afraid to get into a conversation if it's about tasting notes and like, granted, like the jägermeister wasn't that difficult. I also did wine tastings for a while all over Manhattan, and I worked for a marketing company that did tastings for kosher wines, for the Royal Wines conglomerate and Côtes du Rhône. So after that I started working in a wine bar. So, yeah, I can talk about wine and liquor pretty easily.
Josh Sharkey [00:07:59]:
How would you describe the taste of Jägermeister? It's got an anise flavor, right? It's kinda like a little bit of an anise flavor to it.
Kiki Aranita [00:08:09]:
How would I describe it as a jäger girl or how would I describe it as a human being who is no longer chosen to be associated?
Josh Sharkey [00:08:16]:
However, either way
Kiki Aranita [00:08:18]:
I would go with medicinal.
Josh Sharkey [00:08:21]:
I want to hear how you would call it as a jäger girl.
Kiki Aranita [00:08:21]:
So, Jjägermeister comes from Walton, Germany and is comprised of proprietary very secret blend of 56 herbs and spices. But these all work together and manifest themselves really beautifully in a bunch of different cocktail expressions such as what we are now referring to as the Redheaded Sister. That's probably how I would convince you to drink Jägermeister.
Josh Sharkey [00:08:50]:
Love it. Okay. Well I've been stopping you to dig into that, but you went from learning about classical Greek and Latin languages, which of course most chefs, that's what they learned first is PHDs in literature. Kidding. Maybe you can tell a little more about what you did with that and then sort of how that laddered up to the restaurants.
Kiki Aranita [00:09:06]:
I taught Greek books for the most part, all throughout the CUNY system. Um, that's what my teaching fellowship had me doing. So I taught at Queens College, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to Montclair all over the place.
And I also taught the ancient Greek language in Taiwan for a while to graduate students. That was when I was 26 years old, and that was the smartest that I have ever been in my life because I was using a book that was in English. The textbook was of course about Ancient Greek, but I was teaching the class in Chinese and I have never had to do mental summersaults like that ever again. So pretty much since that summer, it's just been downhill.
Josh Sharkey [00:09:47]:
So you were teaching Greek literature in Chinese to Chinese students in America in New York.
Kiki Aranita [00:09:54]:
Initially in Taiwan in Taipei.
Josh Sharkey [00:09:59]:
Oh, got it. In Taiwan. Gotcha. Yeah.
Kiki Aranita [00:10:03]:
But I also taught Greek Books Latin. When you're in classics, like you're actually a pretty flexible teacher. I mean, in classics like you call them generalists because you're able to teach all different sorts of topics under the sun. Cradle of Western civilization basically from history to historiography, to literature to language. Like you're equipped when you go into a Classics PhD program or rather like even after a year in a classic PhD program, you're equipped to teach all of these different subjects.
In Taipei, I was teaching that in Mandarin and I sort of faked my students out. Like I went through half of like the first day, and these were long sessions, these were like four hour long classes. I pretended that I didn't speak Mandarin so I could see if they were saying anything about me or about the class.
It was still the first day, but then I confessed and that was really fun.But yeah, I had a teaching fellowship at the Fuji Catholic University in the outskirts of Taipei, and I was there for I think four months. I taught there for two summer semesters and then it was amazing. And I came back to the state and taught, no, I didn't teach anymore after that. I went into a research fellowship for my PhD at Bryn Mawr College and moved to Philadelphia and I really, really missed Hawaiian food. I had spent so long away from home and while I was in NYC I visited Hawaii a lot. Like NYU had really, really long summer and winter breaks. So I would spend like long months at my grandparents' house in Waipahu.
And then when I got back to New York, I was super homesick. So then moving to Philly where it's a lot more diverse now than it was 12 years ago in terms of food. So I was really, really homesick. In New York at least, you can get food that scratches the itch of Hawaii's local food. But Philly was a lot more difficult.
The largest Asian immigration to Philly was, to my knowledge, was Vietnamese. So you can get amazing Vietnamese food, but you can't get the unique blend of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese food with Hawaiian influences that I missed. So I left grad school and with my then partner, then business partner, and then boyfriend, we opened a food truck.
We were both working in restaurants and other food trucks at the time. And one of the worst restaurants that I was working at happened to own a taco cart that he brought to Temple University on a weekly basis. So he had a spot there. He had a commissary, which you need in order to run a food truck in Philly, and he had the tiniest little taco cart.
And I bought it from him. Ran the food truck for four and a half years, opened a restaurant. We catered a lot as well. Like we catered really, really big stuff from the get-go, which I was not equipped for. It's like my previous career, like there was so much training involved and there was so much learning, but when it came to my culinary career, it was like trial by fire.
It was like, okay, cool. You're catering on a several hundred person wedding now, even though you have never really worked a very serious cooking job. Right after we opened the restaurant in 2017, one of our biggest events came like two months after, so I was still like training the staff and trying to train myself and we ended up catering for like the NBA. Look, I don't know anything about sports.
So it's when they announced the players are going to be on the different teams and I don't know what that's called, but I've catered for and fed so many athletes at this point. I still don't understand sports. I just understand what they're supposed to eat.
Josh Sharkey [00:13:59]:
Well, if it makes you feel better, I don't really either. Other than if you consider poker a sport. Or, maybe wrestling which was a long time ago. When you bought the food truck, uh, you know, in New York, I don't know if it's the same as Philly. It's really, really hard to get a mobile vendor license. It's almost like a black market for it. Is it the same in Philly? But did you buy the license when you bought the truck as part of the deal?
Kiki Aranita [00:14:15]:
What we had was a catering license, and that gave us the ability to participate in temporary special events. We also had a sidewalk sales license because we weren't like the other trucks, like we didn't have to park on the road, we could park on the sidewalk.
So that was sort of like a sneaky way of getting the ability to vend on the street. We never got a permanent city spot. So in Philly there is this thing called a prohibited streets list where you're not allowed to vend. And we realized very quickly that this was going to prevent us from serving our food to a ton of people on the street.
So we very quickly got into events so that we were doing like three, four events per week. And we also very luckily opened our business when the city of Philadelphia was looking for trucks to vend in high traffic areas. And we got this contract and it was a three year contract so we could bring our truck directly into the courtyard of city hall.
So we would twice a week drive our food truck through the gates of City Hall, which doesn't look like a place where you could drive a food truck and vent to the city workers, like right in the very center of the city. So we were extraordinarily lucky to have that contract.
