In Conversation with Meghan Takahashi and Sophie Jones, founders of ÓLaVie
INTERVIEW BY Cheryle Chong
ÓLaVie is a company started by Columbia University senior Meghan Takahashi and NYU Gallatin freshman Sophie Jones that values creating a close community, sustainable farming, and human connection sans the crutch of smartphones. Since July, they have hosted a number of intimate pop-up dinners out of Sophie’s refined Manhattan apartment that have proven their food and drink expertise, as well as stunning culinary intuition and skill. In this exclusive conversation between Sophie and Meghan we get an insider’s peek into the birth of an idea born from passion and its growth into a real community in the hands of two inspiring, driven young women.
A little bit about themselves:
Meghan: I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. When I was growing up, I didn’t really grow up in a very culinary household, I would say. It was more so, when I went to be with my dad - my parents are divorced - my grandma would cook a lot so that’s where I got the behind-the-scenes on traditional Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese cooking. So that’s where this kitchen environment came into play. I moved to New York when I was eighteen for modeling, did my first year in college, and then took time off after my first year of college to pursue modeling. They say New York is a foodie’s paradise - you could eat at a different restaurant every night and still not eat a every restaurant available. So that’s when I started curating my taste for food and all that it brings, and I think ever since then I’ve fallen in love with the way food brings people together and creates community. Let’s say this new pop-up started and it’s word of mouth - that’s how you get to meet new people and get connected and share different things with others.
Sophie: I’m from Austin, Texas. I lived there until I was sixteen, did a year of school in Paris and after that finished high school in Austin. I grew up with a family that loves to cook - especially my dad. He has a pizza oven where he cooks wood-fired pizza -
Meghan: Can I interject? I went back home with her for the first time in August and I experienced pizza night with her dad - that sh*t was the best pizza I’ve ever had. He is like a mastermind.
Sophie: I always tell people that if you know me, one of the first things you’ll hear is about my dad’s pizza and how all of my friends can recite back the menu of his pizza [nights] - all these wild pizzas he makes all night and pairs each of them with a bottle of wine. This goes on until like one in the morning and everyone is so full by the end. I was always inspired by my dad’s cooking, and I think that’s how my passion for cooking grew. When I started living on my own, at sixteen, I was cooking a lot for myself and it became one of my biggest passions and hobbies for sure. After I graduated high school I moved to New York two days after - I always knew that I wanted to be here. And I’ve been here for almost three years now. I was modeling for five years, three years full-time, and now I just started school, but model still on the side when I can.
On how a friendship blossomed over food:
Megan: When I met Sophie we met through a mutual friend Olivia, who the restaurant is inadvertently named after. Sophie and I met at a party so we didn’t have a chance to actually talk that much, but I thought, “Oh, she seems cool.” I mentioned I was going to Japan for a few weeks for the first time, and [Sophie] mentioned that she had lived in Japan for a while, and said she would send over a few recommendations. Most people would just send over a few things, but she sent out the most detailed document, like, “This is what I would order at this specific place if you go,” and that’s when I realized we connect on that level.
Sophie: I also love to host - it’s like one of my favorite things to do and I also have a passion for connecting people - especially learning about people’s stories and backgrounds and being able to sit with them at dinner. Really just being able to connect with people over a good meal has always been a passion of mine. I would host these big dinner parties - that’s where I met Meghan for the first time - and we kind of came together with both of our passions and then became best friends -
Meghan: We became best friends really quickly!
And how a business was born through fast friendship:
Sophie: [Meghan] texted me like four months later when we were about to go to Israel together - we had this whole foodie vacation planned out - and she was like, “I have a business proposal.” And I was like, “Okay, what is it?” And she’s like, “Let’s start this underground pop-up restaurant. We can do pop-ups out of your apartment or around the city and get to connect people and host.” And I was like “I’m down, let’s do it!” And we planned the whole entire business in a week while we were in Israel. We launched two weeks after we got back.
Meghan: We always joke and say that the business was born in a pita.
(There was pita at every meal.)
On the importance of playful and engaging menu language:
Meghan: We hope [the language on the menu] stimulates conversations too.
Sophie: It makes it more fun - rather than being like, “You’re having fish for dinner”
Meghan: Yes - we want the experience to be like a story - we want you to follow the story with us.
