Chef Greg Baxtrom does things a little differently at his Olmsted restaurant in Brooklyn, New York. The first thing you notice when you enter the place is the huge living-wall stretching the length of the narrow dining room, “we’re going to replace that with edibles soon,” he says. As your eyes scan the drooping green plants, they reach the back of the restaurant and the spacious garden, complete with wooden benches, planting beds, s’more roasting decks, a bathtub full of crustaceans and a newly built home for the restaurant’s quails, “we were worried they would get cold.” Can this really be New York?
Olmsted has quickly, very quickly in fact, become a standout restaurant in one of the world’s most competitive dining cities. The dedication to sourcing ingredients, the ultra-sharp technique and execution displayed in the tiny kitchen – coupled with a hard line approach to keeping prices down, the most expensive item on the menu is $24 – creates a welcoming neighbourhood atmosphere backed up by fine dining food.
The garden, the location, pricing, relationship between produce and plate, staffing and serving systems; everything at Olmsted is a little different to what you might expect from a small and relatively new restaurant in NYC (they’ve been open for about eight months now).
Baxtrom’s approach to food and sourcing is the same as any great restaurant, though it’s done in a tiny kitchen with a third of the normal manpower (manpower that’s afforded two consecutive days holiday a week and a $50,000 starting salary – something almost unheard of in the industry a few years back). The cooking marries intense flavours with deep technique, yet it’s all packaged in what, from first impressions, seems like a regular casual restaurant. It’s for all these reasons that Baxtrom is the recipient of many accolades, great reviews and most recently the S.Pellegrino Game Changer award, presented during the annual StarChefs Rising Stars gala in New York. “It was very unexpected," he says, "but it’s really nice to be noticed that way. We are not trying to take the normal path, we’re trying to do things differently.”
The Scout and The Stock Pot
Baxtrom, like many young boys growing up in the Midwest of America, was in the Scouts – but he wasn’t a regular Boy Scout. He stayed for 15 years, clocked up over 100 badges and ended up with the title of Eagle Scout, “it’s the highest rank you can get,” he says. “I was in it from second grade to high school, my mum and dad really didn’t let me quit at anything.” You could say the discipline, order and hierarchy of an organisation like the Scouts was an early taste of the militant approach to the kitchens he would eventually step into in later life, but it was the competitive campfire-cooking on wild trips with his family that really gave the young eagle master a thirst for the kitchen.
“We would go camping with my brother and my father every month, in the summer we would go for a month on end to these forrest reserves. Eventually the adults stop cooking for you and you have to start cooking for yourself, you didn’t want to be the guy that made the shittiest food. Making beef stew or scrambled eggs in the morning, it was fun doing this on little stoves over the fire but then trying to do it better than everyone else - trying to find a way to steam a cake over a double boiler in the middle of the woods... I obviously got my Cooking Merit badge,” he laughs.
After testing his desire further with a week at culinary camp, a headstrong teenage Baxtrom knew what he wanted and after leaving high school immediately started a culinary education. After a stint training in a restaurant just outside Lyon, France, and some work back in his hometown of Chicago, it was 2005 when he got his early break – an internship with Grant Achatz who was about to open what is now the world famous Alinea restaurant.
“About five days into being there the guy who I was the commis for quit and Grant came over and said: ‘Either I’m going to hire someone or you’re going to step up and take his job’. I got lucky.” It was a tough education that kept a young Baxtrom on his toes, “for all the stations at Alinea there is a cook and a sous-chef. You cook and pass it to the sous-chef and the sous plates it. Most of my time there Grant was the person I passed food to, I couldn’t get away with anything.”
After working at Alinea for three-and-a-half years, Achatz, now his mentor, arranged him a week at elBulli, some time with Arzak and five months at Mugaritz – three of Spain’s most important restaurants. “Because I came from Alinea they put me on the line in the kitchen and I’m literally there with an electrical translator and my little dictionary on the cutting board trying to work out what I’m being asked to do.”
He then returned to the States and clocked in experience at Per Se under Thomas Keller, eventually taking a job working as a chef for Dan Barber at Blue Hill Stone Barns. It’s this mix of study that now allows Baxtrom to play so freely, channelling the sharpness of a Keller operation, the deep technique of Achatz and the produce-driven farm directive of Barber into what has become the basis for Olmsted. However, he admits that even with all that experience, his own cooking style before opening the restaurant still needed to develop.