Josh Sharkey [00:15:41]
Wow. I don't think I've ever heard that before. That's pretty incredible. Well, you mentioned that there was a lot of Vietnamese influence, but not really, no Hawaiian influence. I mean, I can't think of many Hawaiian restaurants, maybe Liholiho Yacht Club in San Francisco. But I'd love to sort of dig into like what you think America gets right and wrong about Hawaiian cuisine and is generally like, I think what's really interesting about Hawaiian cuisine, which is probably similar to most cuisines, is there's just been this sort of, such a long sort of history of immigration of Chinese and Korean and Japanese and Portuguese and Puerto Rican. I imagine that what we think of as Hawaiian cuisine is an amalgamation of many different cultures.
And I would love to hear from you, just because I'm sure you know a lot about this. And you mentioned to me that no matter what you do when you opened Poi dog, there'd be no hula skirts or surfboards or pineapple. What should we know about Hawaiian cuisine that most of us probably don't know?
Kiki Aranita [00:16:31]:
So the reason why there were so many waves of immigrants to Hawaii basically starting in the late 1800s was because of the sugarcane plantations. And my great grandparents all worked on the sugar cane plantations. So my family's been in Hawaii for a really, really long time, and many plantation families have just meant that for my family and many others, for five generations, people have been intermarrying and like cooking together. When you go to my Hawaii family's Thanksgiving, which I hope in future you will because everybody's invited, it's sort of like a United Nations of food, and you walk into like a local place like Zippy’s or any of like our plate lunch places and there are influences from all over the world, and this can be puzzling to people.
My husband is American and Israeli, and I remember when he first came to my food truck and my restaurant, he was like, why are all these foods together on one menu? Like, haven't you heard of trimming down your menu? And I'm like, no. Like this is a very typical menu that you would find all over Hawaii.
Like I'm not inventing anything in terms of like the dish names or the cuisines. Like this is, we really do like to eat macaroni salad with everything. And we really do like, have our Holy Trinity in Hawaii of a meat on your plate with rice and macaroni salad that is called a plate lunch.
And it is served at all times of day. It doesn't have to be lunchtime. We were pigeonholed for a while in Philadelphia because lovely food critics thought that we were only a lunch restaurant even though we were very much not because we served this Holy Trinity of a plate lunch. That is what the dish is called.
So there are many, many misconceptions. I think the biggest one that I would hear over and over and over was that like, oh, is everything on the menu sweet? And I'm like, no. Like, I don't know where you got this idea. If you go on the dessert menu, things are sweet, but not the actual menu. And it's definitely a remnant of tiki culture and the idea that Hawaiian sauces are very, very sweet, where they're not, they're way more diverse than simply sweet. People would come into the restaurant and ask if there's pineapple and everything.
And I'm like, I mean, we didn't have pineapple on the menu at all. So we like pineapples, but we just eat them. Like we don't go and shove them in every form of food that we have. I feel like I need a drink in hand to go on and on.
Josh Sharkey [00:19:04]
So the restaurant that you opened, Poi Dog, opened for about seven years, right? Seven years. Is that right?
Kiki Aranita [00:19:18]
Between that and the, and the truck, between the truck and the restaurant, we were open about seven years. The restaurant opened in 2017. The restaurant was technically open for over three years.
Josh Sharkey [00:19:33]:
Gotcha. Okay. Well, we could definitely chat about the restaurant, but I wanna make sure we talk about is something that really stuck with me in our conversation is you close the restaurant, like many of us have closed restaurants and, and I definitely wanna talk about what that means because I think a lot of people don't realize what goes into closing a restaurant.
But you, like many of us, when we close a restaurant, got a call from a reporter journalist that was gonna write a story about the closing and instead of having them write the story, you said you wanted to write it yourself, which sounds so novel and maybe innocuous to some, but for me, I'm like, holy shit, why didn't I think of that?
That's genius. I mean, I wouldn't be able to write it as well as you had by any means. Was it just because of your background in literature and writing that you thought like, like, I should write this, or did you really wanna own the narrative? Was there something that you just had to get out? So when you closed the restaurant, you decided that you'd rather own that narrative than the journalists?
Kiki Aranita [00:20:26]:
Okay, so I wrote two things about the closing of the restaurant. First was for the Philadelphia Enquirer, and I had previously written a few things for the Enquirer so I knew the editorial team and I knew that they were going to put out the news of our closing because, pat myself on the back, it was very big news.
The closing brought blocks of people lining up early pandemic. Basically. I knew it was going to be big news, but since I was going to be first announcing it with a Philadelphia Enquirer, I wanted to make sure that I was the one to write it. I had a relationship with them, but also when we first opened, the food section of that newspaper referred to us as a Hawaiian themer.
I don't think of themer as a word that should be used, and I also wanted to make it very, very clear that my culture was not a theme. It was not a restaurant concept, but I don't even need to articulate it because it's so ridiculous. So I wanted to make sure that when we closed, nobody called us a Hawaiian themer.
Josh Sharkey [00:21:24]:
Yeah. It's borderline racist.
Kiki Aranita [00:21:26]:
Yeah. And the only way that I could see going through this was to write my own obituary for the restaurant and also to direct people reading the article to the businesses of my staff. Significant businesses came out of the closing of Poi Dog. I had extremely talented staff, colleagues, people I've been working with for the last seven years, and they've gone on to open their own restaurants to start their own businesses, and I wanted to draw attention to that.
So when we closed, we made the decision that instead of selling our restaurant equipment, we wanted to donate it to people who could use it to start their own ventures. So the initial point of the article was to be like, this is what we accomplished with Poi Dog, the restaurant. Please pay attention to our staff members who are going on to great things.
And third, If you are a person of color and a person who is cooking an underrepresented cuisine, please get in touch with us, and here is a way for you to sign up to get our fryers, our, our stoves, our ovens, and like all of this stuff. So I feel like we did a really good job of closing. I think we did the best that we could and sort of carried on the Poi Dog legacy in a good way with these goals.
And then after that, after the closing, Food and Wine contacted me and asked to interview me about this closing. That's when I went to them. I had never written it for them before, and I asked them if I could write the article about how it felt to close my restaurant.
Josh Sharkey [00:23:10]:
Why did they, why do you think they said yes? I imagine maybe no one's ever asked that before, but, but you had never written for them. I guess you had a background in writing, but yeah, when they reach out and the journalist is like, this is my job is to write about, And now you wanna write, why do you think they said yes to you?