Sophie: And it’s fun for us to create! We think of one word and then we bounce ideas back and forth off of each other and then we typewrite the menus the day of, which is always stressful -
Meghan: Yeah, she’s always the one that typewrites -
Sophie: Right, and I have to start over like 20 times because I mess up on the last line, and sometimes I just leave them and they’re part of the menu.
On sustainable cooking and maintaining momentum:
Meghan: Prior to all of this Sophie and I both shopped at the Union Square Farmers Market, and we both really wanted to incorporate a lot of fresh seasonal produce into our menu. We basically mined all the emails of the farmers by looking at who were the farmers at the market and blasted like 80+ emails and were like, “We would love to use your produce!” So we’ve actually partnered with a few of the farms in exchange for being advertised on our menu. Because we’re not a traditional restaurant it’s not that much overhead to give us a smaller quantity, and they also just believe in our mission and values, so it’s nice to partner with them and create a community in that sense.
(They dove into all this in the first two and a half weeks after getting back from Israel.)
Sophie: We even went out to the farm of one of the women who works at the farmer’s market near Greenport, Long Island to see how she raises the birds that she has and it was cool to see it from the ground up and know this is where we’re getting our food.
Meghan: And we really want to show our guests that these ingredients that we’re using you can get for yourself too - it’s very doable.
Sophie: We try to do mostly organic and we - actually another thing about when we were in Israel - we actually sent out our invites for the first dinner from israel on postcards
Meghan: Yes, we sent out the invites to our guests on these Israeli postcards, so the first dinner was definitely Israeli inspired.
On socializing with strangers in a tech-free space:
Sophie: At the end of every dinner, every person gets four coasters - one for themselves and three to give out to friends and that’s how we want to start getting the word out. So people who are invited we either reach out to them personally or they’re given a coaster by someone who has attended a dinner. So it’s all a tight knit group of people. But the first group was super important because we knew these would be the people who gave out the first coasters and really started the network so we picked 4 close friends - it was a really good group of people.
Meghan: It’s nice to see an age dynamic too because most of the time you wouldn’t see people from these age ranges mingling like that over dinner. We’ve had my dean who is a bit older, the CEO from one of the farm and greenhouses who’s a bit older as well, Martine, a hairstylist, who’s about 35 - it’s always a good mix.
Sophie: And it’s always such a diverse group of occupations and backgrounds, like we’ve had people from Japan, people who just came to the city for a holiday, Martine’s from Mexico.
Meghan: And it’s really great because we don’t allow any technology at the dinner - we have a designated phone bucket you drop your phone off in. It’s nice to see that after the dinner people want to exchange information, but we make them do so on pen and paper.
Sophie: Sometimes when they leave they’re like, “I don’t even want my phone back!”
Meghan: Time flies when people don’t have access to their phones.
Sophie: It’s also funny how over dinner somebody will be like, “Oh, here let me show you a photo,” and reach for their phone and then realize they don’t have it - and they’re like, “Can I have it?” And we’re like, “No!”
Meghan: And it forces them to try and explain things with other mannerisms. It’s a challenge of like, can you really recall what you’re trying to show?
Sophie: [Not having your phone] is such a good feeling - like even when i go to a yoga class it’s nice to not have my phone for an hour. I think another inspiration for that was when we were in Israel we deleted all our social media, didn’t connect with anyone for a whole week and a half, and when we came back I didn’t re-download any of my stuff for like a month and a half until my mom convinced me - she was like, “If you want to be a businesswoman you need it as a marketing tool.” So I said, “If I’m just using it for that then that’s fine.”
Meghan: It’s straddling that fine line - like yes, social media does have its purposes. It allows you to connect with people, but we do want to create a space without social media so you’re forced to have conversations that you otherwise maybe wouldn’t have started. It’s so interesting because at the beginning of the dinner everybody is a little bit awkward at first, kind of tiptoeing around because no one knows each other.
On meaningful connection and accessibility:
Sophie: Yes, the dinner is just four people and then us, cooking.
Meghan: It’s super intimate.
Sophie: Everybody thinks it’s gonna be a lot more people so they come in and see that it’s only four and they’re like, oh this is awkward… but we’re there as well so we help to facilitate conversation and make everyone feel comfortable. But then the drinks start flowing and everyone loosens up, people connect and it’s really awesome. Just to see the progression from it being really awkward and then everyone exchanging numbers
Meghan: We’re actually going to start moving it into slightly bigger spaces but we’re thinking 12 people max. Because if it gets too big then you kind of miss the opportunity to have deep conversations.
