Recently nominated for James Beard’s 2017 “Best New Restaurant” award, Olmsted has been repeatedly crowned with similar superlatives from the New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler and Eater, among countless other reviews since opening in May of 2016. Rising star chef and owner Greg Baxtrom has an enviable fine-dining pedigree (having trained under culinary titans like Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller, and Dan Barber), but at Olmsted, he endeavors to provide an experience far more accessible and familiar than the dining rooms he has spent years cooking for. Yes, the restaurant has a backyard, but no, it's not for "farm-to-table" bragging rights – he simply enjoys being able to grow some ingredients and promote sustainability where he can. Yes, the dishes are inventive and beautiful, but no, he's not interested in esoteric flavors that don't resonate with the guests. For Greg Baxtrom, there's no forced narrative behind Olmsted's dishes – it's whatever he finds fun, tasty, and approachable. That might explain why you'll really only ever see 1 hashtag to describe their food: #Olmsteding.
What went into opening Olmsted as your very first restaurant?
I’ve always wanted to open up my own fine-dining restaurant, but I learned the hard way how much money that requires. A lot of people will promise to invest in you and then they won’t. I almost opened about 30 restaurants before opening Olmsted – all of them fell through. I realized I needed to pare the concept down and think about the bare minimums I absolutely needed: a 10-seat bar, a 40-seat dining room, and a backyard space. Once I figured that out, everything happened super fast. We took over this space on February 15th (of 2016), and Olmsted officially opened two months later on May 24th.
What did you envision for the outdoor concept?
The idea was to be able to grow things that would impact the restaurant, and to be as sustainable as possible – not only to help our food costs, but for our guests to see a little circle of life between our backyard and the restaurant, and have that be a part of their dining experience. Right now, we have quail, crawfish, fish, and compost – which we’ve temporarily moved upstate because of the odor. We use soldier flies for the compost because they decompose it at a much higher rate, and we can feed their larvae to the fish and crawfish. The garden isn’t big enough to grow anything substantial, but we grow enough to integrate some ingredients into our menu. So when there’s lemon balm in a cocktail, that means there’s lemon balm in the garden; when there’s strawberries on the menu, that means there’s at least a strawberry in the garden. We are in no way trying to boast that we grow all of our ingredients – it’s just something that my partner (and farmer) Ian and I care about, and find fascinating and fun. It’s not part of our agenda to push our farm-to-table beliefs on anyone. No one needs to know that we’re trying to be as sustainable as possible – that’s not a narrative that we want to create. We’re just doing what we want to do.
"Olmsted" is named after Frederick Olmsted, the famed landscape designer and architect. Why did you decide to use his namesake?
We decided on the name the day before I got the key to the place. I was trying to come up with something as a nod to my background, and the whole farm aspect of the restaurant. “Olmsted” just popped out of a friend’s head at brunch, and it immediately made sense. It represents both Chicago (he designed the World's Fair) and this neighborhood (he designed Prospect Park, two blocks away from us), along with the idea of gardening and sustainability through all his quotes about conservation and responsibility. It fit with what we were trying to convey. So it wasn’t a name I’d been sitting on. Since I was 17, I’ve been working towards the goal of owning my own restaurant, but the name was never something I dwelled on. If the restaurant ended up being in Chicago, the name, the design, everything would likely be different. To be hung up on a name would’ve been pointless.
How do you describe the cuisine?
We’re committed to being incredibly approachable and affordable. Nothing is more than $24 here and it never will be. We want the restaurant to be totally accommodating and unintimidating. Diners are more experienced now. 5 years ago, diners wanted a 6-hour meal at a fine dining restaurant, and to feel grossly full afterwards. People don’t want that anymore – they want to spend a third of that, to pay no more than $200 for the same level of experience but without being talked down to. A chef in Chicago once told me that whatever you do, make sure your mom would be comfortable eating in your restaurant – that stuck with me. It’s not that I don’t want a fine dining restaurant one day – I still do, but I know I don’t need to have a $200 tasting menu to impress someone. In terms of the cuisine, our food is interesting, but simple – carrots and clams, chocolate and vanilla, yogurt and honey. We're never going to do some pumpernickel cake with olive brine for dessert. Everything is intentionally very familiar, but fun. We have a crab rangoon dish that’s served in a funny takeout container, with cheap throwaway chopsticks. But we also have a beautiful dish of scallops that are tempura-fried with pickled young ginger, served with tableside-grated wasabi and nice chopsticks. It’s the playfulness that I took away while working for Grant at Alinea – you just have to find your niche, and ours is the $24 neighborhood thing. The food is affordable, the wine list is affordable, but everything you eat here is some variation of a technique that I learned at Alinea, Per Se or Stone Barns.
How did you end up sourcing your plateware from Santimetre Studio?