Kiki Aranita [00:23:25]:
I'm not sure. I mean, I definitely made a case. I was like, Hey, I am a published author in multiple fields. Can I please write this myself? And it took a few days for them to get back to me, but eventually they were like, okay. And they let me write it.
Josh Sharkey [00:23:34]:
Kiki, I think it, it really is so commendable. You, you don't get what you don't ask for. I don't know if anybody's ever asked for that before or thought to, but it's so smart and it's also really brave. And I read the article. I loved it. And I wanna talk about that part of it because I think that's something that we don't talk about enough, like what it means to close a restaurant.
Obviously it's a baby of ours, right? We have a restaurant, especially if you had it for long enough. I've closed restaurants before and I've had restaurants for eight, nine years where I saw kids where parents whose children were born and brought them as infants all the way to now. They're throwing away their recyclables at age nine, you know, in the restaurant.
And I see them growing up. It's a tough thing, especially for the community, but there's also all these other little things that we don't talk about. Obviously you have to pay vendors. Oftentimes you have personal guarantees with some of these vendors that you haven't opened in a way where you don't need to do that.
For me, there's all these fixtures signs or neon signs or things that you had designed just for the restaurant now where do those go and or do you store them? Your crew finds work and all the recipes, the restaurant, what do you wanna do with those? And I'd be curious to hear about some of the things, the nuances of closing for you that you didn't sort of plan for and think about that came up as you had to close the restaurant.
Kiki Aranita [00:24:57]:
Yeah. I mean, I wouldn't have closed if it wasn't for the pandemic because you have to deal with so much stuff. Where do you put all this stuff? And it's really infuriating and it's really boring. Opening a restaurant is exciting and there's a billion things to do and you have to-do lists all over the place.
We have shopping lists. Closing a restaurant is sort of like that, but in reverse. So much paperwork, contacting vendors and also like I closed at the height of pandemic, so most of my sales reps from like all the different to go apps, they were like no longer at their jobs or working with like my seafood company, like everybody.
And again, we served a lot of fresh poke, so seafood was a really big part of my life. There was so much staff changeover at that time, like getting a hold of somebody to like end your contract so you weren't constantly paying them. It was so hard, and I think that even now it's hard, like closing for me in 2020, like the last three months, like that was pretty much like a full-time job trying to round up equipment that was rented and had to go back to services.
Like shutting down is so much work. I felt like I was like a forensic detective of sorts because I kept trying to find people to end our contract and then the legal and sales side of things. I don't know how it is in other states, but Pennsylvania is kind of a mess when it comes to closing down a business.
You need to do so much to shut down an LLC. You have to make sure that you are tax compliant. And then sometimes, like if you shut down your payroll, they don't transfer your tax information even though you paid your taxes to the proper bureaus. And then you have to find evidence that you paid your taxes.I literally just had to do this a month ago and I closed three years ago. Stuff is so slow.
Josh Sharkey [00:26:45]:
Did you have any personal guarantees with any of your vendors?
Kiki Aranita [00:26:48]:
No, I did not.
Josh Sharkey [00:26:51]:
Oh, that's good. With one of my restaurants, I ended up having to pay way more money personally than I would've.I think that's another thing people don't realize is, yeah, when you close there's a hierarchy of just making sure everybody gets paid. You have to make sure your employees get paid and your vendors get paid and closing out, you know, leases and things like that. It's a mess and there is so much, you know, organization to do and it's like this work that you have to do, but you really just want to be done and have closure. So you're right, it sometimes takes years. What do you think are some things you would maybe have done differently, if anything about closing? You could do it over again.
Kiki Aranita [00:27:33]:
Like I said, like I feel like we did a good job closing. I think I wouldn't have done anything differently, but I would've guarded my loins a little bit better for knowing that closing an LLC and getting like the legal and tax side of things wrapped up will take years.
I have an amazing bookkeeper who thankfully keeps amazing records that are all stacked in my basement. Thankfully I have a basement and I have a lot of storage space and I didn't hang onto a lot of stuff like. We donated so much. If it's one piece of advice I can give people, it's like, let go. Anything could be replaced, don't have to-go containers stacked in your basement. If you don't plan on opening another restaurant soon, like just get rid of the stuff, like you can get more of it, it'll be fine. It'll make more money.
Josh Sharkey [00:28:20]:
I did the same for quite a while and then gave it away. So you closed, you wrote an incredible article that talked about why and what it meant, and it's a bit of an obituary, and then you started doing a lot more writing. So you're writing now for the Fine Dining Lovers column. Can you maybe talk a little bit about what that is and you know what it means to you?
Kiki Aranita [00:28:39]:
Yes. We are on hiatus right now because of budget issues and funding by San Pelligrino.
Josh Sharkey [00:28:42]:
San Pellegrino. You guys got money? Come on.
Kiki Aranita [00:28:42]:
Yeah. Well, they also lost a lot of money during the pandemic. I'm so sorry guys. And knowing the inner workings of a water company has been really, really fascinating. Especially like if it pertained to your life in any sort of functional way. Yes, they have lots of money, but a lot has happened in the last three years. It's just a matter of coming out of budget, which I also understand as a business owner.
So I had my own column, currently maybe my own column where San Pellegrino's Fine Dining Lovers, where I get to write about cool things that I noticed in the food world, which has been such a gift. And I'm so thankful that I had basically free reign to write about trends and flavor combinations and people who were doing amazing things in the food world all over the world.
I got to write about like Indigenous Canadian cuisine. I got to interview David Gilbert about New Frontiers in fermenting garam, which of course tied things back to my classics background. I got to do so much cool stuff with this column.
Josh Sharkey [00:29:46]:
Yeah, I have to imagine there's so much joy you can get out of it. Not just the writing part of it, but how much you learn. I read some of these articles, the one about rice with Ange Branca was awesome. I was inspired to cook some more coconut rice that night. Do you feel like you have sort of been able to replace the joy of cooking with the joy of writing given its the same vertical?
Kiki Aranita [00:30:16]:
I'm very compartmentalized in my life and in my brain, and they're two very different sides of me. Like I have to decide which day I'm going to be a cook, like which day of the week I'm gonna be a cook and which day I'm gonna be a writer and basically turn into a different person depending on the day.
I cook a lot. I had a lot of chef residencies kind of all over the place, and it helped Poi Dog turn into a sauce company. I'm still doing a lot of cooking demos. I never really stopped cooking. If anything, I'm cooking more now than I did when I was running the restaurant because when I was running the restaurant, I was in the office doing the paperwork and yelling at people on the phone.
