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People of the Year 2015 | Michael Fojtasek & Grae Nonas

We all know Austin’s culinary scene is hot, but where is it headed? Wherever Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nonas wanna take it.

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In retrospect, the deck was never stacked in Olamaie’s favor. The restaurant is in a lonely stretch of downtown between campus and the Capitol, in an 85-year-old house that previously was the site of two failed restaurants and a head shop. The two chefs running the joint are from Dallas and New England, met in California, and came to Austin to start a Southern-inspired restaurant. When Olamaie finally opened it was nearly a year behind schedule and had endured months of the proverbial restaurant kiss of death: hype.

By my, oh my, has Olamaie lived up to the acclaim. Since the San Antonio Street restaurant opened her doors in August 2014, chefs Michael Fojtasek and Grae Nonas have received an almost unending slew of accolades including two James Beard nominations (one for Outstanding Restaurant and one for Rising Star Chef of the Year for Nonas); Food + Wine’s Best New Chefs 2015; and Texas Monthly’s No. 2 Best Restaurant in Texas, just to name a few.

Beyond the inspired dishes, impeccable wine list and on point cocktails that have garnered awards, Fojtasek and Nona’s holistic approach to food represents the best of Austin’s new culinary scene. Much has been written about how the chefs’ originally bonded over a love of vintage cookbooks, but they’ve taken those ideas off of the page and put it into practice. Olamaie isn’t just about delicious dishes, it’s about creating a place where food is made with the ingredients available, and honors the treatment of animals and farmers alike.

Rather than rely on mega suppliers to deliver ingredients with unknowable origins, Fojtasek and Nonas let local producers and farmers’ markets be their guides. Both chefs go to market twice a week, Wednesday and Saturday, and are among the earliest shoppers —if not the first. “We’re the first one downtown,” says Fojtasek. “I take pride in that. Farmers love it because they know [we’re] gonna buy stuff.” Once inside the gates, the chefs go from stall to stall, gathering ingredients and inspiration for the night’s menu. “Everyone says that they use the best ingredients, everyone says that they do it the best way,” explains Nonas. “And the thing is is that we do do that. We do practice what we preach.”

Part of the practice has been to not only develop a relationship with the farmers around Central Texas, but to understand the complexities of things like weather patterns’ affect on crop cycles. “In Austin, if you want to do that way of procuring [ingredients], you have to approach your entire culinary world based around what’s out there today,” explains Fojtasek. “You can’t plan so much ahead, you don’t know that it’s going to happen.” The result is a menu that changes daily, if not hourly. “What affects Mother Earth, that affects the ground and that affects our produce and that affects our plate. And whatever affects our plate, we have to change. We don’t have that option like, ‘Oh, we’ll just substitute today with some California crab.’ No, no, no. It doesn’t work like that. It’s either that dish goes away, or we have to replace it with another ingredient,” says Fojtasek.

This is not to say that Olamaie is the first restaurant in Austin to approach food in this way. The chefs are quick to name Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due; Todd Duplechan and Jessica Maher of Lenoir; and Bryce Gilmore of Odd Duck and Barley Swine among those who inspire them. Collectively, these culinary creatives are doing the work that is landing Austin at the top of every best-of list. High-end dining in a stuffy space no longer represents the upper echelon of cuisine. Instead, chefs like Griffiths, Gilmore, Fojtasek and Nonas are crafting experiences that are approachable, creative and sustainable.

Though Fojtasek and Nonas spent 2015 topping lists and gracing magazine covers, both chefs say they haven’t had time to celebrate. (“When we found out that we were [named] Best New Chefs by Food + Wine, we walked down to the cooler, high-fived and that was it,” says Nonas.”) Instead, they’ve focused on getting their team in place, learning how to be “married” as co-chefs, and getting Austin diners to trust the experience of eating at Olamaie. “[As for] 2016, it will be a progression,” says Nonas, “continuing to focus on what we have ... and move that forward.”

CREDITS

Photography by Chad Wadsworth | Hair by Jessica Casarez of Lip Service | Makeup by Dolce - Ivy Kim

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