Tastemaker Talks: An Interview with the Co-Founder of Olio

By Carolyn Stine March 5, 2019 

A food zine comes to life with IRL events that fill up more than just our bellies.

At Bashed, we live for sharing a meal with others. This may be at a dinner party that we host, a brunch out on the town... pretty much breaking bread in any way, shape or form. But a meal that’s shared over a larger discourse about food and community and togetherness? Now that’s something that we’re on board with, and had to learn more about.

The impetus for this conversation starts with one word: Olio. A published zine meets event series, Olio was started by two women—Ali Francis and Elie Andersen —who see the world through food. Their goal was to create conversation around what’s on our plates; why, how, and from whom it got there. We sat down with Francis, co-founder of Olio, to talk about the importance of bringing people together IRL, and how food is the most literal manifestation of hospitality and entertaining.

Photo courtesy of Olio

Q

Tell us a little bit about the world of Olio!

A

Olio started as a collaboration between my co-founder, Elie, and I, making a weird risotto with coconut milk and no cheese in Elie’s kitchen. By traditional standards, this wasn’t even a risotto (there are “rules” around risotto!). Over a bottle of wine, we started asking questions like, “What even is risotto?” and “Does it have to have cheese?” Which led to, “Food rhetoric feels so stuffy and pretentious.” From there, we realized we wanted to explore the real food scene in NYC; the people, the issues, the stories, and the out-of-site gems.

When you think of the food narrative in NYC, it’s more about the stories of the diasporas and the people who came here to make these mean streets their own, as opposed to the new marble-clad brunch spots. We both loved food, yes, but also figured that cuisine was the most accessible entry point to our rich culture—whether that be eating Sri Lankan food in Staten Island, the best Italian of your life at a hole in the wall on Arthur Avenue, or Tibetan momos in Queens. These meals reveal the identities of New Yorkers; where they’re from, what that country ate, how they lived, and even what the environment was like. I firmly believe understanding and respect are the main pillars of a more unified society.

So Elie and I started hosting these random little dinners in our own kitchens, with only 6 or 8 people, and talking about these ideas with other folks. We got to the point where the dinners were outgrowing our kitchens, and we wanted to start produced content about everything we were talking about. I’m a journalist and Elie’s a really inspiring designer—so we we like, “Yeah, we can totally do this.” From there, the zine and larger event series was born.

Q

How has your love of entertaining informed your mission at Olio?

A

I think, more and more, we find ourselves living increasingly individualist lives. (Especially in NYC; building community here is hard). The great irony is that the technology we’re all using, designed to connect people and build community, is actually kind of isolating. I don’t know that we can truly connect unless we physically come together. It might sound canned, but I don’t feel like my life is meaningful unless it’s shared.

We see our role in entertaining more as the creation of safe and inspiring spaces where truth and honesty and dialogue can bubble to the surface without judgement. And we’re careful not to over-manufacture people’s experiences. It’s like, Elie and I might be the ones building the stage, but we’re not the ones who are on it. We compile the zine and organize the events, but the “entertainment” is a byproduct of genuine social interaction.

Q

How did you make the leap between a food publication and IRL food-related events?

A

From the very beginning, we figured that the best way to share the zine was to show people, in person, who we are. Our launch event for our first issue happened in a gallery space on the Lower East Side; 300 dumplings, boxed wine, and beer. From there we catered a  260-person creative conference in upstate New York called Likeminds Camp. Elie and I literally rented a van and drove to all of the farm stands in the area and made this enormous breakfast. That was really where we were able to introduce Olio to a bigger audience. From there, we’ve had a mish mash of great events.

Maybe my favorite ever was at Tamra Teahouse, a real neighborhood joint I’d already fallen in love with in Crown Heights. We hosted 40 people over an Asian fusion feast. Chef Yunha Moh’s food straddles Southeast Asian, Korean, Caribbean, and Japanese; he’s Korean cooking in a largely Caribbean neighborhood. It feels so special and cohesive all at once. After the meal, we had a live interview with Yunha on the impacts of globalization on food culture. It was so meaningful; sociological and political.