Josh Sharkey [00:30:54]:
Yeah, that makes sense.
Kiki Aranita [00:30:56]:
I didn't tell you this. I took a temporary job as a private chef because Martin Brock is doing it and I figured like if Martin Brock can do it, I can do it too. It was offered to me with an athlete in Philly. So I spend two days a week right now, like doing all of the prep and cooking like crazy in ways that I haven't done in a very long time. And it's nice to flex those muscles. I keep the cooking and the writing very, very separate in my brain.
Josh Sharkey [00:31:37]:
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What I love most about the personal chef gig, is that it really is like, at least for me, part of what I love most about cooking is what we get to do if you're a personal chef. Because when you're a chef in a restaurant, it's a different type of joy. It's also a different type of skill set, right?
Because there you're sort of making sure your cooks are executing well and that they are on time and that they're like, they understand their prep list and their mise en place is set up, I dunno about you, but that, that's what I love most about cooking is like knowing I have this long prep list and you know, organizing the thing and, and getting my braces on and marinating this and knowing this is going overnight and like tasting this and like going to sleep knowing that there's all these things that are marinating or sitting or raising or soothing.
And that for me, there's so much joy out of that. And that's what I love most about cooking. We don't get to do that as much when we own a restaurant because we have a team that does that, unless it's just you, which is very often not the case. So I feel like the personal chef is a great outlet for that because you get to do all of that unless you happen to have a team, which, you know, some people do as well.
But I love that you have this sort of mix of all these things that you do in your life and you're not just a chef and you're not just a writer and you're not just a crocheter and all these things. And I, I mean, I'm, to be honest, I'm a little bit jealous and envious because I tend to sort of dig into one thing and just be like, maniacally focused on the business in front of me. And I have this sort of like, almost this level of guilt if I try to do other things, but you inspire me to like, you know, know there's, we gotta find time for those, for those other things. So I wanna get into those other things.
Kiki Aranita [00:34:06]
Can I ask you a question about your closing though? What did you keep, like what could you not get rid of? What is like taking up space that you have no use for?
Josh Sharkey [00:34:12]:
So, well, here's the thing. I didn't keep much, but there's more I wanted to keep, there was signage. Our restaurants were sort of famous for these like neon signs, these beautifully designed neon signs. And I didn't have space for them, so I wanted to keep them, but I couldn't.
But I did kindly, like some of the equipment, like the Vitex and the robo coop and things like that, I kept, and I have no qualms about that. I was like, hell yeah, I'm keeping these, like, you know, so now I have those in my kitchen still. Otherwise, to be honest with you, I did snag some hotel pans and things like that because I just, like, even in my house at private parties or Thanksgiving, it's nice to have that stuff around, but not much else other than the recipes.
I'm maniacal about all the recipes and so those are, and those all live in meez now, but I can't. The one other thing I kept is onesies. So we had these really cool onesies and I only have like two left. They're gifts, so I would give these onesies whenever my friends would have a baby, I would give them a onesie. I have two onesies left from years ago, and I still have two more baby gifts to give. Everything else we gave away. But you're right, it was years.
Kiki Aranita [00:35:12]:
I wanna ask people who closed restaurants the same question. Like I feel like we should put out a survey asking people what they kept from their closed restaurants.
Josh Sharkey [00:35:32]:
That is so funny that you just said that because I wanted to talk to you about this today. Cause I wanted to hear what you kept. I actually have a note. I should screenshot it, send it to you. I was like, send a survey after this when I talk about Kiki and I's conversation and ask everybody what they kept.
So I'm gonna do that. I'm gonna tag you and we will find out from everybody what they kept. Because obviously selfishly we, I don't know about you. There was some of the equipment. I'm like, I'm not fucking giving this up like I want. And it was a little bit, I felt bad again because like we sold the restaurant with the equipment, right?
So it was like, you, you get all this stuff. But some of it we kept back. But I mean there's a million learned lessons I had from that that I would do differently. The personal guarantees were probably the hardest thing for me because the vendors were important to me. We didn't buy from broadliners.
Every vendor we knew personally, and it was usually a person. So of my own money, I would pay five grand to this person and eight grand to this person to like, because otherwise they wouldn't get paid. And that was a tough one. But part of running the business
Kiki Aranita [00:36:30]:
Definitely in a pandemic we have very different circumstances.
Josh Sharkey [00:36:35]:
I'm gonna sort of bounce back a little bit because when we were talking about your writing, one thing that I think is really interesting about what you're doing Kiki, you're a chef, right? You cook, obviously you started in academia and literature, but you're clearly a chef now among many other things.
And I think there's skill sets of being a chef that are applicable to a lot of other things that people probably don't think about. So before I talk about that though, I'd love to hear from you, like you think that more chefs should write, like the impetus that you had to say, I want to write this article.
Granted, I know you were a writer, so that's probably why they let you do that in the first place. But chefs, right? We have a perspective, we have a voice. That's the only reason why we're cooking your least. So you know, it should be like, we wanna tell us some story of what we believe in through our food. Do you think that more chefs should write?
Kiki Aranita [00:37:18]:
My answer is very much a yes. I think much of American food media in the last couple years, and I know this because I've been the grateful recipient of this sort of attention, and many editors think that people should tell their own stories, that chefs should tell their own stories.
So I think it is going in that direction. That said, it's not enough. I don't know how closely you read Eater, but they recently put out a like list of five ways to get a better meal at a restaurant that created a big furor because one of those things was like, you should go into a restaurant and ask to sit at a different table after you've already sat down.
And I cannot fathom and many people cannot fathom for the life of us why publications like Eater would give that sort of advice. And the only justification that I can think of is that editors certain, like people on their staff, don't have the sort of back of house experience and sort of house experience that lends actual people, front of house or back of house, like the sensitivity. That's a terrible idea. Like there's such a protocol in restaurants of how to behave. And if you're dispensing bad advice, it's because you're out of touch with the reality in these spaces. So if you're writing from within that space, if you're writing as a chef or somebody who has experience in a restaurant, then you're going to dispense better advice to people who are going to come into restaurants in general. So yes, more chefs and front of house people should be writing because they're the ones dealing with it every single day.
