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What Local Modern Southern Food Means for Olamaie

The meshing of old and new techniques in one restaurant.

Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nonas
Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nonas
Robert J. Lerma
Nadia Chaudhury is the editor of Eater Austin covering food and pop culture, as well as a photographer, writer, and frequent panel moderator and podcast guest.

It’s been an eventful year for Olamaie co-owners and co-executive chefs Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nonas since they opened their modern Southern restaurant on San Antonio Street. The former Son of a Gun chefs have received tons of accolades, including being named one of Eater’s best new restaurants of the year and Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs, plus recently-added lunch service. The two reflect on the past year with Eater, discussing their food philosophies, how they deal with hot Texas summers, and the way they work closely together. They even tease the dream of an entire Olamaie production with dairy and fish farms.

You guys have had a very busy year.
Grae Nonas: It’s been a lot of fun, a lot of hard work, a lot of ups and downs, lefts and rights. I’ve made a habit of quoting Sheryl Crow: "Every day’s a winding road." But it’s been great.

Why did you want to open a restaurant together?
Michael Fojtasek: It’s more than just a partnership and the restaurant, it’s family.

Nonas: We can communicate without talking. It’s very cohesive, we have synergy. The way I look at him is more of a brother than just a partner in business, which, at times, makes it harder, because when things don’t work well or go well that’s out of our control, we have to communicate that.

Why Austin?
Fojtasek: The first book that I ever read that was really important as far as understanding how we operate was Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables cover to cover. I always felt like the population in Austin was like-minded in that way. You have quite a few people who understand the thought process behind seasonal and food from right around here.

Southern food is a concept, cuisine, and a way of life.

Why Southern food in Texas?
Fojtasek: I began collecting cookbooks, and they seemed to kind of have a Southern bent to them. I grew up going back to Jackson to visit family and spent time in Memphis every summer, so that style of food became associated with a lot of good feelings about family and adventure, trying to find whatever we find.

Nonas: What’s so amazing about Southern food is that it’s a concept, cuisine, and a way of life that’s been here from the beginning of time of America and forever continuing in that time. The South is evolving on its own too, and we’re evolving with it, using old and new, and realizing that most of the new is actually old and more old is actually more modernized.

What do you think about the direction of Austin’s food scene?
Nonas: As long as the restaurants we grow in Austin are about small business and our community. Austin can definitely be [a food mecca] and it’s headed in that direction.

Fojtasek: The only thing that I would like to see is us continue to support the small local growers. Diversity is the most important in everything that we do.

Nonas: For us, it’s not a trend, it’s our philosophy.

[Photo: Robert J. Lerma/EATX]

[Photo: Robert J. Lerma/EATX]

How would you describe that food philosophy?
Nonas: As far as the seasons, you have to rethink and retrain yourself to understand this is what hot as hell summer is, this is what spring is, and this is what our late winter is. You have to understand that and change. In a lot of Southern classical food, there are different seasons. It’s different in Texas, a lot different, but it’s fun and part of the creative process. You have fava beans for a week, maybe a day, and it keeps things interesting. That’s why our menu changes so frequently, because it has to. if you want to be local, it has to, because it’s super reflective on the temperature outside. It’s like: what could grow in 100 degrees?

But there are some ingredients you end up buying rather than growing or making, too.
Nonas: I love Hellman's mayo. We use it here. We’ll make mayonnaise if we have to, but there are recipes that are thought out and way more elevated than you would think that have Hellman's in it, based off of the flavor profile and the texture. It says in the recipe: Hellmann's.

Fojtasek: We have enough variables that move around on us. Why work so hard to be less than perfect that what you know?

How do you feel about the city’s chef shortage?
Nonas: We have to be willing to teach as chefs, willing to grow, and willing to grow with our team. It’s about working together to accomplish the best that you can. If your team can’t accomplish what you want, then it doesn’t do any good. It only does good when you work together.

Which Austin chefs do you admire?
The goal: to be completely 100 percent self-sustaining. Nonas: What Jesse [Griffith] is doing over at Dai Due. The techniques that he does are traditional, and to me, it’s actually more modern but it’s not. Jesse is full of knowledge and life and is exciting. [Griffiths] tried to eat my daughter’s toes the other day. He talked about her toes as peas, and the life of a pea in as far as this is more like a zipper pea and, and when they get [to] five [years old], they’ve become more like lima beans and you don’t want to eat them anymore.

What’s in the future?
Fojtasek: We’re eventually going to make our own butter in-house, but for us to make butter, it requires our own dairy to produce the amount of butter that we use in this restaurant, and that’s a lot. Those are eventually the goals: to be completely 100 percent self-sustaining.

Nonas: At some point down the road eventually, maybe there’s a farm. We’ll have a fishing boat that goes out off the coast of South Carolina every morning and ships it to us or drives it from the Gulf every day, but until we get to that point 25 years from now, you need to do it right.


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