“The thing is, working with these great restaurants you’re totally involved and you’re not coming up with your own food. I could make a dish that I knew would work on the menu at Alinea, Per Se, or Blue Hill, but I wasn’t creating my own stuff yet.”
Looking for the chance to develop his own style, Baxtrom took an interesting turn. “I ended up taking a job working as the personal chef for Jerry and Jessica Seinfeld for two years. They were super nice, I would go to the market … usually cooking them just dinner, but whatever else they wanted. Sometimes I would travel with them, they ate super healthy and they are a really nice family... This allowed me to network during the day, to meet people, and it allowed me to think in my downtime about what mattered to me and how I was going to cook.”
The Four Million Dollar Dream
Olmsted was eventually born thanks to a unique collaboration between Baxtrom and farmer Ian Rothman. “He’s one of my closest friends, he’s a partner and he manages all the green things that live and grow in the restaurant. He’s sort of New York’s go-to-guy if you want green stuff, he used to have a farm, and that knowledge is invaluable. The original idea, the four million dollar idea, was to have this farm restaurant, but we just didn’t have the space, or the four million dollars. We’ve got it down to where we can create one dish on the menu now from our garden: a soup or the radish top gazpacho.”
The 'four million dollar idea' is something Baxtrom talks about a lot: the original, perhaps dreamy plan for his first restaurant, complete with working farm and more traditional fine dining approach. And it most certainly boasted a kitchen at least three times the size of the one he now operates in. Practicalities and realities quickly quashed this grand project, but the sensibilities remain, and this is why people who dine at what seems an unassuming spot in one of Brooklyn’s less hip areas, a world away from the shiny silver of the city, are so surprised by what they find.
“The whole thing has been about: how do we still have the same integrity? The same ambition? I don’t cook different now I’m not in Per Se’s kitchen,” says Baxtrom. Costs are saved on labour by employing less chefs who work harder in return for the highly coveted two days holiday a week. Rent is cut by being away from Manhattan and other savings, Baxtrom says, are made by choice. “I do the work and I choose not to charge for it, many of our dishes are worth more, but we decided we want to be accessible, I don’t want to be intimidating. I don’t want to be another fine dining guy opening his cool concept. I want neighbours to come here.”
And he’s true to his word. Olmsted’s guinea hen cooked two ways – the breast served with a ramp mousse centre and a confit of legs served with morel mushrooms and a ramp hollandaise, two dishes of deep technique and lots of prep – costs just $24.
These restrictions, the DIY vibe of how the place is evolving (they’ve just secured a new plot next door allowing them to double the size of the garden), the razor sharp cuisine wrapped in an informal setting – it's all a big part of Olmsted’s attraction. Imagine for a second that Alinea and Blue Hill had a baby, then – wanting to raise that baby correctly, to teach it responsibility, all about the world and how it actually operates – they restricted its allowance and told it to open a restaurant. Olmsted is what you get.
Dishes of carrot crepe with littleneck clams and sunflower seeds is a triumph of technique that sees a velvety crepe on top of a rich sauce produced by reducing carrot and clam juice, and thickening the remaining pulp with butter and cream. This is offset with the briny pop of clams, and a sharp salad on top - the food critic Pete Wells called it a “strange and fascinating” dish before saying he needed to taste it again.
There’s also crispy fried crab and kale rangoon served in Chinese takeout boxes with a soy sauce that contains something like “a thousand different ingredients.” It’s dish after dish, perfectly executed inside a kitchen that would be classed as a mere station in most restaurants, especially those cooking such ambitious food.
Those early years crouched over the heat of a gas burner seem to have been the perfect practice for Baxtrom who once again finds himself trying to impress from a confined space on a very small stove. In fact, it seems many of those early campfire memories help to make up part of the Olmsted experience. Guests, once seated, are asked if they would like to start or finish their meal outside in the garden, the latter equals melting s’mores over a hot plate while resting on a beautiful bench crafted by Baxtrom’s dad. All while the restaurant’s compost slowly rots away, becoming food for the crawfish that float peacefully in the bathtub in the opposite corner of the garden. It doesn’t come much more full circle than that, especially not within the red blocks of Brooklyn, New York.