Josh Sharkey [00:38:52]:
So this is sort of the bedrock of what, and this is by no means I'm not trying to plug my company, but the foundation of everything that we do at Mees is to this first principle of what we call operational empathy. And it's the same reason why food writing I think has that same problem that you mentioned is the same reason why most technology has the same problem. Because we're sort of given this technology from someone that doesn't understand what it means to be in a kitchen to what a day looks like. Why at 11 o'clock we don't have time to do this because there's probably a cook that's running late, or a delivery that came in late or something that got a bit burned or something.
And that sort of notion of operational empathy is imperative to be able to create great technology. And I think to your point, it's the same reason why a lot of food writing, especially like over the years, has become diminished a bit. I think that one thing that bothers me is when we become sort of this caricature of ourselves in the writing.
When someone's interviewing, you know, us as a chef or writing about us, and they're writing about chefs as sort of like a character of what we do and sort of the surface level things of what it means to be a chef. And there's so much more to it. And if you don't know that, it's very hard to really get to the heart of what the story is, of why a restaurant closed, of why a chef cooks the food that they do the way that they do, or why it might be different this day than the other day.
I don't know how you solve that without people with domain experience writing about the thing. I think there's a reason why some of my favorite authors in the world are someone like James Miser, who it's historical fiction, but he's been there, he's living this thing, and then he writes about it and there's so much knowledge in the narrative that that's what actually makes it so enjoyable is you can sort of trust it.
And you know, not just from a chef's perspective, but from a layman who's not a chef reading this, I think it's really difficult to have, you know, great writing about food if you don't understand why it is the way it is or how it is the way it is. So that's why I asked you if you think more chefs should write, which I think sounds like you do, but I'd be curious to hear from you what you think makes great writing or maybe great food writing. You choose.
Kiki Aranita [00:41:00]:
So I do think. More chefs should write, but I also think that more people shouldn't have worked in restaurants. So for many, many years I've been saying that just like how in Israel and Korea, there's a required military service.
There should be compulsory restaurant service in America. Like you should have to put in your time, like everybody, it should be like the entire population should be required to put in like a year in a restaurant.
Josh Sharkey [00:41:29]:
So instead of the military industrial complex, we're gonna have the restaurant industrial complex.
Kiki Aranita [00:41:36]:
Yes. And I think it'll solve so many problems and make people kinder and more empathetic in general. I think compulsory restaurant service should really be a thing in this country.
Yeah. I'm not sure I disagree there. I think you're onto something there because everybody goes to restaurants, right?
Kiki Aranita [00:41:51]
So should we start another campaign?
Josh Sharkey [00:41:53]
That's another one. We're doing it. That one's from another audience, but I'm making a note here. Yeah, I think, I think you're right. Also, just going into sitting down at a restaurant and knowing why you might be waiting is important. So are there any food writers that you, or just writers in general, like who do you look up to or aspire to or love as relates to writing?
Kiki Aranita [00:42:11]:
I love Rachel Laudan. She is a food historian. She wrote The Food of Paradise, and so she lived in Hawaii for a while and this book was published by the University of Hawaii Press. But she's very much conscious of the culture as an outsider, but she writes it with intelligence and clarity, and I love her writing.
There's so many food writers that I respect and adore. Mahira Rivers is amazing. I have to keep training myself. So I've known Meira since we were like 13. Mahira is a very, very accomplished food critic. I cannot talk about how accomplished she is as a food critic, but she's extremely accomplished. She also has a column with Resy and back when we were 15, we were roommates on our high school interim trip to Cambodia, and yeah, I've known her for so long, it's laughable.
She's very, very talented and she used to do the Hungry City column for the New York Times. Betina Makalintal. I love her writing as well. She's currently an Eater. I feel like she has a really great finger on the pulse of what's happening in the food world and tying it into popular culture. But yeah, those are the three that come to mind right now.
Josh Sharkey [00:43:27]:
What do you think makes a great writer?
Kiki Aranita [00:43:30]:
The ability to make connections. I think so, yes. You can have beautiful writing. You can have beautiful turns of phrases and put words together in a nice, succinct way, but when it comes to food writing, okay, I have to name one more person. So our food critic in Philadelphia is Craig Leban.
I feel like he's one of those food critics that is a special breed. He's definitely old school, but he understands his position best and has to constantly remind people. And I actually interviewed him for an article that I wrote about food criticism and its place for fine dining lovers, but he understands that he is first and foremost a service journalist.
His job is to tell people where to spend their hard-earned money. So his job is not to promote a restaurant or like for marketing or whatever. Like yes, people use his words and his reviews to market their own restaurants, but he's first and foremost somebody who serves the dining public. And I think that's very important because I think the general public looks at food writing.
If they even think about or look at food writing, they don't necessarily know the difference between food criticism, service journalism, and food writing. The sort of food writing that I do like, I'm not a critic. I will never walk into a place and write about a bad experience, but both types of writing I think are very important.
Josh Sharkey [00:44:58]:
I think knowing one's role and tying larger thoughts together into the narrative of food creates amazing food journalism. Every story is a food story. Everybody eats. I think that food journalism is not niche. Everybody should be reading it. And it's really honestly unfortunate now that so many magazines and publications that produce wonderful food journalism are not budgeted very well at this particular moment in time.
Yeah. I have to agree with you. I actually do think that empathy is one of the most important aspects of being a great writer in general and especially when it comes to food and being humble. And to your point, I think the most, maybe the most important thing, at least as a food critic, is writing in service of the guest instead of in service of yourself as the writer.
I think too often there's like these pontifications and sort of over narration of a dish, and let's be honest, most of them, they're not chefs. We should value their opinion if they've eaten a lot of food because there's also an importance to having eaten a lot of food and to have a good sense of taste.
That's really important to being an arbiter of taste. But the greatest critics. Are in service of the guest and not the writing that they're doing. And that probably is one of the biggest sort of dividers that you see, to your point about the either article that plays into sort of the empathy, right?
The most successful ventures of anything, in my opinion, are things that are mutually beneficial to all parties involved, right? So if you have a marketplace, obviously you want the buyers to be getting value and the sellers getting value. And if you're a food critic, right? You want the restaurant to be getting value and you want the guests to be getting value.
And then of course you want, you know, the newspaper that, or the journal that whoever you're writing for to get value and all three of those have to work, right? It can't just be that the guest and the publication are getting value and it can't just be that the restaurant's getting value, which also sometimes happens, right?
Where they're sort of writing more in support of the restaurant than the guest. And that's when it works really well. I think when all three of them are serviced well. Because the restaurant should be getting value out of that article because they should learn. It's a chance for them to learn. Hopefully this is a critic that's eaten there many times because you can't just eat a dish once.