Another favorite event was taking ten people to dinner at Bamonte’s, which is one of the oldest restaurants in New York City and has been owned by the same family since the 1900s. It’s a real classic red sauce restaurant on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. The interior is so reminiscent of another era (you can still see the mafia buzzers on the wall!) and the food is incredible. Bamonte’s, similar to Tamra Teahouse, offers an example of two cuisines coming together to make one. It’s not Italian food exactly, and it’s not American either—it’s Italian-American and it’s prolifically New Yorker.

Photo courtesy of Olio

Q

How does Olio, the zine, come to life?

A

I wish I had some nice clear way of explaining that, but we have literally no editorial calendar or particular schedule. Essentially: Elie and I text each other ideas all the time, and then agree on a date. It’s really fluid for us, our eyes and ears are always open to meaningful social and political discourse. What’s happening in our city? And how we feel about it? Olio is applied as a lens to make sense of it all.

The topics we explore, through food and dining, are really broad. For example, our entire second issue of Olio (out in March!) is about love. Not love as a romantic theme, necessarily, but more of an exploration on what it means to be in love with humanity. Food is such a visceral manifestation of love and generosity and hospitality, and individualist thinking can be pretty damaging to that. So we decided it was something we wanted to herald and promote.

Q

How do you choose the amazing restaurants you go to for your events?

A

There is a very self-selecting process for how we choose the experiences and locations that become our events. Sometimes we go to a restaurant and say to ourselves, “Holy shit we need to do an event here.” Maybe because the food and experience is that good. Other times, we have a theme or interviewee in mind first, and then have to find a restaurant or a space that embodies the meaning.

When we reach out to restaurants, it can be hit or miss. Sometimes they give us a formal event package and typical prix fixe prices. We’re not making a profit with Olio, so that’s never going to fly. Other times, they just get it. And those are the places and people that we want to work with. At the end of the day, we want people to be able to afford to come, and we need to have a collaborative and mutually open conversation with folks about how to make that happen.

We can say for sure that Olio events will never go down at the Eleven Madison Parks of the world, or that hot new spot for avocado toast. I love avocado toast and I love fine-dining, but that’s not what this is. Our goal is to enable a unique exploration of our city; to find the unsung places and stories of our home, and to help our community connect with them.

Q

How is the storytelling of the brand interwoven into the real-life dinner parties?

A

With Olio, the zine and the events completely reflect each other; one is the real-life manifestation of the other. In that way, we try to incorporate conversations into our events. For example, the next event—our March 19 launch of Issue #2—will feature a conversation between Dana Cowin (the former editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine), and Naz Riahi (an incredible writer and the founder of Bitten). Both of these women are featured in the issue; there’s a personal essay by Naz and a Q&A with Dana. Dana is a real mentor to me and an absolute powerhouse in the food world, and Naz is an Iranian immigrant who moved to New York City when she was nine years old. She has an amazing story of learning how to connect with this foreign environment through food. She even has this intrinsic love of McDonald’s because of it! The combination of this event perfectly represents Olio: Vulnerable, pointed, and meaningful, while gently highlighting NYC’s diverse stories. We will also be serving traditional Iranian snacks at the event, curated by Naz: Soaked walnuts and fresh feta cheese for sure, and maybe even some McDonalds apple pies.

Q

What makes you most excited about the future of Olio? What mark do you hope to leave on your community?

There’s definitely this accessibility to our brand, for want of a better phrase. Sometimes there are typos in the issue, the photos are imperfect, and the event spaces can be disheveled (in a not-intentional way). But it’s heartwarming to see that people seem to be picking up on what we’re putting down. Even though we have a modestly-sized email list, our open rate is huge. People are meeting at Olio events and are going on to work on projects together. Despite the the fierce reputation New Yorkers have, we’re finding that people still crave, and will extend themselves, for community. I think we really want to connect with each other, but there aren’t enough spaces in which to do so.

I can get pretty dark on the ails of modern society, but then we’ll host an Olio event and I get to see a fuller picture; a group of strangers connecting in a way that’s real and honest. Over half of Issue #2 is made up of free submissions, which speaks volumes to us. People are willing to work on something that they believe in, without any financial reward. And that’s just the most refreshing thing.

To learn more about Olio and find out about their next event click here!

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Carolyn Stine

A party without cake is just a meeting.

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