I think it was the homemade pasta that did it for me. Or maybe it was the table settings filled with flickering candles and wine bottles. Or was it the outfits? Needless to say, there were myriad factors in the development of my girl crush on chef and entertaining expert Olivia Muniak as I stalked her Instagram, and I had to wonder — would my infatuation crossover into real life? One double latté into our conversation at Gjusta a few months back proved that yes, yes it would.
Back in 2019, Olivia had just moved to Los Angeles from NYC, when she decided to host a series of intimate dinners out of the backyard of her charming casita. The dinners reminded her how special it is to share a homemade meal with guests at home, nurturing the meaningful conversations and drawn-out meals she’d experienced while traveling in Europe. Those dinners grew into La Cura, Olivia’s full-service catering and events company that brings that spirit of ritual and celebration to the brands and collaborators she teams up with.
For Olivia, the best evenings start with a simple aperitivo, with seasonal and locally sourced snacks to whet the appetite and stimulate great conversation. The vibe is elegant and low-key, with doors thrown open so everyone can flow between the kitchen and the backyard patio. On a recent trip to LA, we stopped by the casita to experience it for ourselves, and let’s just say — it’s how we want to entertain all summer long. Read on for my interview, and all the details on Olivia Muniak’s aperitivo.
Olivia’s approach to cooking
How did you learn to cook?
I’ve been fascinated with cooking since I was little. Growing up in New York City, my parents owned a small group of restaurants where I eagerly earned the role of sous chef. I would spend Wednesday afternoons with one of the pastry chefs in the basement of Mangia, my parent’s restaurant. But it’s really been within the last 7 years that I’ve focused on my culinary skills. And while my curiosity as a kid sparked my life-long interest in cooking, I’m actually self-taught. I’ve honed my skills by carefully reading cookbooks and applying the techniques described. When I worked in restaurants, I would spend the slower days in the kitchen, talking to the chef and asking them any questions I had.
What’s beautiful about cooking is that even for the most seasoned chefs, it’s always a work in progress.
What informs your approach to food?
In 1981, my parents opened Mangia, a small 450 square foot cafe, that had an abundant counter of freshly prepared salads and pastries with just enough space to pop up, order an espresso to enjoy with your selection from the display. Mind you, this was before any restaurant would be described as “fast-casual”. There were no gourmet grocers and cafe-hybrid concepts did not exist. My parents were true innovators. Beyond that, my dad expanded the business to include fine-dining sister restaurants in Greenwich Village before it was a cool neighborhood. Watching my parents create the businesses and everything that goes beyond the food: environment, staff, packaging and marketing informs not only my relaxed and elegant approach to food, but also the character of La Cura.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
Gjelina is one of the books that not only taught me how to cook, but also how to play with flavors and textures incredibly well. While I worked there, I would practice different recipes on my days off. I started with simpler seasonal vegetable dishes and worked my way up to more complex dishes which was hugely impactful.
I also love Old World Italian by Chef Mimi Thorisson. It combines classic Italian recipes with whimsical imagery and wonderful essays penned by her husband. You really feel like a part of her family.
How did La Cura come to be?
La Cura began with the simple idea of using meals as a form of connection both personally and professionally. I had been in LA a little over a year and, candidly, was craving a group of friends around the table, however, my few girlfriends were new moms, making that difficult to schedule. What I needed was a bigger community.
So I looked to other areas of my life. Having a background in brand marketing, I was producing events for Moet Hennessy and fell in love with the world of events: the food, the wine and bringing brands to life. It all clicked when I realized I could combine my skills in brand marketing with my passion for cooking. The Supper Club was born with the mission to bring people together to share a meal. La Cura grew out of the need for thoughtfully curated events and to elevate the catering space. We approach every event with the same intention: where relaxing at the table is not only expected but it’s encouraged.
What’s your must-have cooking tool and why?
Hands down it would be a microplane grater. I use mine almost every day – whether I’m zesting citrus for a vinaigrette or finishing a dish with a mountain of finely shaved parmigiano reggiano – it’s perfect for a variety of ingredients.
Olivia’s style at home
Tell us about your gorgeous casita.