You can't have one experience because you could have an off night. We all know, but if someone's eaten there 10 times and then they write about it and they write in service of the guest and the restaurant, then you do get value from it. It might not be a great review, but you'll learn and you can get better. I wonder if there's a place where chefs end up becoming food critics, although at the same time I wonder if food criticism is now just open source to the world because you just go on TikTok or Instagram and you know, everybody in the world has an opinion on the restaurant they've been to and you learn from that.
Kiki Aranita [00:47:42]:
Yeah. It's important to not just have good writers, but also to have good readers to understand where that writer might be coming from and why they might be saying the things that they're saying, but it also sounds like what you're saying is whether you are a chef writer or a critic or you know reader, you need to set aside your ego in order to produce the best quality work.
Josh Sharkey [00:48:06]:
Yeah, I definitely believe that. Well, we've been on this for a while. I wanna make sure we talk about Poi Dog, your CPG brand, and I also wanna make sure that we talk about your crocheting, which we have some work that you and I have to do on that as well. But let's talk about the CPG brands for a minute. Why did you launch that brand and how's it going and what's next? And I have, by the way, you sent me some sauce. They're awesome. And I'd love to hear more about why you started that and what people should know about the brand.
Kiki Aranita [00:48:41]:
So cooking in a restaurant and at a food truck, I wanted everybody to come and taste food the way that I intended for them to taste it. I constantly referred to us as a mobile gathering place. And then once we were in a brick and mortar, a gathering place for people who missed and loved Hawaii and wanted a piece of it in their lives on the mainland, we drew a lot of different people who loved Hawaii in different ways, whether they had lived there, had family there, or had a honeymoon there.
We valued all of those experiences and wanted to give them a little taste of that. So we were confined by geography, but my sauces are not, my goal for the sauces is to have people create new memories and new dishes with them the way that they want them to taste. So like I just wanna be a part of that process, and it's been really fascinating.
Somebody sent me their home recipe for Bloody Marys that used the guava katsu as a base, and I thought that was so brilliant and something I never would've thought of myself. There's a flexibility to them and I want them to like spur creativity rather than have other people just taste my creations. They can also travel.
They can be shipped all over the country, and I wanted them to be found on retail shelves that reminded me of Poi Dog and. Like neighborhood gems, places that you stumble upon and discover new flavors. Like I wanted people to have that experience all over the country to stumble into a little shop and find my sauces.
That's honestly what I want. But I started it because I had an event in September of 2020 after the restaurant closed that required me to make chili pepper water for my dish. And I made a lot of chili pepper water. And it was at this event that my friends or and Ethan from Burlap & Barrel were also cooking.
And I was very much in grief mode at this point after closing Poi Dog. And they said that they tasted the sauce. They're like, hey, this is great and you should bottle it. And I'm like, wait, what? And they were like, yeah, you should bottle it and should get into CPG and we'll tell you how to do it. So after that, they linked me with many, many different people like co-packers, people in their orbit, most of whom gave me great advice, or told me that I'm not doing 500 gallons at once so they can't help me. But here are ways to get to that point. So yeah, honestly it was Burlap & Barrels idea and I went with it.
Josh Sharkey [00:51:13]:
That's awesome. Well thanks Orie and Ethan. We just had them on the podcast last week actually. Anything surprising that you've learned now about launching a CPG brand that you didn't know?
Kiki Aranita [00:51:20]:
I mean, sure there's a million things you didn't know. First of all, it's a totally different style of cooking. You can adjust things when you're cooking on a line. You can fix things, you can be nimble. You can't be nimble when it comes to something that's gonna be bottled and shelf stable for two years. So the recipe has to be perfect. And then when you scale up, things are going to be different.
And when you scale up more things are gonna taste even more different. I mean, I got like a crash course in food science and preservation in addition to many other things when launching this brand. And I find it continually fascinating. And every production run, I learn more. And the newest sauce, which you were the very first to get a bottle of, is also packaged for food service.
So we have a food service distributor as well now, and we are launching that sauce in three days at the Cherry Bombe Jubilee in New York City. I'm very tired. You're the only person who can see me right now, but I haven't been sleeping very much.
Josh Sharkey [00:52:20]:
Oh, that's not good. How many hours of sleep do you usually get? What's a typical night?
Kiki Aranita [00:52:27]:
I need like seven hours. I'm probably getting five. I fell asleep on the train, which is something I never do, going between Philly and New York these last couple days. I've done that trip a few times these last few days. I never fall asleep on the train and falling asleep is terrifying to me because I'm like, what if I wake up in Miami? Or Savannah. It goes As far as Savannah, yeah.
Josh Sharkey [00:52:52]:
I'm pretty sure they stopped you before. It’s happened to me a couple of times. Honestly, sleeping is the toughest thing for me now because I used to not sleep very much, but it was okay for 15 plus years. I slept five hours a night and I was fine. And now I'm 40, almost 42, if I get five hours of sleep. I'm struggling that day and I have two kids and it’s funny,I do this sort of daily journaling and one of the things that I built this sort of app for myself.
One of the prompts is just asking me what I'm stressed about or what I'm worried about, and I just looked at the last like three, four weeks. And it's always just, how do I find a better schedule for sleep? Because I wanna get up and work out in the morning before my kids get up. And it's tough. And we definitely like to undervalue sleep. I hope you get some soon.
Kiki Aranita [00:53:39]:
Yeah. And like my body hurt, I also did a popup and cooked, so our mostly famous dish at the restaurant, what we were known for was the Mochi Nori Fried Chicken. And I had resisted making it for three whole years. And then I did a popup at my friend's restaurant in Philly where we served for the first time since we closed the restaurant in March 2020 for the first round of shutdowns for the pandemic. So I hadn't made this dish for a long time and like I was overthinking it.
Josh Sharkey [00:54:05]:
So you said mochi nori fried chicken. I'm trying to like a picture for myself of how maybe the nori is dried and part of some spice mix or something. How has that come together? Can you tell me about that dish?
Kiki Aranita [00:54:24]:
Do you know what Mochiko chicken is?
Josh Sharkey [00:54:26]:
No I don't.
Kiki Aranita [00:54:28]:
The rice flour battered Japanese style chicken.
Josh Sharkey [00:54:30]:
Oh, got it. So like by mochiko you just mean the rice flour.