We had a really small budget, so we initially opened using Steelite plates that had a 5-year warranty, and it seemed like the right thing to do. When we did friends and family, we did a tableside service where we ended up pouring gazpacho out of espresso milk steamers left behind by the previous restaurant that was here. We knew we needed to find a vessel nicer than that when we opened. Max – our manager – eventually showed me something he found that I instantly loved, but he was like, “I was afraid you were going to say that. It’s $200.” I knew we weren’t going to buy another one, but very naturally, we ended up building a relationship with the ceramicist who made it. Her original studio was in Turkey, and she'd only been in the U.S. for a few weeks when she came in and she ate the carrot dish. She ended up giving Max a sample stack of orange plates for free and it was a no brainer – we knew we’d do orange on orange and just transfer the carrot dish onto those plates. They were just so beautiful that we worked out an arrangement that works on both ends. It was all fortuitous, and it worked out for the best. Grant recently ate here, and now they’re using her plates at Alinea. We now use the old Steelite plates for our staff meal.
There wasn’t one. I didn’t even have it figured out on the day that we opened. I need a framework to work within. So at the time, it was just about working with what we had at that time – in terms of what we could get in the middle of May. We had carrots, and we knew we could get nice clams, and after writing the rest of the menu, those two ingredients jumped out at me. There was a carrot sauce that I made a variation of at Per Se and another at Stone Barns, and everyone loves the briny taste of clams. So the sauce is just the same amount of carrot juice and clam broth (after opening and reducing the clam juice), and we added butter to it. We didn’t reinvent anything. When we come up with our dishes, it’s about: 1) what do we feel like using; 2) what’s going to taste great; and 3) what’s the best way to plate that? That’s how all the food is worked through. We have ideas of what we want it to be like when you’re eating it, and the flavor profiles that we want to go for, but there’s not always some concrete thought or inspiration behind it. The priority is just making it tasty.
What's your favorite dish on the menu?
The chawanmushi, just because I used to order that all the time at Tori Shin. I really wanted to have my own version on the menu, but dashi is either good or bad, and I’m not a dashi expert. So originally, I took a copout route, where we were pairing summer truffles with lovage, which tastes like celery – truffle and celery is a pretty classic French pairing. Doing that seemed like a natural alternative to making a dashi, but it was never really as satisfying as a traditional chawanmushi. Eventually, we decided to teach ourselves how to do it. So we probably made the dashi 50 different ways before we finally put it on the menu. We’d make it, decide it didn’t taste good enough, and then toss it – over and over again until it was perfect. It’s a simple dish that I really like.
Any words of wisdom to culivate at-home cooks?
It’s hard to cook at home – even for me. It might seem obvious, but it becomes significantly easier to know how to cook spontaneously and on a whim if you just cook more often. Practice makes perfect. Once you get past that hurdle of actually getting your pantry stocked with pasta, rice, canned things and leftovers in your fridge to work with, cooking at home isn’t as daunting. It’s important to have a solid pantry.
What’s been your proudest moment at Olmsted?
When my mentor Grant (from Alinea) came to dine here. I’ve been very fortunate that I have the relationship that I have with him – he’s been incredibly supportive over the years. Even so, I figured he was coming as a favor to show some support and I just assumed that he had plans after dinner. He came in and hugged me – I told him how nervous I was and that I felt like throwing up, but he reassured me and told me how proud he was. As he sat in our garden, I decided I wouldn’t force him to spend three hours here to eat a ton of food and make him miss his plans for that night, like everyone else does. I started sending out plates quickly, but he refused to eat the next plate until he finished the one before it, and was cleared away. Then he came inside to sit at our counter, and I continued to do the same thing – I sent one plate and a couple more, and again, he asked to slow the service down. At that moment, I realized Grant didn’t have any plans but to be there for the night. He ended up staying for 5 hours, and when we shut down he stayed for another hour to chat with the staff. We talked about the plates, we talked about how my dad’s woodwork, the walls, all sorts of stuff. After he left, I went out to the garden to sit by myself – I was shaking, but excited. That was on a Sunday. We were still going through the review process but when we reopened on Tuesday, we were so elated from that experience that I didn’t care about Pete Wells anymore. The most important person to me that could ever eat at this restaurant already did. But then, no joke, at 5:30pm, I turn around, covered in chocolate mousse, and Pete Wells is the first person to walk in the door. Of course that’s how that had to play out.
Kitchen Snapshot – Greg Baxtrom
Go-to homemade meal: I don’t cook at home, except for popcorn.
Culinary quirk: I snack uncontrollably. I don’t really eat meals. I have a problem with snacking, even on our mise en place, and especially with bread.
I can’t live without: my little serrated paring knife. It’s my go-to tool, I keep it on me at all times.
I never use: a sous-vide immersion circulator.