Olamaie is reopening its restaurant next month. Meet Amanda Turner, the new chef.
One of the first major Austin restaurants to close during the coronavirus pandemic will be one of the last to reopen its doors.
Olamaie chef-owner Michael Fojtasek, who temporarily shuttered his fine dining Southern restaurant the second week of March 2020, has announced that he and his team will resume service at the Austin standout on Nov. 4.
When the Southern restaurant rejoins the Austin restaurant scene, it will do so with a new major player, along with pay increases for hourly kitchen staff, and health insurance, paid sick leave and vacation time for all employees.
Fojtasek has named longtime Austin chef Amanda Turner as Olamaie's new chef de cuisine. Turner, a native of Arlington who has spent her 12-year career in Austin working at restaurants like Uchiko and Juniper, comes to Olamaie from Tiki Tatsu-Ya, where she served as chef de cuisine.
Dallas native Fojtasek, who has long been familiar with Turner’s work, said Turner impressed him with her ideas, preparation and work ethic when she collaborated with a group of female chefs at a special South by Southwest dinner at Olamaie in 2018.
Olamaie will be the first time Turner has worked in the milieu of Southern cooking, which she said she consciously avoided throughout her career because she felt like it was the stereotype that people expected from her.
“All through my cooking career I’ve been offered Southern restaurants. People would just assume that, well, she’s Black, so she would cook this food,” Turner said. “I brought that up immediately. I don’t want to be lumped into a category where people feel like I’m their mammie. There’s a lot of very racist undertones to the concept of a Black woman cooking Southern food. It’s the expectation.”
Turner, whose mother is white and father is Black, said she “grew up between the lines culturally.” But the chef said last year gave her time to reflect. She began reading works by Black authors and started seeking out more of what it meant for her to be a Black person, especially in a city where the overall population is booming, while the Black population is decreasing.
“I think because I had the time to really ruminate on that aspect of my culture, I was thinking a lot more about cooking Southern food, and I was cooking Southern food at home,” Turner said. “It hadn’t crossed my mind completely that it was something I’d want to do professionally yet. It was just kind of the timing. And Michael’s offer was incredibly sincere, and I felt like we could really build something.”
Turner said she is excited to explore what she describes as one of the "first true fusion cuisines," a culinary tradition built by Black people who were enslaved, blending the flavors of Africa and the American South to meet the tastes of white enslavers.
Turner said she wants to "really dig in and explore what that means historically, but the big picture is the South is a melting pot, and I think we have a lot of opportunities to explore the ways that immigrant cultures in general have affected Southern cuisine."
The Uchiko veteran said she was attracted to Olamaie for more than its reputation as one of the best restaurants in Austin. She respected how Fojtasek, whom she describes as earnest and progressive, puts people and staff first. She was also impressed by the seriousness with which he responded to the pandemic and the commitment he’s made to providing a livable wage and health insurance for employees and ensuring sustainable working conditions.
With regard to paying for those wages and benefits, Fojtasek has instituted a 20% service fee that will accompany all checks when Olamaie reopens. The flat service fee, which diners can supplement with an extra tip if they choose, will cover health insurance costs for employees and raise the salary of a line cook by at least 30%.
If a customer objects to the included service fee, Fojtasek said he will remove an equivalent amount of food cost from the customer's bill but will keep the fee on the check in order to pay his staff a fair wage and cover their health insurance.
Fojtasek said he had intended to roll out the new service fee in early 2020 before the pandemic interrupted operations. His new biscuit shop in Wells Branch, Little Ola’s Biscuits, has included the 20% charge on its bills since it opened in the summer.
“It’s about creating a place that honestly feels like any other job you’d get in the world — real estate, banking,” Fojtasek said. “We believe the type of hospitality worker that we’re trying to find are career driven who understand that this is some stability instead of a lot of peaks and valleys. We’re trying to say this industry need a reset. We need to find ways that people who decide to come into this industry can enrich their career.”
The restaurant also added a bar in its lounge area and has improved its outdoor spaces and extended its porch in order to offer full dine-in service.
The seven-seat bar will feature a separate menu of snacks, like chicken liver mousse, caramelized onion dip, and popped sorghum, which will be available with cocktail service before the main restaurant opens.
The restaurant, for which Fojtasek has signed a new lease that extends through 2031, has also undergone COVID-related enhancements, including a new HVAC system.
Diners will have a chance to get an early taste. The restaurant is hosting a fundraising dinner for the Austin Food & Wine Alliance on Nov. 1. The Olamaie team will prepare a three-course, wine-paired dinner, which also includes passed appetizers, with Dallas chef Tiffany Derry, whose Roots Southern Table was just named by the New York Times as one of the 50 most exciting restaurants in the country.
Tickets for the dinner cost $225, and proceeds will benefit the Alliance’s Culinary Grant Program in Central Texas. Tickets and more information available at austinfoodandwineallince.org.