Sonja Seiler is many things: a musician, a business owner, and the host of the monthly Harvest Table Dinner series - a beautifully designed culinary experience that invites people to show up with their authentic, non-curated selves.
Much like these evenings, an encounter with Sonja is an experience in connection: you leave with a burst of ideas and are made to feel part of her broad community of thinkers, artists, and innovators.
A few weeks ago, we caught up with her in the black and white tiled kitchen of her West End Toronto home to find out how the kitchen came to be the place that allows her to channel her deepest self, why she started showcasing on Artery and the secret to baking without a timer.
Who are you and what do you do in the world?
My name is Sonja Seiler and I use food as a tool for connecting people.
I think when you’re sharing a meal, the table is a real equalizer between people. You’re doing an everyday activity that’s intrinsically nurturing so it takes away a lot of pressure.
All of the activities involved with food - like putting sauce on things and reaching across the table - are interactive which brings you into the present moment. Into being. When you’re in the present moment, you’re more likely to find a connection with another human being. Sitting at a table provides a wonderful context for this sense of connection and I think that the food that you’re serving doesn’t have to be delicious in order to connect with someone. I’ve definitely had some gross food before and connected with people while eating it - the cafeteria food at my high school comes to mind. Food acts as an activity that you can partake in and connection is what happens as a result.
I love to eat, I love everything about it, and that’s my tool of choice.
When did you know this is what you wanted to do?
I don’t know if I had a moment like this. Food has been everywhere for me my entire life. I had a big garden growing up at my parent’s place in the country. I had the chore of weeding it, so I got to plant the seeds and watch the vegetables grow. My family sold pumpkins every year and I saw the life cycles of the seasons and food’s relationship in each part of the year. We put everything in jars to eat in the winter when things weren’t in season - it was all very pioneer-ish. As a kid, I was so inspired by food that I would make mud pies and I would “sell” them under my tree fort and decorate them with Sumac berries. I got really into cooking and asked for an EZ Bake oven when I was six and we used up all the packets that came with it. When I asked for more, my parents didn’t have the budget to buy these really expensive pockets, so they taught me on the “big girl” stove. So, I started cooking from recipe books and graduated to adult cookbooks soon after that. I started making dinner for the family and I was allowed to experiment. I made some really disgusting things, but I got to try everything out. I shared a love of cooking with my mom and used it as a form of communication.
After university, I worked at professional bakeries and one of them was entailed a 4am shift with this one guy named Bob. Bob taught me how to know when something was done just by smell. We couldn’t use timers and cooked with instinct and using our intuition. I’m so grateful for him teaching me that. When I bake, I literally cannot set a timer and just smell to assess everything from there. Any food experience allows me to see the flavours in my brain and pick them apart and lets me think about ways to improve it.
Now in the work that I do with the Harvest Table dinners, I get to tell stories thought food. If I meet someone and am inspired by them, I develop a menu that reflects the spirit of this person. I figure out the right combination of sights, smells, textures, and palettes that portrays the right story of a story.
How do you choose the people you work with in these monthly conversations with food?
I know when something feels like good fit. Call it intuition or what you want, but when someone refers me to someone, I’ll check their work out and I’ll know immediately if it’s a no, and sometimes I just marinate on it and figure them out from there. If it’ a potential ‘yes’, I meet up and have coffee with them and see if it’s a right fit. Food doesn’t lie, and if I made food based on something that wasn’t a good fit, it would fall flat and probably burn. The act of cooking and gets infused with what your creation is. Often, I will come across someone and do a bit of a deep dive into researching them and feel it out intuitively. If everything is a right fit, I give that person my pitch to collaborate.
Tell us more about these monthly evenings.
Often when you go to a networking event, the food is to the side. You show up and you come with your mask and your brand, and are ultimately missing out on a real deep connection in these spaces where you‘re come together.
I try to create something as an antithesis to these horrible networking events.My events are about lighting,table setting…everything. However, It’s not just about looking beautiful, it’s about the intention behind every setting. Everything reflects everything and the act of setting the space and telling the story are all things that take a lot of time and intention. When you walk into the room, you should feel the care — you should feel it in your body. The space must create a sense of ease and safety for people to show up as themselves. I put a lot of energy into how I seat people. It’s all with a gut feeling, and always seems to work out. I love connecting people and I strive to create an experience greater than the sum of its parts.
These monthly showcases of yours are inspiring and have been happening for over six months now. Does anything getting easier, or harder even?
The vulnerability is still there. The practical things have gotten easier are questions like, “how many boxes of arugula do I need?” As for the vulnerability, I’m called to live this way and I need to show up authentically.
In the entrepreneurial sphere, freelancing is an inherently solo endeavor - you work on your own. Even though there are a lot of co-working spaces popping up which is great, there’s still a pressure in those spaces to come with your elevator pitch and your mask. I always wanted to go to a space where I could talk to people about the difficult things in running a business and anything interpersonally. I craved a space where you could be open and people wouldn’t judge you.
You’ve been involved in Artery showcases not only as a host but also as a musician and a regular attendee. What common value do you see in these roles?
When I first heard about Artery and what it wanted to achieve, what resonated with me is that it intrinsically attracts people who are open to the unconventional. In the case of my Harvest Table dinners, it’s unconventional.
Before Artery, I listed on Eventbrite and you’re one of many offerings and you don’t know how to reach out to people that resonate with your experience. What I love about Artery is that it’s community-minded. Other platforms are just about promotion. Artery, for me, is a way of accessing a community who are already interested in unique experiences. People are hungry for things like this.
The showcases I’ve attended just make me feel so lucky. I got to experience a opera show in a living room, and joke with the performer afterward. When you disrupt the audience experience in a positive way, it’s the unexpected that brings us back into the present moment, a place we don’t get to live in very often. Any chance you can get there is good for the world.
Being in a space to sing and share my experiences, I feel people actually listening. No coffee grinders in the background. People take in your music and feel things. I’m all about people feeling things.
What’s the one thing you would tell someone who’s interested in hosting?
Go with a “build it and people will come” mentality. There isn’t something you need to strive for. Just create the space and let the magic happen. Artery is a great foundation to make this happen. All you need to do is open your door and open your heart. I say that in a jesting way, but I’m dead serious. The magic will be impeded by your anxiety; just provide a designated space for people to come and feel things. The party just takes care of itself. I highly recommend food.
Photo credits: Amber Ellis of Creating Light Studio & Stephanie Pellet.