How Ajiri Aki Celebrates the Good Life

How I Gather

Bringing people together around a table is our greatest passion in life and we believe food is one of the most powerful tools for connection. In our series, How I Gather we go behind the scenes with our favorite foodies to see how they do it. See All

Ajiri Aki knows how to have a good time. Whether she’s sourcing antiques for her brand, Madame de la Maison, or turning on her out-of-office for an extended stay in Provence, she’s equally devoted to finding pleasure in all of it—the food she eats, the places she travels, the conversations she has with friends and family. Ajiri defines the essential ingredients of joy as “curiosity, creativity, connection, and celebration.” All can be discovered in even the most mundane moments, if your eyes are attuned to see them.

I feel lucky to call Ajiri a friend, and I’m just as thrilled that she’s sharing her POV with the world through her new book, Joie: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating the Good Life. When Ajiri came to Austin a few weeks ago, I invited a few ladies for a backyard apéro to celebrate her stunning new book. Scroll on for the simple but stunning snacks we served, plus my interview with Ajiri on what makes a truly joyful gathering.

How did your new book, Joie, come to be? Give us the backstory.

In January of 2020, I was celebrating my 40th birthday in New York City with old friends, and I realized how much I had changed since moving to Paris. What was important to me had slowly morphed into a different version of myself that was only noticeable to me when I left my adopted home country. It had been a few years since I had traveled back to New York, so I hadn’t really thought about it before that milestone birthday celebration.

Three months later, France went into a full lockdown and we could barely leave our homes. Gatherings were abolished, and we lived under a nationwide curfew. In the beginning, I felt very depressed and was faced with so many emotions about the state of the world and life. I wrote a blog post titled A Case for The Good China, that shared how my mother always waited for a special occasion to use her beloved wedding china. After she died, I realized that she never got to use it. It struck a chord with many readers who were similarly confined to their homes.

Why do we wait to use the good china? Why do we wait to do things that bring us joy? Why do we feel guilty or restrict ourselves from experiencing joy daily?

The saying “tomorrow is not promised,” felt so immediate.  I realized that my life in Paris pre-confinement was full of little moments of joie—and I had learned it from living amongst French people. The response from that post inspired me to explore this shift, and I started a deep dive into what joie de vivre really meant and how we can all access it more often.

These beautiful blooms were designed by Stems Floral & Event Styling.

What informs your approach to food and gatherings? 

I live by Dr. Maya Angelou’s quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

This is what I always keep in mind when I plan a menu, because I have a tendency to overdo things with grand showy ideas or too many recipes. This quote steers me away from this mistake by keeping me focused on what matters—bringing people together. Of course, I never want people to leave my house hungry or dissatisfied, but with that in the front of my mind, I choose food that is simple, slow-cooked, or sourced.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

What does “the good life” mean to you—and how has it changed since you’ve lived in Paris?

To me “the good life” is one where experiences, people, places, and relationships can be tapped into in ways that bring me joy. It’s not about money, affluence, what job you have, or your family heritage.

“The good life” is about joie de vivre, finding joy in life every single day no matter where you live… and not only on vacation! It’s a life where I recognize that joy is one of my top values and my North Star.

Before moving to Paris, I thought having a good life meant working for a good company or doing work that brought me a lot of money. And because someone taught me that “time is money,” I worked non-stop so that I could could  afford the “it” handbag, designer clothes and travel to all the best resorts or far away places. I thought these things would make me happy, and in searching for happiness in the wrong places, I couldn’t learn the art of finding true joy. 

Walk us through a typical day for you in Paris.

I love waking up before the rest of my family to have a little peace and quiet time with my tea and thoughts. I use this morning time to either flip through books for inspiration, read, write, practice calligraphy while listening to music, meditate, or stretch. This is one of my favorite times of the day because no one is awake to text or talk to me, and I never check my email this early.

After that, I spend the mornings shuffling around in my robe for as long as possible while helping the kids get ready and out the door. Then I either get dressed and take them to school, or Thomas does and I sit in my robe a bit longer to read and ease into my day. If I drop them off at school, I usually have a café with some of the parents before heading back home.

No two work days are the same. I might head to the marché for groceries and the flower shop to get props for photographing my antiques or a styled table setting. I might respond to emails, photograph a few things, then head out to meet a lunch date or eat at home. In the afternoon, I’ll find a café to sit with my computer. I love the variety—it’s what I need for inspiration and creation.

What are a few products you love for the table?

  1. Linens are an easy way to elevate any table, and naturally, I have a closet full of Madame de la Maison linens in so many colors ready to mix and match.
  2. I love having antique salt cellars that can be used for salt, but also for any condiment or sauce. Soy sauce and hot sauce, salt and pepper, ketchup and mustard, honey and nuts, dessert topping, etc… I could go on with combos and ideas.
  3. Knife rests are an undervalued item for the table that I use for buffets and seated dinners. They help keep your utensils directly off the linens in between bites.

What’s your must-have cooking tool?

My grater and zester are usually tossed into my bag when we travel to stay at an Airbnb. I can use them to zest fruit, cheese, vegetables, potatoes, ginger and garlic into sauces or dressing, etc. Every rental doesn’t have a zester, but I find that I use it weekly and get frustrated when I don’t have it. 

Favorite cookbooks?

I typically don’t use cookbooks during the week, but I enjoy busting them out every now and then to experiment on a weekend when I have more time. These are my favorites:

All the Ottolenghi cookbooks because I know anything I cook will be packed with flavor. 

Momofuku’s first cookbook because I love making the Fried Chicken and the Bo Saam and it was one of the first cookbooks where I really tried and enjoyed challenging myself with the recipes. 

Smitten Kitchen cookbooks because all the recipes feel very approachable and delicious.

Tell us a few things we’ll always find in your refrigerator.

More condiments that any person should own! I always have various types of miso paste, Gochujang, Ssamjam, crispy chili oil, sambal oelek, bulldog sauce, harissa, wasabi, confit de onions, confit de figues, cornichons, capers, and anchovies.

What’s one tip for someone who wants to host a gathering on a budget?

Make it a potluck, but call it something else if that word takes you back to 1980s gatherings with too many casseroles. Assign your friends to different courses, take the one that works best for you, then set a beautiful table. It’s absolutely possible to gather with your people without feeling the stress on your finances.

Dream dinner guests?

Michelle Obama, Oprah, Zadie Smith, and Priya Parker. 

What are your signature dishes for gatherings?

I love to keep things simple, slow-cooked, or I just outsource. At my apartment, I will probably serve you a Bo saam, Ox-tail stew, Osso Bucco, roasted Provencal lamb, or an entire salmon with various side salads.

Or I will go with a big apéro-dinâtoire spread, which is basically tons of charcuterie, cheese and nuts, then I add something heartier so you feel full. It’s apéro and dinner all together.

Fill in the blank:

It’s not a dinner party without

Someone changing up the playlist toward the end for impromptu karaoke or dancing. 

Every cook should know how to

Outsource when he or she needs a break!