The ONA founder talks Lisbon, toothpaste, and black uniform.
Who said it was difficult to get a sit-down with Luca Pronzato? We did, because it turns out he spends a lot of time travelling. After much pleading, the trained sommelier turned entrepreneur and mastermind behind ONA took some time out of his busy schedule while he was in Paris to talk wine, life in Portugal, and toothpaste. And then we walked back to the office while he jumped on a plane to Mexico.
Hi, could you introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Luca Pronzato, I’m 27, and 9 months ago I created ONA, my first endeavour in the catering industry. Before that, I worked at Noma in Copenhagen, for 3 years. I have a background as a sommelier, in restaurants in Paris and elsewhere. I really couldn’t tell you what city or country I call home as I travel a lot, but I set up the company in Lisbon.
What’s the idea behind ONA?
The idea came from my experience working for high-end restaurants. They’re super creative environments, but the real creative power is divided between very few people, which is unfortunate because there’s a whole ecosystem of super talented chefs that are inspired by these renowned chefs, but who never get the opportunity to flex their creative muscles. They set foot in a system, where the only solution they have is to open their own restaurant, and in a way, they only end up perpetuating the system they worked hard to leave. We wanted to offer something built around sharing, and we launched a series of pop-up experiences, which were much more open than existing pop-up restaurants that tend to be confidential and restricted to industry folk. We came up with the idea of choosing locations that needed a sense of direction: restaurants with potential that weren’t doing well, or locations with incredible, undiscovered potential. We redesign whatever requires it, put a bunch of young chefs in there, and they build their experience. Each pop-up can last from 1 week to 6 months. We started with Portugal for 6 months, followed by Basel, and Paris. We have four pop-ups planned: one in Lisbon, one in Manchester, and two in Switzerland: in Zermatt and in Zurich.
How do these pop-ups work for the chefs?
We give them structure, suggest a style we like, but other than that the pop-ups are platforms for them to do whatever they want. It’s really up to them, they can have as much fun as they want. We have a huge network, and the idea is for each member of ONA to bring chefs into the mix, help fine-tune the selection, etc. The system is built like Russian dolls. The idea is to give these young chefs as much freedom of expression as possible. Often pop-ups will be put together at the last minute, with little attention to detail. This is something we’re completely opposed to. We go into the most minute details, and we strive to show people that you can create a pop-up restaurant quickly without having to sacrifice quality and the finishing touches. The quality of the food offered is paramount. Both in terms of the skill put into cooking, and the ingredients chosen.
How did you end up in this line of work?
My parents own an Italian deli in Paris, so I guess that sort of explains it. In any case, it’s the reason why fell in love with wine, and when I was 14 or 15, I started working in restaurants. I loved it, so I never really stopped. My parents would bring back produce from small local businesses in Piedmont and Tuscany. I was brought up in an environment where buying from huge industrial-size companies was a big no-no, and that obviously left me with certain inclinations.
How did you decide to start your own company?
I’d managed a few restaurants in the past, and when I joined Noma, I had to start from scratch again. I really felt like it was time to build something of my own. I was starting to feel a little frustrated by my experiences, in particular with regard to the industry and some of its traditions. I also firmly believed that there was something to be done for the younger people working in the business. Catering, restaurants, it’s really all about passion, whatever your age. Young chefs need room to breathe and show what they’re capable of. Restaurants, at least until then, had no such room to offer. I mean, even in Paris, as far as restaurants go, it hardly gets any better, but I still needed to experience something else. I’ve always felt the need to go deep into a subject to be the best I can at it, you know, learn how to make wine to be a good sommelier, learn how to serve in restaurants outside of Paris, and France. I’m not going to lie, in terms of paperwork, admin and financial stuff, it’s a nightmare, as we operate in several countries, but so far, it’s been an incredible experience.
What are your days like? They must be complicated given the amount of travelling you do...
It’s a bit complicated right now, as I’m sort of in between things. But as soon as a pop-up is all set up and ready to go, you have to find some time for yourself. You need a room, your products, etc. In Lisbon, I have my motorbike, my yoga classes, you know, daily habits. I love being there, the light is amazing, so is the energy, and their products are the best. Building habits is not an easy task, as I take 5 flights a week on average, but you have to keep trying. I often go out for meals at some of my friends’ places. They’re familiar faces. I have no typical day, per se, I work with my team remotely, I have at least 20 meetings every day, most of them over the phone.
Do you ever manage to switch off and stop working?
It’s tough. My phone’s always ringing. I try to make time when I’m eating with friends, or at the restaurant. I have to force myself to switch my WhatsApp status to unavailable, but in the end, I do it, and that’s all that matters. The only other time I switch off is when I’m visiting winemakers at their vineyards.
How often do practice yoga?
Not often enough! I used to go super often when I was in Lisbon, as the classes were on the beach, easy to get to, it was always a great experience. I must admit I’ve been slacking since we closed the pop-up, I have to get back into it. My main source of exercise is serving, It’s super intense. Much less now, but I used to routinely put myself through 17-hour days. I’d lose 12 kilos every time I started a new job. You don’t eat as much, you’re constantly on your feet running about, the weight literally drops off.
What’s in your kit of travel essentials?
I always have my bag, an Arket one, with a black outfit. I’m always dressed in black. 5 identical t-shirts, black trousers, a pair of Birkenstocks in summer, and boots in winter. Easy to put on, easy to wear, no decisions required, I love it. I also travel with the Horace deodorant, which I really like. I often pack the face scrub too, along with the toothpaste, which is a key component of my routine. In my line of work, you’re always trying food, and talking to people.
How do you style your hair?
I used to go through entire pots of wax pomade. When you’re serving people, you have to look impeccable, all the way to the tip of your hair. I don’t do it as much now, but I’ll indulge in some styling products from time to time. Most of the time I let my hair do whatever it feels like doing and go to the hairdresser’s every two months. It’s currently been a month and a half, so it’s not too bad! I do get my beard done every two weeks, though, I don’t even think about it anymore, it just happens. I have my favourite barbershops in most of the cities I travel to. I’ll sit there, no earphones, no phone, just relaxing and enjoying the moment.
Your latest pop-up in Paris was designed around breakfasts. What’s your breakfast of choice?
Yeah, it was a super creative 11-course meal for breakfast and an afternoon snack, which we served in a Parisian flat. I think breakfasts are my favourite meals. I really love coffee, which I drink a lot of, if possible brewed in a V60. When I have enough time, I’ll go and have breakfast at one of my friend’s places, and I’ll have whatever they’re offering, as simple as that. They do all the decision-making for me!