To be honest, it was a bit of a challenging time for me before I found the casita. I was living back at home with my mom, building a new life in LA, but I began to dream about a small space to rent or buy. After 10 months living at home, I decided to start my search that spring and after seeing only two homes I paused my search because, frankly, I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. My broker, however, kept sending me homes and in August I was sent the link for the casita. There was something special about this property, so I set up an appointment and before I knew it, I was in my car driving over to West Adams. Immediately, I fell in love with the space and the warmth of the house. Of course there was another buyer with an offer in, but I went over their offer and included a letter on how much the home and space meant to me. A month later, I closed on the house and moved in!
Luckily the previous owners had a great eye for design – they restored the home themselves. The backyard was the one place that was unfinished when I moved, so I designed it with cement pavers and astro-turf, allowing me to use the entire space for entertaining. It’s where all the supper clubs have been hosted. Currently, I’m undergoing the biggest projects to date: installing HVAC, updating the bathroom vanity, wallpapering the dining nook (which will be converted to my office) and final touches on my bedroom.
What’s your morning food & bev routine?
I love my morning coffee routine. I use an Alessi percolator, which makes a very hot and strong coffee, then add a teaspoon of Coconut Blossom sugar and a generous splash of homemade almond milk. Most days I’m not hungry until I’ve been up for a few hours, so I usually skip breakfast and opt for a cup of Athletic Greens which tides me over until lunch.
Walk us through a typical day.
I’m one of those people who wakes up at 7am no matter how well rested (or tired!) I am. Coffee always gets me out of bed and then I compile a to-do list, review my calendar and when I’m disciplined, I center myself with a 10 minute meditation. Mornings are typically dedicated to meetings and computer work. Lunchtime, I like to squeeze in pilates class. And afternoons are spent meeting with clients or running errands for upcoming events. However, when I’m in production for an event this structure all goes out the window.
Tell us a few things we’ll always find in your refrigerator?
Stretching this slightly, but my kitchen is never without three categories: fresh herbs and citrus, alliums (garlic, onion, shallot) and parmigiano reggiano. These kitchen staples dress up any vegetable or starch and make any last-minute dinner elevated and delicious.
I also always keep sauces and condiments like harissa, miso, store-bought mayonnaise, and pesto as a base for dressings, dips, spreads or a pizza.
What’s always on your bar?
- 3 types of vermouth: blanc, dry, sweet
- London Dry Gin
- Bitters: Cochi Americano and Campari
On hosting and gatherings…
What are 3 products you love for the table?
I am currently coveting Il Buco Vita’s dishes, they are handmade in Italy and I splurged on a mixed set this year. For glassware, my go-to sources are Crate & Barrel and CB2. They have stylish shapes and you can’t beat the price for a party!
Your signature dishes for gatherings?
My signature dishes are a Kale & Fennel salad with Ricotta Salata, Saffron Mussels, Vongole, Beef Tenderloin, Butcher Steak & Chimichurri which are all full of flavor and fun to share. Of course no meal is complete without dessert, so I love making classics like Tiramisu and Panna Cotta.
What’s one tip for someone who wants to host a gathering on a budget?
Have everyone bring wine! I’d also suggest serving a dish like mussels & grilled bread, or a big pasta loaded with vegetables. It’s inexpensive and impressive.
Go-to centerpiece solution:
I generally nix a centerpiece and opt for small bud vases with greens or florals trickled down the table and candles. That way the table feels decorated, but allows for guests to see and converse with each other in a relaxed way.
Favorite conversation starter?
I have conversation cards that I use for my Supper Club. The questions range from thoughtful to cheeky, like, what is your favorite quality in a man / woman or what is your favorite curse word.
The perfect dinner party playlist includes:
I gravitate to Old World classics- it sets up an elevated, but lively feel. I’ll queue up artists like Cesaria Evora, Buena Vista Social Club and Bongo.
What is your no-stress party rule to live by?
Always have an empty dishwasher before guests arrive.
Fill in the blank:
A perfect meal should… be candlelit.
It’s not a dinner party without… dessert and after-dinner drinks.
Every cook should know how to… make dressings, aioli, and pesto from scratch. Once you go homemade, you’ll never want to go back to store bought versions. The fresh flavor is unmatched!