The Way We Eat: Ariane Aumont, Owner of Le Picnic in Ojai, California
Name: Ariane Aumont
Location: Ojai, California
How many people regularly eat together in your home? Usually just Ariane, but sometimes her brother comes over for dinner.
Ariane Aumont is the founder of Le Picnic, a boutique catering company based in Ojai, California. “I love talking to my clients and getting a feel for their food likes and dislikes, and the things they’re nostalgic for,” she explains of her work. ” I just like the stories.” We got to talk to Ariane about some of the best menus she’s created for her clients, the places around the world that have influenced her cooking, and her obsession with homemade hot sauce.
I have to ask this right off the bat because I’m so curious: What’s the story behind the “Le Picnic” name?
I’m half French and half American, and “Le Picnic” is just a play on that combination. I lived in Los Angeles on and off for a decade, and I was throwing these parties I called “club picnic” and they were these fun, vibe-y picnics with music and games.
That sounds so fun. And your catering company kind of evolved from there?
I was a private chef for about a decade or so. I had a lot of high-profile clients and I traveled the world. Then I landed in Ojai five years ago and was just kind of ready for a change. I was getting more and more inquiries for garden parties and dinners, and created Le Picnic.
Creating menus is really my passion when it comes to food — most catering companies do set menus, which is great, but I wanted to do something custom for my clients. I love talking to the clients and getting a feel for their food likes and dislikes, and the things they’re nostalgic for. I just like the stories.
Are there any menus you’ve done in the past couple of years that really stand out to you for having a good story?
There are so many. There was this one wedding last year that was all vegetarian, and the couple also wanted to include very subtle Indian influences and incorporate things that were grown on the property where the wedding was (Lotusland, Santa Barbara). It was really fun to talk to the head gardener there — they had lime leaves and begonias.
Is food and menu planning always something you’ve loved?
I knew I wanted to be a chef when I was 6 years old. I was in kindergarten, and it was salad buffet day and every kid was given an ingredient to bring as their offering to our salad for lunch. I was given bacon bits as my contribution — it was the ’80s. And for whatever reason, the bell rings and everyone goes in for class and I stayed behind to look at this salad. And I remember thinking to myself as a 6-year-old that this is what I want to do. I want to have lots of combinations of ingredients and then play with them and combine them.
Ha! That’s incredible. Something that really strikes me about your work with Le Picnic is how colorful and textured everything is. Why is that important to you?
In high school I got deep into the arts. When I was 17 I was trying to decide if I should go to a fine arts school or culinary school, because I just loved painting and collage so much. The color and texture of food is everything to me. I actually love to paint dishes before I make them. Let’s say persimmons are coming into season — I’ll just kinda play with color schemes and stories that could work with the orange of a persimmon as I conceptualize the dish.
Are there any ingredients that you’re specifically drawn to right now?
I love the yellow watermelons of this past summer. They’re so beautiful. I do a classic feta, arugula, watermelon salad — it’s alway a crowd-pleaser. In general, I get really jazzed about black radishes, and just radishes in general. There’s a daikon that’s purple, like the interior is lavender — those kinds of pops of color I love.
- Biggest challenge in eating? Eating. Food is my career — it’s what I do for a living, so it’s funny that I struggle to eat. When I’ve been conceptualizing menus and cooking food all week, cooking is the last thing I want to do on my days off. The only things I make are the easiest meals with the least amount of dishes. I’m mostly a grazer.
- Percentage of meals you cook at home every week? About three meals.
- 5 things on your grocery list every week? Cilantro, mint, dill, dried figs, feta, anchovy.
- Where do you shop, primarily? The Ojai or Ventura farmers market.
- What’s the last food thing you splurged on? My kitchen garden.
- Top 3 default dinners? Medium-boiled egg on Kokuho Rose rice with butter, a bit of soy sauce, and furikake; a zucchini and tomato gratin; and stew.
- Favorite tea? Lapsang souchong and Earl Grey tea.
- Cookbook you actually cook out of? I don’t really read cookbooks, but have always loved Culinary Artistry as a point of reference when developing a dish. It’s really more like a thesaurus of food.
What does a typical day look like for you right now?
I generally put in a few hours on the computer in the morning fine-tuning menus for clients and sending in proposals and invoices. And then depending on the day, I dip into different farmers markets. There’s the Tuesday one in Santa Barbara which is amazing, the Wednesday one in Ventura, and then the Saturday one in Ojai.