Kiki Aranita [00:54:32]:
So mochi fried chicken is a riff on that. So it's battered in rice flour. And our breading has furikake in it, so it is like a little naughty plate. And we had lines around the block.
Josh Sharkey [00:54:38]:
Do you make furikake?
Kiki Aranita [00:54:40]:
We use the Nori Komi Furikake. I do make furikake, but not for that chicken.
Josh Sharkey [00:54:49]:
Great. On popcorn, by the way.
Kiki Aranita [00:54:53]:
Yes, the best, especially if you like to put shoyu caramel on the popcorn. We would do that at the restaurant for the holiday. I stole a recipe from one of my aunts and um, have not changed it.
Josh Sharkey [00:55:05]:
Wow. Nothing like salty, salty caramel with umami. Sorry I interrupted. You were talking about the popup and your back hurts because you made a countless number of fried chicken.
Kiki Aranita [00:55:21]:
Everything hurts. Everything hurts. It was like lines around the block. I have done like the chef residencies, but even with the residencies, like that's just me telling people what to do and helping with cleanup and basically it was telling people what to do. This was like me on the line cooking and we had a line around the block and we sold out within an hour. Even though I'm very well prepared for this sort of thing and my whole body hurts. I'm in so much pain right now.
Josh Sharkey [00:55:38]:
Absent salt baths, sometimes that helps. Yeah, I feel you. I definitely feel you. I remember when I hit 30, my back went out. I was like, oh, this is the first, and then I hit 40 and my knees were going out and just keeps coming.
Kiki Aranita [00:55:58]:
The recovery time is longer now.
Josh Sharkey [00:56:00]:
Yeah, a lot more stretching. Unnecessary but necessary stretching for way longer than I would normally have needed to. I run like at least four days a week now I'd run barefoot, which is helpful. It actually is like less pain on my knees.
Kiki Aranita [00:56:15]:
Wait, do you wear the foot covers?
Josh Sharkey [00:56:19]:
No, I wear socks just like regular old socks because I run on the road, but I only run like six miles. But at a clip.
Josh Sharkey [00:56:24]:
You run six miles barefoot four days a week.
Josh Sharkey [00:56:26]:
Well, no, I run two of the days I run barefoot, two of them. I don't, I try to mix it up. Cause two of the days I actually go on these trails where people say they've run bare trails. I don't wanna mess with that. It was hard at first and it was like, I kind of went right for it right away, which I shouldn't have or should have sort of eased into it. Because the first time I ever ran barefoot, I had just finished reading this book by Christopher McDougall called Born to Run, which is, everybody should read that if you like running it's an incredible book.
He just came out with a, with a sequel and it sort of like touts the beauty of running barefoot verified and why we have as humans degraded the efficacy of our running because of these cushioning shoes that we've had over time and how Nike sort of like built these cushions in our shoes, which forced us to run in our heels.
And anyways, that's not the point of the story, but yeah, I run barefoot. It's much better on my knees, causes much less injuries and it makes you use different muscles than you're used to. It doesn't take, takes some getting used to to get into it. but I still, when I get home, iif I don't do like 20 minutes of stretching now I'm hurting the next day. Whereas I used to not, not even have to stretch really when I got done or just do a stretch beforehand. And it's one of those things where you just realize this is just getting old. I guess that was a rant.
Kiki Aranita [00:57:25]:
Yeah. No, I'm fascinated by the barefoot running thing.
Josh Sharkey [00:57:30]:
Oh, it's great. Yeah. It does take some getting used to, I will say, like running is great exercise, but I run to think. I never use headphones. I never like to listen to music or anything. I just, every once in a while I listen to a book, but for the most part I run and I just think I'm just like solving a problem in my head or I'm just like thinking about things or enjoying nature if it's a really, really long run.
But for me, there's no better way for me to get my thoughts out than running. The barefoot thing started maybe a few months ago and that was tough because it was hard to think during that time because you're so focused on your form now. It's a little bit more natural. But I would recommend trying it out if you, if you like running it definitely helps with form and improving your form.
Kiki Aranita [00:58:18]:
I hate running. Oh, well then I do it. I mean, I don't enjoy it, but I do it. I like swimming.
Josh Sharkey [00:58:24]:
Well that's good. So little known fact. Actually, this is not a little known fact. Fr anybody that knows me, but I do not know how to swim. I mean, I can swim from A to B, but if you drop me in the middle of a lake, I will sink like there's no tomorrow, which I need to, I need to learn because I have two kids and I don't know, I just never really like got it.
Kiki Aranita [00:58:42]:
Josh Sharkey [00:58:44]:
I know, I know. I know. It's like now I feel like I'm too old to learn, but I'm probably not. And I probably should because I gotta make sure I can save my kids if I need to. I feel like if I needed to, I would because again, I can, I can swim from E to B. I just can't like tread water. I don't know why, but I bet I would love swimming.
Kiki Aranita [00:58:59]:
You gotta do it. It's a safety thing. Like you just, you never know, like you, or sorry, a girl from Hawaii. I'm like, what?
Josh Sharkey [00:59:05]:
I know. Believe me, I know. And I live off the Hudson River and although I guess you don't really swim from the Hudson. Enough about me. Let's talk about crocheting becausethis is fucking wild. You know, you have this installation at Philadelphia International Airport and you do, I'm gonna just try to bastardize this a little bit, or not bastardize it, but you crochet these basically like branded food, among other things. But how did you get into it? Why do you do it? Also, I noticed you have Squid Fish sauce. Why'd you choose that one? How come not Red Boat or Shark?
Kiki Aranita [00:59:34]:
I could do Red Boat. I didn't grow up crocheting. I grew up sewing and I can do basic knitting, but I never really connected with it. So when I joined, the restaurant in my life was really, really stressful. Crochet was my outlet and I would mostly make like dog sweaters. And then during the pandemic, I started crocheting bunnies. But they were. Like sort of self-portrait bunnies. It was very dark. Like I was in a bad mental place like crocheting these bunnies. So they had, like carrots impaled through their heads.
I did what I called bundu, the Testa di Bundu, so it was a riff on Testa Medusa, so it was a decapitated bunny with like had a painted like blood splatters, like coming out off of like the decapitated bunny head, and instead of serpents coming out of the head, it was like serpentine carrots. Then I did like the entire, I call it He sees the agony, was like basically a compendium of all the different Greek gods and goddesses.
