Luca Pronzato, the founder of creative culinary collective We Are ONA, needs no introduction. Turning the traditional restaurant experience on its head by breaking it up into immersive pop-ups from Milan to Mexico City, sommelier and restaurateur Pronzato creates offbeat dining experiences in mysterious and often disused spaces. More recently, the nomad sommelier and restaurateur is laying down roots and opening a We Are ONA food studio in Paris, his home city, just around the corner from where he’s settled with his young family.
Founded in 2019, We Are ONA — “ona” meaning wave in Catalan — is a catalyst for empowering young chefs by giving them the opportunity to explore their talent and the freedom to express their creativity. The result of this inspiration powerhouse is pretty special and has become a reference on the dining circuit, the chefs serving the highest quality of local and sustainable produce. Drawing an arty crowd from all over the globe, We Are ONA is blossoming into a transient hub where artists, writers and designers can convene with like-minded creatives, no matter which art fair they happen to be hopping to next.
Born in France and raised by an Italian father and Spanish mother who had an Italian deli on rue des Petit Champs in Paris, questions around well-sourced produce were part of daily life for this 30-year-old visionary. So it was no surprise that he went on to work at restaurants and bistros before interning at Selosse Champagne when he was 18.
“At that time, I didn’t know what I wanted to go into but I knew that I was passionate about wine, wine-making, food and service,” says the young entrepreneur. “I wanted to learn everything I could and I was curious about how things were done abroad too.”
His thirst for knowledge of the sector led him to travel for almost a year, during which he went to 30 countries, soaking up how things were done elsewhere. “It was an exceptional way to learn about a lot and meet incredible, talented, people along the way.”
By the time he returned to Paris, the idea of a nomadic restaurant concept that could bring together top-notch local produce, chefs’ savoir-faire and natural wines from all over, without being limited to a single space, started to form.
“Before setting anything up, what I wanted to do next, something I felt was missing from my experience, was to work at a renowned restaurant. So I spent the next three years working at Noma in Copenhagen, Mirazur in Menton and Central Restaurante in Lima, which were incredible experiences for me; to be able to work with chefs and teams of that kind of caliber. Again, it allowed me to learn a lot about operations, service and how to take care of diners with very high standards and food and wine knowledge.”
When Noma closed and went to Mexico, Pronzato followed. “It was an eye-opening experience because I saw what it was to open a new restaurant in a new place where you have to build a network of producers, farmers, wine-makers… it was a challenge,” he explains. “And that’s when I realized that what I loved the most about the industry was this element of challenge.”
Following his various experiences and travels that took him all over the globe, when it was time to come home to Paris, he knew he wanted that transient lifestyle to continue, and in 2014, he created We Are ONA, the collective with global culinary clout today.
“The idea was to continue traveling all over the world while growing this community of creative chefs, producers, wine-makers, farmers. I wanted to help them express their creativity. I wanted to help young chefs I was meeting travel and share their cooking with people everywhere.”
We Are ONA pop-ups began taking place, some overlapping, all over the world, from Costa da Caparica in Portugal to Kaplankaya in Turkey by way of Paris, Basel, Mexico City, Lisbon, Arles, Venice, Milan and Zermatt. “It was a huge operation to have multiple pop-ups happening at the same time, as well as our events for brands,” explains Pronzato. “It certainly was intense, but it was fun!”
When Covid hit, it slowed the company’s momentum to a near halt until they launched We Are ONA food baskets and then started filming chefs making recipes at home. Not one to rest on his laurels, Pronzato put his mind to launching a new brand, Canetta, natural wine made by small wine-makers that comes in single helpings in little red or yellow cans. “I was filming wine tastings while we were all locked up at home, and I was throwing away so much wine for these tutorials. It’s when the idea of selling a glass of wine in a can came to me.”
As well as the pop-up experiences for a select group of diners who manage to nab a seat at the sell-out dinners, the We Are ONA team also designs events for brands and worked with big names like Yves Saint Laurent, Hermès, Chanel and Jacquemus. “We work on absolutely everything, from scouting venues to finding great chefs, as well as the whole scenography from the flowers to the lighting. And it’s what I love – this challenge, again, to build something incredible from nothing each time; something that’s going to surprise people.”
The wow-factor of each pop-up is woven into every aspect but the most memorable is probably the venue. Usually offbeat and secret, scouring cities to find the perfect place is what Pronzato loves. “The idea really is to find a place that’s unique and that goes well with the theme of our pop-up or event. It’s also a way of discovering parts of a city you never knew! I remember once, I was in Venice, desperately looking for a venue for our next pop-up, which was fast approaching, and it’s only on my way to the airport as I was about to leave, that my taxi driver told me about this palace Casanova was rumored to have lived in but that wasn’t well known at all. I went to see it right away and it was perfect!”
So what’s next for the clan? Having just wrapped up their last pop-up of the year with the brilliant Thomas Chisholm of Chocho restaurant in Paris in an old garage, they have launched a year-long chef’s residency with first up, the award-winning chef Jacob Harth from Portland, Oregon, known for his seafood, which was designed by India Mahdevi and is at Hotel Condesa in Mexico City.
There’s more to come before the year is out though. “We’re also opening a food studio this month just a few steps from here actually,” says Pronzato, eyes sparkling with excitement, motioning to the paved lane the hotel terrace we’re sitting at is on, swerving into the distance. “The idea is to have up to 24 people dine in, maybe do something like supper clubs in the evenings and use it as a laboratory for creating dishes and collaborations between chefs in the day time.” And he’s not stopping there because he also has a food and restaurant app on the way with more than 400 must-try spots. “Having traveled all over, trying different places and foods for several years now, I thought it would be a shame not to share some favorites. And it fits with what we’re all about: sharing our love of food and creativity everywhere.”