July 26, 2016

Food, Creativity and the Unusual: Unique Dining Experiences by Midnight Kitchen Projects’ Sonia Yoon and Chef Catanzariti

When I first met Sonia Yoon, she worked as a project manager. Afterwards, she became an independent producer and designer for cultural advocates. Her current project is Midnight Kitchen Projects, a collaboration with Chef Giuseppe Catanzariti. Quickly, within three years, she transformed herself. Though the roles are different, art is the continuity. In partnership with the Chef, she explores the convergence of food, imagination and the unconventional. Together, they give memorable experiences—edible, eccentric and executed with love.

When and how did you arrive at the idea 
of Midnight Kitchen Projects?

About two years ago, I had been exploring a variety of side projects. I wanted to add creativity, play and forms of bricolage into my daily life as a means of returning to making art and building collaborations. Chef Catanzariti and I met and began to work on experiments in the kitchen. We tested recipes, improvised with ingredients, and plated for the camera. We developed enough momentum that we wanted to share these ideas with others. Midnight Kitchen Projects was formed out of our desire to bring our respective communities together in an intimate social gathering that set the stage for our culinary projects.

What were some of the first things you did in taking 
Midnight Kitchen Projects from an idea to a decision to do it?

Naming the project and writing down our motivations really made everything concrete. We were in perpetual test-mode, having long conversations, brainstorming, studying techniques, looking at art and pushing each other to try new things. Chef Catanzariti offered a lifetime of food experience and culinary inspirations, while I provided perspectives from a visual art and design thinking vocabulary. I shared images (produced from a different collaboration) with him and asked for a culinary response. A few days later, he answered with a 5-course menu! The signature “beet dish” he concepted gave us a new set of questions to answer in the kitchen, which we documented in a promo video. We fleshed out the rest of the menu, began to scout for locations, published a website and committed to a seated dinner.

One of the smartest decisions we made was to approach everything as a prototype. We were so hungry to learn from the experience. In hindsight, there was no room to overthink our decisions. Our goals were ambitious, the risks aplenty: partnering professionally for the first time, producing and editing a video, creating dishes we’d never made before (especially pâte à choux), and realizing a multi-course dinner for eight, all in a one-month timeframe. The event taught us tremendous lessons about collaboration, trust, ingenuity, creative vision and community.

How did you find each other toward becoming Co-Founders 
of Midnight Kitchen Projects? What makes you a fun 
and effective team?

The first event was a thrill and the experience cemented our roles. Our collaboration works well because the Chef and I are as practical as we are creative. We have very different points of views, skills and working methods, but we share the same vision, love to improvise, always communicate, and aren’t afraid of criticism or failure.

What still feels raw (besides the food), and this doesn’t 
mean bad nor good, from when you started 
Midnight Kitchen Projects until now?

There is a big backlog of ideas that we haven’t fully acted on yet. Time is always a major constraint—we each continue to work our day jobs. We recognize that testing an idea extensively is a luxury. We aim for each concept to be deliberate, thoughtfully crafted and polished for presentation.

What food ingredients are you fond of and why?

Chef Catanzariti: Familiar ingredients but with new techniques applied—things that I haven’t seen done before.

Sonia: Humble, basic ingredients that can be thoughtfully elevated or show a lot of potential for new forms.

How did you make yourselves committed to start making 
Midnight Kitchen Projects a reality? 

Before Midnight Kitchen Projects hit the ground running, Chef and I had many philosophical conversations with friends and family, and asked for pragmatic advice from colleagues. Receiving early feedback helped us test our resolve and prepare for what was ahead.

We both go in 100% into each event by trusting each other and our expertise. We are completely aware that we could fail, plan accordingly, and know that the experience will teach us what we need. Our objective has always been to connect with our guests, realize something new, enjoy the process and to give each other permission to let our curiosity lead us to action.

As a lean team of two, we never underestimate the power of exhaustion. We are extremely grateful for all the help people have offered and the positive reception to Midnight Kitchen Projects—it gives us a huge boost of energy and motivation to pursue our next projects.

Sonia, being a both a designer and project manager, 
how do these disciplines play into your work 
on Midnight Kitchen Projects?

Everything I know, and then some, is applied to developing, producing and promoting Midnight Kitchen Projects. As a project manager, my familiarity with planning, risk management and client services readily applies to event production. As a designer and producer, I am able to conveniently translate what we do for our marketing needs, website and social media. As an artist, Midnight Kitchen Projects is a dream formula that combines my creative interests, skills and resources in hybrid ways. This project is also an avenue for me to explore food and experience design, build on my own personal culinary point of view, and a wonderful opportunity to learn from Chef Catanzariti.

What’s your workflow in creating memorable experiences
your “shared love of food, creativity and the unusual”?

1. Questions.
Every Midnight Kitchen Projects production starts with us asking questions. We begin by learning as much about our hosts and the venue as possible through conversations, site visits and listening to their stories. Our job is to collect these impressions and narratives as parameters and inspiration points for us to build a framework, structured as a menu. We share our notes on a whiteboard in our war room.

2. Visualize it.
We are both visual thinkers, so we prioritize drawing right away. An event concept may begin as a list of raw ingredients, a single word, or a fully plated entree. A typical brainstorm session includes a mix of wild thoughts and methodical processes. Everything gets sketched out or written down on the whiteboard. We also make drawings on large sheets of rolled paper that cover our work table. Both surfaces capture our ideas in different ways.

