Kiki Aranita & Ari Miller
Oct. 9, 2021, in Sharon Springs, N.Y., and Nov. 10, 2021, in Conkal, Yucatan, Mexico
On New Year’s Day 2019, Philadelphia restaurateurs Kiki and Ari were among friends Ange Branca — of Kampar Kitchen and formerly Sate Kampar — had assembled for lunch and tea. The two didn’t really know each other, but Ari recognized Kiki as the chef behind the Hawaii-inspired Poi Dog and its affiliated food truck. And Kiki knew that Ari owned the cheesesteak pop-up Frizwit.
Ari was about to launch a second Philly food venture — Musi BYOB — and was interested in Kiki’s wisdom. She answered his questions but was annoyed for one tiny, furry reason: “I was thoroughly unimpressed with this man who refused to hold my Chihuahua on his lap,” she remembered. “Everyone else was angling to hold her, and Ari was offered Coconut and he refused. So I thought, ‘Something is wrong with this guy.’ ”
For the record, Ari very much loved his dog, Tokyo. He just didn’t feel the need to hold someone else’s. Regardless, they kept talking after the party. Two days later, “she was on a river cruise on the Nile, and I was coming home after work and hyped up on adrenaline from opening a restaurant,” Ari remembers. Their texts and What’sApp calls were not limited to restaurant life for long.
Ari told her about growing up in Langhorne, Bucks County, and then, after college at Clark University and a brief stint as a newspaper writer, his move to Israel to join the Israeli Army — a decision he soon realized was a mistake. Eventually freed from his obligation, he earned a master’s degree in Middle East studies and became an editor at the Jerusalem Post. Laid off in 2008, Ari walked into a Tel Aviv deli unsure of his future. The next day, he began cooking there and found his calling. Ari returned to Philadelphia in 2013 and started working as a sous chef. He opened Frizwit in 2015. Musi opened in February 2019.
Kiki told Ari that she was born in New York and raised in Honolulu and Hong Kong. She moved in 2010 to study classics at Bryn Mawr, where she added a second master’s degree to her first in comparative literature and Italian. Kiki so missed the multicultural food she grew up with that she set about re-creating it here, opening the Poi Dog food truck in 2013 and the sit-down Rittenhouse location in 2017.
“There was a moment toward the end of the trip that he told me that I was pretty, and that changed the timbre of our conversation,” said Kiki.
“She came back to town, and we went out to dinner and then hung out, chatting into the night,” said Ari. ”It was like, ‘Who the hell is this person, this interesting and amazing and funny and smart person?’ This had to be considered further.”
“He is so easy to be with,” said Kiki. “There’s no drama, and I never had any doubt at all that he loves me, that he cares about me.” Ari came to love Coconut, too, and it was love at first sight for Kiki and the now-late Tokyo.
Key to their relationship is being each other’s biggest fan. “We each have a big personality, and that could be a recipe for competition,” he said. “But instead, each of us gets to be excited about each other in every way, and that’s awesome.”
“A constant theme for us is solidarity,” added Kiki.
A big step and a big challenge
Kiki, who is now 37, brought Ari, now 45, to Hawaii to meet her family for Thanksgiving in 2019.
It went well, and in early 2020, Ari moved into the Graduate Hospital home where the couple still lives.
“He moved into my house, and I made it clear that if we didn’t get engaged within a year, he needs to leave my house,” said Kiki.
This worked for Ari. “What allows us to be successful is that important things aren’t left to chance any more than they need to be,” he said. “It was, ‘You need this in a year? Great. We’re on the same page.’ ”
A few months later, COVID-19 changed the world. Kiki and Ari shut down their restaurants, doted on their dogs, and made the most of extra time together. “We were saved by a second television,” jokes Ari. “I want comedy and she wants murderous spies.”
In early summer, Ari opened Frizwit to raise money for organizations helping others during the pandemic. That fall, Musi offered outdoor seating and takeout, but it did not feel natural for a restaurant that aims to create conversation and zero waste to minimize customer contact and use so many takeout containers, Ari said. By winter, he refocused on Frizwit, expanding the sandwich and hummus menu. At the end of the year, Frizwit made Food & Wine’s The Best Dishes We Ate in 2020 list.
Poi Dog offered takeout during the spring and summer, but Kiki closed the restaurant and food truck in July 2020. The first two weeks were excruciating, but then messages started pouring in from customers. Poi Dog was launched because she missed the tastes of Hawaii; she launched the Poi Dog line of sauces in December 2020 because her customers missed those tastes, too. “It was a way to go forward,” said Kiki, who also does freelance food writing and is developing recipes for several major brands.
Kiki also focused creative energy on her crocheting hobby. By winter 2020, the couple’s home was filled with 100 crocheted sculptures — some of which will be in a one-woman show, “Yarned Snacks, Sauces, and Tins,” set to open Tuesday in Philadelphia International Airport’sTerminal B and remain on view for about six months.
Two of her creations — bunnies — sat on the couple’s bed. One November 2020 morning, Ari hid a ring box in Dopey’s sock-like belly. The weight capsized the bunny, which led Kiki to an important discovery.
“Will you marry me?” asked Ari.
“Yes!” said Kiki, who threw herself into another project: wedding planning.
The couple decided the challenge of traveling during the pandemic made it unfair to hold the wedding close to one set of relatives or the other, so they opted for a neutral location they love: the Yucatan. About 80 people, including guests from Philadelphia, Hong Kong, Hawaii, and Israel, made their way to Hacienda Santa Lucia de Kantoyna. The couple required everyone to be vaccinated, and each guest also processed through a COVID-testing station, awaiting the rapid results before taking a seat for the ceremony, which was held in the open-air ruins of a chapel.
For logistical reasons, the couple had been officially married the month prior at a deconsecrated church in Sharon Springs, N.Y., owned by friends Douglas and Kat. The Yucatan wedding was led by two other friends: Melanie and Julia. The bride wore a mantilla, a Spanish-style veil, to honor her late grandmother, Gloria, and also had her hair styled to match Gloria’s from her own wedding. The groom wore a maile lei around his neck, and the maid of honor, bridesmaids, and woman of honor wore a Haku lei on their heads, all in tribute to Hawaiian culture.
After the couple’s vows, Melanie and Julia wrapped Ari’s lei around the couple’s hands to symbolize their union, and Melanie blew a conch shell.
Kiki’s sister Lani read a Hawaiian wedding blessing and Ari’s brother Dani read a poem he wrote called “A Brother Like You,” earning extra points from Ari for a Simpsons reference.
The couple exited to the “Wedding March” played by a mariachi band, and then all enjoyed appetizers and a buffet featuring Yucatecan food. Mini churros were among the desserts.
The couple will soon visit Hawaii to spend time with people who could not make the Yucatan trip. Kiki will teach the geography of tourism at Drexel University this winter, and Ari plans to reopen Musi in February 2022.