Sophie: It ends up being just small talk, and not everybody gets the chance to know everybody.
Meghan: It’s also nice because back of house and front of house are basically the same [in Sophie’s apartment] so we’re able to maintain that open dialogue with everyone while we’re cooking.
Sophie: Right now we’re limiting it to only 4 people - you can only come with yourself. We want everyone to be initial strangers to each other - no plus ones, partners, anything. But we want to start doing a brunch that has, say 20 people, and in that more casual setting people can come with who they want.
Meghan: And right now our dinner is a three course meal with wine pairings - this brunch will be much more casual, maybe buffet style and mimosas. It’s also going to be a much lower price point, maybe like $30 per person. For some people the price that we charge for dinner is over their budget so we want to make it more accessible. We still want to keep in mind that the whole thing we’re trying to go for is to create this community - we want people from all different backgrounds to have access. So if you can’t necessarily come to dinner we would still love to have you at brunch. There’s still going to be no phones allowed, and you’ll have the opportunity to meet more people.
Sophie: Same value, bigger space. So we’re excited for that.
On wine pairing, chance connections, and learning through living:
Sophie: I’ve always loved wine, my dad loves wine, and he’s taught me a lot about it. I spent a good year when I was out of school just reading a lot of wine books and it became a huge passion of mine. I wouldn’t say we’re experts on wine pairing, but I think we do a pretty good job. Before ÓLaVie I would host these monthly wine nights where we would pick a country and everybody would bring a wine from a different region in the country, so we have a lot saved from those nights that were favorites of the evening for pairings. And when we travel we always taste different wines from around the world and keep them in mind.
Meghan: This is a funny anecdote, but when we were in Israel we were at a winery and we bought a few wines, and when we were going to the airport we had a box of wines in our cart. We were dropping off our cart, and the guy next to us dropping off his cart noticed the box of wines, and he was like, “You guys went to that winery? I’m actually a wine purveyor in New York, and I actually have my own business where I source wines from Israel.” He was actually on a trip to Israel to scout wineries and establish connections, and we got his business card. And so, this is what I want to say to anyone starting a business venture: fake it till you make it. I had already told him that ÓLaVie was up and running at that point, and that we had connections with wine purveyors and things like that, and he told me, “Let me know when you’re back in town, and we can get in contact.” So I emailed him when I was back and told him our next dinner was Israeli themed, inspired by that trip. We were actually telling everyone in Israel that we were there on a business trip.
Sophie: People would ask us, what do you guys do? We don’t really like to say we model because it gives people a way to stereotype us, and we don’t think we are stereotypical models, and so we were like, “We own our own restaurant.”
Meghan: So literally fake it till you make it. So I contacted him when I got back to town, and he invited me over for a wine tasting. I spent over two hours with him tasting over thirty wines to choose for our first dinner.
Sophie: It’s definitely a you live and you learn situation though because we definitely made some mistakes with that along the way. We reached out to some people first before having stuff ready and people asked us to see proof of our work and we were like, “Well, we’re underground we don’t have proof.”
On growth and expansion:
Sophie: I think the initial goal was never to open a restaurant - ÓLaVie was not a name created for a restaurant space, it was more so created as a brand and we want that brand to be a way for people to connect. We may move into another space, not just underground restaurant pop-ups - I think it might take someone else to come in and help us to expand in that way but we think that it could become a business that could allow people to connect and I think there are a lot of different spaces where it could evolve to.
Meghan: Basically we want people to think of ÓLaVie as a place where people come for connection. So if you think of like, The Wing, or something like that in New York they do that for women entrepreneurs.
Sophie: I think it’s confusing because we don’t know if it’s going to be an actual space yet. For example, a dating app is a way for people to connect. We don’t know if that’s really the route we want to go, I don’t think so, but those are all ways for people to connect.
Meghan: We’re trying to find our niche. We really want to maintain the values of meaningful connection like quality over quantity. So with these dating apps it’s like the opposite. So it’s like how do we integrate
Sophie: I think a huge value for ÓLaVie is being exclusive? Not exclusive in a pretentious way but just like the people who are in the network want to be in the network and are willing to go out of their way and out of their comfort zones to meet new people. I think we’re also playing with the idea of expanding to having other people host dinners and being a part of our ÓLaVie network - to be able to have ÓLaVie dinners all over the country or all over the world, kind of like Airbnb in a sense - like it starts with us and it branches out to have people doing the same thing underneath our wing. We’ll see where it goes.