My clients are really varied. Next week is just a local in Ojai who I’ve cooked for before, and they want to have a seasonally driven lunch for 10. And the week after that is a UCLA professor’s lunch for 45 in Santa Monica. And the week after that is a French family that rented a house in Ojai for three days and I’m doing all the lunches and dinners for their family reunion. And then the following week is a 200-person Southern comfort-meets-Ojai wedding. And it just kind of keeps going from that.
And what about breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
I’m not really a breakfast person. It isn’t until probably about 10:30 a.m. that I start to get hungry, and then I might have yogurt with granola and honey. For lunch, I’ll stop at Whole Foods and make a salad. And I love Mexican food and I love tacos, so there’s a good chance I might grab tacos somewhere — but something fast and easy.
And dinner is usually based on the produce I have left over from my events. My favorite food is rice. I make a white rice bowl with butter and a little soy sauce and then I’ll just throw on some kimchi that I made, or some pickled fennel, and then an egg. I could eat that for every meal for the rest of my life. And hot sauces. I love making chili sauces.
Oh, yes! I saw you were making hot sauces on your Instagram. Is that a big project for you right now?
Chili sauces really inspire me these days. And it all started when I discovered the Portuguese pepper. A farm in Ojai sold some, and I made a kind of sambal with it, and I’ve never had anything like it. It’s the perfect amount of heat and sweetness and it’s so balanced. I had made it for an event and brought a quart home, and for a year I’ve been rationing this quart because I had to wait until these chilis were back in season.
Last month I called the farmer and told him I wanted to buy cases of this chili, and they were like, we didn’t have a successful season, we don’t have any. It was really disappointing because it was going to become my cash cow! I was going to retire with my Portuguese sauce! But yeah, I love chili sauces and just condiments in general. It’s really my thing.
Ugh, how annoying! Your cash cow will come next year! Speaking of inspiration, I imagine all the traveling you’ve done has been super important for you and your food. Anywhere in particular you’ve loved or have been inspired by?
I go through major phases. Like last year it was Japanese. I was just obsessed. I love how refined it is, and simple. I got really into Wagashi, which is a Japanese confection and it’s all plant-based. I’ve never seen anything like this.
North African and Turkish foods have steered a lot of my menus — both are great with the Ojai produce. So that looks like lots of mezze, beautiful homemade flatbreads, and then lots of dips, and little chopped salads and pickled things.
All of my food across the board is inundated with fresh herbs. The holy trinity for me is cilantro, mint, and basil. I also love dill. I’ve been having more and more cuisines with cooked dill, which you don’t really see here. I was in Vietnam last month, and one of the dishes they’re known for in the North is this sautéed fish with handfuls of fresh dill and chives. And again, it’s so different. I’m into it.
Wow that sounds great. Switching gears a little bit: Talk to me about entertaining. What are you essentials for any party?
Music is huge. I love creating playlists for parties; that’s really important to me to have a good soundtrack. And then I think spatial flow is important. For me it’s about boards, or finger-y food items and I spread them out around the party so people can congregate and nibble until the main thing is ready. Flow in general is just so important.
And what’s the best cooking advice you’ve ever received?
My mom recently posted a photo of a pot of boiling water on Instagram and she said it took 45 minutes to boil. And I was like Mom, if you just cover the pot with a lid it would probably have taken half the amount of time. A lot of home cooks don’t know that if you just cover a pot with a lid it’s just way quicker.
Also, using salt. In culinary school at the Cordon Bleu in San Francisco they made us over-salt things. Basically, if they weren’t smacked in the face with salt they would throw your dish in the trash. I would say I’ve found a balance since then. But yeah, salting throughout the process is something very few people know to do. I was making a zucchini gratin recently, and I would lay down the zucchini and I would add salt, and then I would do a layer of tomatoes, and I would add salt — because every ingredient needs to be touched with seasoning in order for it to be balanced.
Okay, last question: What does the future look like for Le Picnic?
The trajectory has always been a brick-and-mortar space. Yeah, I’ve had a few false starts — location is very important to me. I’m so sensitive for space. There has to be an outdoor garden, there has to be lots of light, so I’ve been exercising patience waiting for the location that’s going to be the perfect fit for what I envision.
Editorial Advisor: Leela Cyd
The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you about how they feed themselves and their families.We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. How do you overcome challenges to feed yourself? If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.