3. Incubate. 
After our initial round of conversations, Chef takes some time alone to digest and reprocess the conversation, filing ideas and concepts into recipes, organizing ingredients into lists, and sketching down details to be recalled later. I usually go hunting and window shopping to research materials.

4. Organize. 
A master list formats everything together. This document eventually evolves into our shopping list, menu, budget, decor and plating instructions, back and front of the house script, and event day dossier.

5. Test + Document. 
We push and pull on each food idea until we’re really excited about how to create them as an edible experience. Then, testing commences: we try out new techniques, ingredients and plating schemes. Each test is photographed and repeated until we start giving each other high-fives. Some of the propositions have gloriously died in the test kitchen, but they’ve led us to deeper questions and more unusual solutions.

6. Prototype.
To design the guest’s side of the food experience, we build a lo-fidelity physical prototype of the tabletop and plating arrangements as close to scale as possible.

What is your most memorable experience of the
Midnight Kitchen Projects experience so far?

Last fall, we created a main course called “Beef Leaf” with ingredients plated on a clear pane of glass. This glass arrives from the kitchen, and is placed on top of a small light box positioned in front of each guest. The beef version of this dish was presented first. The colors of the leaf and sauces bloomed over the light. A corresponding “Tuna Weed” dish was created for Dana, a pescetarian guest. When we placed her dish over the light, the tuna began to glow ruby red! The entire table hushed and leaned in… Chef and I will never forget the look of awe and pure joy exuding from Dana’s face. We both got to witness this incredibly special experience.

Who and/or what are your consistent creative influences?

Chef Catanzariti: I’m often creatively inspired by music. A huge culinary influence is Ferran Adrià of El Bulli. I have such great respect for him. He is a pioneer, so ahead of his time. I’m inspired by his thought processes. He is a true artist, making unusual connections. His dishes are very simple, but so innovative, so pure.

Sonia: Aside from being my culinary influence and link to the motherland, my mother taught me odd skills like pineapple sculpting for centerpieces that I hope one day to spring on my guests.

In running Midnight Kitchen Projects, what are 
some true “best practices” in working well, 
in working as best as possible?

We just have two principles:

1. Listening and talking—communication is our priority.
Listening is part of offering permission. We don’t edit each other very much in order to remain open. Talking keeps ideas flowing, but also keeps us in tune. We balance each other: when one is generating and expressing ideas, the other is in reception and synthesis mode. This is how we remain grounded and pragmatic. This style of communication helps us figure out how to be realistically outside of the box. We call this “being in a box outside the box.”

2. We have a “No asshole policy.” 
The rest comes pretty easy when conditions of 1 and 2 are met.

How do you handle disagreements while you’re working?

Our disagreements typically stem from not fully understanding the other person’s perspective. So the best way we work out differences is to give it a vocabulary we can agree on. Ours is to translate them into something visual or into physical materials that we can manipulate. It’s easier to ask productive questions about objects and get concrete answers. We make quick mockups with pen and paper, objects, dishes and whatever is in the pantry or fridge. Our favorite material is using pieces of colored paper to represent food. We both have pretty positive attitudes, so things get pretty silly which helps to diffuse any tension, and answers fall into place easily.

In doing work and trying to be productive each day, 
what tools do you use frequently and highly recommend?

Large rolls of paper: We cover our work table (which doubles as a dining table) with long sheets of paper. Notes are doodled anytime someone spends time at the table. I love coming back to see what the Chef has written or drawn. We trust and use analog tools as much as possible; they feel more immediate and expressive. After all, the end product, eating, is an analog experience. To sit and draw at the table feels more casual, less precious, more comfortable, and therefore, more freeing.

Our kitchen MVPs:
  • The Nutribullet: the little engine that could
  • Monkey dishes, mise en place bowls: organization and visual feedback
  • Rubber spatula: gets every last drop = less food wasted
Who and/or what keeps you going in keeping 
Midnight Kitchen Projects going?

1. Espresso (Lavazza Oro).

2. The excitement that other people get from the experience and the buzz that Midnight Kitchen Projects generates has produced so much energy for us, especially when we’ve been working on fumes.

3. We’ve met so many amazing people in a short time from this venture. Our creative network has expanded and we’re able to establish long-term relationships with vendors, advocate for new businesses, and meaningfully support what they do.

What does independence mean to you?

Being able to offer complete commitment to each project matters to us. Midnight Kitchen Projects is at a point where can be more deliberate about our choices without the need to force creativity, so it stays meaningful and fun.

What is your definition of growth, as it relates 
to your Midnight Kitchen Projects?

We’re slowly exploring where this project is headed and how we translate what we offer and can do in different scenarios. 2015 was an exponentially creative year, but it was also pretty frenetic to produce Side Door Goods, creative talks, and seasonal pop-up dinners. 2016 has been a necessary time for rebalancing, renewal and research to frame what we do for the long haul.

How do you get the word out about Midnight Kitchen Projects, 
build awareness and attract customers?

Our following was built through some tenacious word of mouth. We rely on our website and social media to showcase our work. But most importantly, to produce work in a supportive community goes a long way. Our partners, friends, advisors, hosts and guests have all helped bring the right audience to our table.

What effects do you strive to achieve 
with Midnight Kitchen Projects?

See the answer to your question asking about a “most memorable experience.” We want to provide a new and undiscovered experience for people.

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All images courtesy of Midnight Kitchen Projects.

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