The team behind forthcoming modern Southern restaurant Olamaie arrives in Austin with serious culinary credentials. Between the three principals, they've worked with Thomas Keller, Mario Batali, Anne Burrell, and a host of other notable names. This winter, they'll set up shop in the former Sagra space on San Antonio Street to serve up items like hen of the woods, biscuits with chicken grease and honey butter, and peanut pie. Earlier this week, we talked to co-executive chefs Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nonas to learn more about the Olamaie concept, their forthcoming pop-ups, and why one shouldn't assume that their interpretation of Southern food will be rich, heavy, and fried.
How did the Olamaie concept and team come together?
Michael Fojtasek: Grae and I worked together at Son Of A Gun in LA. We were both sous chefs there, and had a great experience working together. The opportunity came along for me to move back here, so one night after work I asked if he wanted to come along and open a restaurant together. Fortunately, he was excited about it! The concept has always been a certain style of Southern food. The whole maternal side of my family is from Central Tennessee, and we always ate at "Meat plus threes" in the Memphis area. I grew up in Dallas, and we went to places like Mama's Daughters' Diner. We got lucky in Austin that there's not a restaurant that does modern Southern. We love Hoover's, but we're trying to do this from a more elevated perspective.
There is very little fine dining Southern food in Austin. Why?
MF: That's a good question. It took us roughly a year to announce the concept, and throughout that time, I just knew that somebody was going to jump the gun on us. It's strange to me. It fits the local population really, really well. There are so many people here from the Southeast. And a lot of Texans would certainly consider themselves Southerners.
Grae Nonas: Austinites go to the markets and know about local farmers and enjoy what they produce. The farm to table tradition is the foundation of Southern food. Lots of Austin restaurants source locally, but that Southern-inspired cuisine is not really here - which is why we are.
One thing that stuck out in your announcement was that your version of Southern food isn't synonymous with fried. Can you explain?
MF: Years ago, I researched this idea using a lot of great vintage Southern cookbooks. If you go back to the pre-war era, Southern food is more reflective of a Mediterranean style of eating. It's about what is fresh and around you. You do see some fats, but for the most part, it's not fried. We'll have a rotating seasonal menu like Lenoir where items will come off the menu as ingredients pass the peak of season. All that said, fried okra is delicious. It's fried okra, and that's hard to get away from.
GN: The migrant history of Southern food is very much European and even African. Not much was fried. There were hushpuppies and fritters, but a lot of it was simple and fresh. There's tomato salad with a little vinegar and salt, or stewed okra. There are many beautiful things around us that can be prepared simply. I'm not sure how things veered off in that mostly fried direction. We won't own an actual deep fryer, but we'll have some fried items.
This collaboration started when you were both at Son Of A Gun. Were there some elements of cooking philosophy or style that you learned from Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo?
MF: Absolutely. They have great ideas. Management-wise, they do a great job mixing reservation and walk-in traffic, and the flow of service is nice. As for the food, Son Of A Gun and Animal source from local markets more than anywhere else I've worked. We did about 95% of our produce from the Santa Monica farmer's market. Grae and I would get in the truck twice a week and just load up. We'd grab lemons, onions, you name it.
GN: They'd have great celery, carrots, and citrus. The way those guys run their kitchen is amazing. And what sparked our imagination is that it's simply food you want to eat. It's not pretentious. It can go gluttonous, but there's also lots of simple and clean stuff. They have the best fried chicken sandwich on the country on their menu. The great thing that happened there was that we both just got it. We worked together well, and we didn't really have to even talk that much. At Son Of A Gun, we worked around guys who are best friends and have worked together for over 10 years. They're happy people! They have a good rapport. That's something we want to be. It was cohesive there, and it was a beautiful thing.
You're debuting this idea with a series of pop-ups before your official opening. Is that more for menu development or for marketing?
MF: Both. The first goal is to get Grae, Ben, and I working together in advance of the opening on San Antonio. We'll work on our systems and our way of doing things. But we want to feed Austin our food! We'll go up to Dallas as well. Honestly, we're a little impatient. We'd like to be open right now.
GN: We're very eager. We've been working on this so long. We just want to do it. These give us the ability to do that. It's exciting that it's a week away. We have the opportunity to do this thanks to Todd and Jess Duplechan.
MF: That came about organically. Todd and Jess gave Grae a great work home while we were negotiating our lease, and that led to us borrowing their space while they're closed. Once that happened, it made us say: "What about a Dallas week?" And then we picked up a night at ASTI. The organic quality of the Lenoir week spurred us on to do more.
What our your thoughts on the direction of the beverage program. Are you working with a collaborator?
MF: With this genre, bourbon and whiskey are very popular. There will be a lot of that in this beverage program. That said, there will be lighter drinks that appeal to everyone. We'll do the beverage program in-house, but Josh Loving is consulting on it.
That's an excellent choice.
MF: He built the initial menu. We haven't passed that on to the public yet. In pop-up mode, the TABC laws are tricky. Josh is an old friend from my FINO days. He's drawn up an awesome menu. He'll consult and drive it, and we'll make the day-to-day decisions.
We're guessing you don't have a specific opening date yet.
MF: It's a moving target. I think that realistically we're looking at late November. We'll try and do a week of soft opening.
GN: People should look out for the pop-ups - you don't have to wait until we're open! Technically, we'll be open next week. It's a more limited menu, but you'll get the feel of Olamaie and what we're about.
Olamaie's pop-up at Lenoir begins on August 6th. Other pop-ups are scheduled throughout August and September. For more information, visit the Olamaie website or Facebook page.
— Tom Thornton
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