Posted // 2013-03-19 -
Culinary art, while sought after by the finest of connoisseurs and bon vivants in town, is arguably not as well featured within the art community itself as it should be. The idea of taking an evening and enjoying the art of the meal, from its creation and display to the defining points of the tastes within, is becoming a lost experience in a fast-food world, but there will always be an audience with a love for finely crafted culinary delights.
Late last year, Nata Gallery was formed and took up residence along 400 South, offering private and secretive dining events, where chefs will create fine meals for you and explain both the history and process behind the very foods you are eating, all while surrounded in a small, intimate space with local artists' works hanging on the walls around you and two of Salt Lake City's masters at the helm. Today, I chat with one of the co-founders, Katie Weinner, about the gallery and what they hope to achieve with the newly created experience, all with pictures for you to check out in this gallery here
Katie Weinner (with co-founder Mike Burtis)
Gavin: Hey, Katie. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Katie: Born and raised in Minnesota. Bachelors’ in English and psychology from University of Montana. Minor snowboard career stint in Tahoe; culinary school in Vancouver, BC. Currently teaching at Art Institute, running SLC POP and Nata Gallery.
Gavin: How did you first take an interest in culinary food, and what influenced you to pursue it as a career?
Katie: I’ve always loved food. I was lucky to have a mom who cooked dinner every night growing up. I started cooking as a job to pay the bills after I realized that working during the day took away from my ski time.
Gavin: You graduated from the Northwest Culinary Academy in Vancouver. What made you decide to go there, and what was it like learning the trade?
Katie: I wanted a shortened version of culinary school since I already had gone to college. I found an accelerated program in Vancouver, and since it was such an amazing location with tons of culture I knew it would work. Culinary school was an incredible experience. I was exposed to a new world of Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese food I didn’t know existed.
Gavin: What was it like for you seeking out work in your profession after graduating, and what kind of a challenge is it for you as a higher-class chef to land a gig at a fine restaurant?
Katie: Getting a chef position in Vancouver was tough so I came back to Plumpjack. I grew restless there, so I decided to shake things up a bit by taking the teaching position at the AI in Draper. It’s definitely a challenge to find the right fit as a chef. It took me many career paths to find my way to SLC POP.
Gavin: How did you come to live in Utah, and what made you decide to stick around?
Katie: I came here for the teaching job, but only if I could still snowboard on a daily basis. The mountain lifestyle will always determine where I live since it makes me a happy person.
Gavin: When did you and Michael Burtis first meet and become friends?
Katie: Mike was a student of mine at AI. He was such a humble, quiet and talented student. We stayed in touch after he graduated, and through a few side projects and his help with SLC POP, I knew he would be the perfect person to start Nata Gallery.
Gavin: Prior to Nata, you both founded SLC POP. For those who aren't aware, tell us what SLC POP is and the experience you bring to people for a dining experience.
Katie: SLC POP is a "pop-up" or mobile restaurant. We scope out locations around Salt Lake City that are closed at night and put on a one-night restaurant. We bring in everything -- staff, food and the dishes. I would search out ingredients, plates, flatware and techniques every month to keep it mysterious and entertaining. You buy tickets for the dinner online, and since there’s no menu, you’re surprised every time!
Gavin: Since you started, what are some of the more interesting dinners you've planned, and how has the reception been from people who have attended?
Katie: One of my favorites was at Caputo’s. I designed a coloring book with rice paper for each of the customers and found mini paint brushes in Minnesota. We had the customers paint each other with 10 different edible inks and then eat their masterpieces. We’ve also done parsnip & beet cereal with personalized milk jugs, homemade glow-in-the-dark bubble gum, transparent "Elvis" raviolis and kangaroo tacos. The reception has been incredibly positive. I always get stressed if my food is too weird, but since I always put taste as a priority, it seems to win people over and make them happy.
Gavin: How did the idea for Nata Gallery come about, and where does the name come from?
Katie: Mike and I were really considering opening a restaurant together since the pop-ups were going well. We looked at a few spots but we really didn’t /don’t have lots of money to fall back on. On our way to show some friends the location we were scouting, we walked by the House Gallery. It was just a perfect little blank canvas. When we had to name it, we wanted to have a bit of fun with what it wasn’t. Nata truly means not a gallery and not restaurant.
Gavin: What made you decide to go to Kickstarter for the funding, and what was it like succeeding at funding it?
Katie: This was really something I stumbled upon. I had learned about crowd funding while looking for angel investors. I’ve wanted to make the most responsible business decisions and this helped get our feet off the ground. Each day we got a donation it felt like Christmas; it was an overwhelming feeling.
Gavin: What was it like reformatting the place to suit your needs, both as a room for exhibition and a pseudo kitchen?
Katie: Let’s just say it took some imagination and some wonderful support from our landlord. You’d really have to come see it to understand how we made it happen?
Gavin: For those who may be wondering, what type of foods do you usually put on display, and how do you decide what you plan to have at every event?
Katie: Mike and I work off what’s in season and best available to us on a weekly basis. We try out new dishes and revamp the old ones. We know we have 10 courses to cover including but not limited to: amuse (BLT macaroon), soup (bacon-smoked mozzarella), vegetable (radish carpaccio, blood orange), smoke jar (Waldork), pasta (beet curry), fish (mong chong, sunchoke veloute), intermezzo (earl grey-grapefruit granita), pre-desserts (PB and J), desserts (lemon olive oil, avocado, roasted grapes) and a few more (rattlesnake, elk, boar).
Gavin: What's the process for you in deciding the menu for any given evening and figuring out what items will best work with each other throughout an evening?
Katie: We see what’s exciting to us, what’s trending in the food world and the best way to make each course flow from one to the next.
Gavin: Subsequently, what's the process behind choosing the artwork on display, and how much thought goes into complementing the art with the food and vice versa?
Katie: We’ve yet to find a process with the artwork. If Mike and I like the art, we put it up for a month. The art really creates the dining atmosphere. Some of the art makes it feel serious, playful or just downright complimentary to the food, like our current artist Anne Stephenson.
Gavin: You've only been open a few months. What's the initial reaction been like from patrons?
Katie: Astonished! I know most customers are a bit nervous by the process of buying tickets for a dinner where there is no set or predetermined menu. But, once they experience our food and comfortable environment, the nervous energy becomes excitement and a truly memorable meal.
Gavin: Do you have any plans to expand beyond what you're doing now with Nata, or will you keep on course for the time being?
Katie: We would love to become a public restaurant, hopefully, in the near future. But, right now, we are gaining momentum and love what we’ve created.
Gavin: What kind of an impact are you hoping to have both on the local art scene and the culinary culture in SLC?
Katie: We want to continue giving opportunity and exposure to artists in our community. We are always looking to support any type of artist. We are looking for help designing our logo, awning, mural in the workshop, custom glassware, flatware and dishes. As for the culinary scene, we want to be a destination dining spot. We hope to heighten and expand the experience of dining out. At the end of the day, we cook at the highest level in the most minimalistic “kitchen.”
Gavin: What can we expect from you at Nata Gallery over the rest of the year?
Katie: Weekend warriors producing ever-changing cuisine and art. Wait till spring and summer kick in -- the dinners are going to get even more remarkable.
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?