So I crocheted a blind bunny, like Tyrek being with like two snakes with like a rat circling its body. I basically did like all of the Greek myths. And bunny form with a lot of, like I said, it was very dark, so it was like a lot of them being impaled with carrots crocheted from yarn. It sounds really stupid when I say it.
Josh Sharkey [01:01:02]:
It makes sense from your background in Greek and Latin literature that you're doing crochets of Medusa or something like that, but I don't really have to ask how do you get them to look like what you want them to look like when you're crocheting? I know nothing about crocheting, but do you have to like to do a template? You like to draw it first or like how do you do that?
Kiki Aranita [01:01:17]:
No. So I don't read a pattern. I don't actually know how to read a crochet pattern at all. Like I never taught myself, I do everything freehand and I do everything with scrap yarn. You know, I'm on a mission to save the world from microplastics, I guess.
And microplastics can get into our waterways by washing synthetic yarns, um, synthetic fabrics. So I collect all the scrap yarns from my neighbors. I have a whole racket going sourcing yarn from my, uh, buy nothing group on Facebook. And I turn stuff that would hopefully not land up in the landfill, but could dry well.
I turned it into a sculpture. So I jumped from bunnies to packaging because I have a very, very close and extremely talented friend who's a fiber artist named Caitlin McCormack. And Caitlin was like my buddy through the darkest days of pandemic. And I decided that I would see things in my house or see things online and, and make it out of yarn.
And I started to do that with brand packaging. Actually, my first one was Sam Pellegrino's bottle, and then I crocheted it and realized that it looked really uncannily, like an actual bottle of Sam Pellegrino. I became fascinated by the connections between memory and recognition. So you look at something that's a clear facsimile of the actual thing, it's made out of yarn, and yet you still recognize it as a piece of packaging because you know, you're so familiar with this type of packaging that you see like, you know, a conglomeration of colors that are similar and you're like, oh, okay, I know what that is.
So I'm fascinated by the short connectors between familiarity and recognition when it comes to sculpture and brand packaging reality. And I also know that the thing that runs in my family is a short connection between our hands and our brains. So it's a quality that I'm very grateful to have inherited from my dad's side of the family, where if we decide we want to make something, we can just make it.
There's no design process. It's just like, give me some materials and my hands can make it for you, and it will make it exactly the way that I intended it to be. So my practice in terms of fiber sculpture is about these short connections, the short connection between my hands and my brain, and the short connections between recognition and memory.
So I started crocheting stuff. I started crocheting the things that I missed. We're all familiar with the dearth of stock and grocery stores during the pandemic and supply chain issues. So I started crushing the snacks that I missed in Hong Kong that I couldn't get my hands on. Things that are really, really iconic in my life.
And I started a series that was like somebody else's childhood because I started gathering like iconic packaging from the childhoods of my friends, of course, you know, my husband. So I made a bag of Bamba Israeli peanut snacks. I started crocheting the bag of Bomba when I was hanging out with Ethan and Orrie from Burlap & Burlap in the Poconos while we were talking about starting Poi Dog sauces.
So all these things came together at once. They were like, what the hell are you doing crocheting this orange bag of Bamba. And then it started to actually look like Bamba. And like towards the end of our time in the Poconos, I started crocheting the little Bambas and like seeing their faces start to recognize Bamba. I'll never forget the looks on their faces as it was like materializing.
Josh Sharkey [01:04:44]:
We're talking, we're having a conversation right now so people can't see these things. kikiaranita.com/fiber-art. If anybody, you should look at this while you're listening because it's baffling how you do. I have no idea how you do this yet. I'm looking at these crochets that look exactly like a bottle of fish sauce, or a bottle of bamba or spam or something. And like I just can't wrap my head around how you manifest this from yarn. It doesn't sound like something that's easily teachable. It sounds like it's something that comes from, you know, just from your genes, but everybody should go check it out.
And on that note, we talked about doing some, I definitely want to do the meez whizz that we talked about with our logo and a cheese biscuit. Cause that sounds like a really fun gift to give to people. So I have a note for myself to remember to commission you for that after this.
Kiki Aranita [01:05:44]:
I have two shows coming up here in New York. I'm gonna be part of a group show. Oh, cool. Where at Bobble House on the lower East side. It's like a gallery slash retail store. And I'm also planning on installation with show fields and at their NoHo location.
Josh Sharkey [01:05:57]:
Nice. All right, well, well, I'll have to get that information from people and put it in the show notes.
Kiki Aranita [01:06:01]:
The Bobble House one is gonna be in June and July and Showfields. I owe them so much information that I am going to get to them at the end of this call, but they want me to crochet something enormous. I hope they give me some time.
Josh Sharkey [01:06:20]:
Very cool. I'm gonna try to make it there. Well Kikii, we're wrapping up here. So before we get going, is there anything else that you wanna tell the audience of food folks or your friends or colleagues or anything that we didn't talk about that you wanna make sure you tell the world?
Kiki Aranita [01:06:35]:
I just started working with Hone, the talent agency that was born out of West Stone Media. They're an excellent magazine and I'm not just excited to work with the people behind home, but the roster that they're about to announce in the coming weeks is absolutely incredible for me to be considered like alongside these people who, I can't tell you who they are yet with so much talent, I'm sort of flabbergasted. And that's something definitely that you should keep your eyes on because they're doing something really unique and new in the food media space.
Josh Sharkey [01:07:06]:
I saw Reem Assil post about it. She's involved, I guess she's on the roster too. What is Hone doing? Is it a talent representation for chefs?.
Kiki Aranita [01:07:18]:
Yes, people in food. Food media is such a huge category, like, you know, there's a new food show on Netflix whenever you open the app. So this is like harnessing the talents of and representing a small group of chefs to further our opportunities in food media.
Josh Sharkey [01:07:35]:
I love that. That's awesome. Well, we'll see if we can support them in some way as well. It sounds like they're doing that. Just Kiki, this was awesome. Thank you. And we gotta meet in person at some point because we haven't, but this was really fun. So thank you.
Kiki Aranita [01:07:50]:
Thanks for tuning into The meez Podcast. The music from the show is a remix of the Song Art Mirror by an old friend, hip hop artist, Fresh Daily. For show notes and more, visit www.getmeez.com/podcast. That's G E T M E E Z dot com forward slash podcast. If you enjoyed the show, I'd love it if you can share it with your fellow entrepreneurs and culinary pros and give us a five star rating wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Keep innovating. Don't settle. Make today a little better than yesterday. And remember, it's impossible for us to learn what we think we already know. See you next time.