In fall 2021, we catch Greg Baxtrom as he’s developing his next concept. The chef-owner of Olmsted and Maison Yaki in Brooklyn made a name for himself at some of the world’s most renowned restaurants and reflects on how those experiences have shaped his style of cooking.
How would you describe your influences?
My career is predominantly Alinea and Stone Barns, and my background is pretty hyper fine dining. I worked at Alinea for four years, spent about a year and a half at Per Se, and did trailing at El Bulli, Arzak and Mugaritz in Spain. I worked in Norway for a while, France for a while, Hong Kong, and I helped open up Atera. The places that I worked are in the top 10 of the World’s 50 Best list. When I started looking for my own thing, I personal cheffed for a while and then I got my chance.
The best compliment I ever got from a guest was that Olmsted was like Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Alinea had a casual baby. There are some dishes that really sum that up like crab rangoon, carrot crepes or some of the snacks we do, and the rutabaga pasta falls into that category. It’s playful, it just seems like buttery pasta, but it’s a vegetable that nobody ever really eats, orders or cooks with so it kind of checks a lot of the boxes for me.
The dish: Rutabaga Tagliatelle with Black Truffle and Brown Butter Bits
Rutabaga pasta is appropriate for the time of the year and it’s the most popular thing we do.
We have this really neat Japanese sheeter and basically, you peel the rutabaga and you sheet it. It’s sort of like a mandoline, but you put a rod through the ingredient (it works great with potatoes, too), and when you crank it, it sheets out big, long lasagna-like sheets. We take those sheets and cut them up, in this case, into strips of tagliatelle pasta and then we blanch it off until it’s just under cooked, basically al dente.
Then we pick it up in a truffle butter sauce and finish it with Parmesan cheese. The butter sauce is part beurre blanc but not exactly, it’s not as wine-like as beurre blanc. We flat out a whole bunch of mirepoix, pour wine over it, reduce it, pour water over it to kill some of that wine-y-ness and then we add cream, reduce again, strain out the vegetables, and melt with butter and truffle.
This is one of those nail it on the first time dishes. The sauce is more Blue Hill than anything. It’s kind of like how Michael Anthony and Dan Barber like to pick up pastas, like a ravioli sauce — a flavorful, mild butter sauce. It’s not too sharp, it’s almost sweet but not overpowering. It’s not like another ingredient, it’s a vessel for the truffles.
There’s another recipe called brown butter crumble that’s only two ingredients: whole butter and milk solids, evaporated milk powder. Once you melt the butter, you add milk powder to it so when it becomes brown butter, you get more little brown bits. When you brown butter in a pan you get a couple little specks. By adding the milk powder to it, you get cups and cups full of it. We take that and sprinkle it over the rutabaga pasta for a little nuttiness, a little crunch factor.
The Japanese sheeter was on the meat station at Alinea when I worked there as a 19-year-old kid. Everything there resonated with me. Everything about Alinea is very much so still how I think.
Where do you source the rutabaga?
I go to the Union Square Greenmarket on Monday, Wednesday or Friday and then the Grand Army one’s only two blocks away from Olmsted on the weekends. Most of it comes from Norwich Meadows Farm, the biggest organic farm at Union Square. If rutabaga had an emoji, they grow that perfect rutabaga. They’re big and beautiful, and you can buy them with the tops still on. It is gorgeous and it’s bright purple, but the real takeaway is they’re not stored, they’re taken out of the ground and I buy them. They’re not put into a cellar. We go through a ridiculous amount. We go through 10, 40-pound cases a week from late October to mid-January.
How has it affected your creative process to work on four different concepts?
You have to start to trust in other people to rise to the occasion. All of it’s collective. I’m very fortunate that I have a wine director and a culinary director who are helping me open up a new one and maintain the ones I have. Sherry Cardoso’s a beast of a chef: She has four years at Per Se, a couple years at Brooklyn Fare, and a balance of Cafe Cluny and much more casual spots with very craveable food so she’s been instrumental in a lot of this stuff.
If I didn’t have Sherry I wouldn’t be doing this. I would let this new restaurant open later, let contractors take their time longer, and it would cost me more money because I did that and it would open with more debt and have less of a chance at being successful. But because I am kind of handy and I have Sherry, I’m using everything within my wheelhouse to have my cake and eat it, too.
It doesn’t bother me to not be recipe developing because I know that it’s temporary that Sherry’s putting on new specials and doing new stuff. I’m still going to the farmers market to get the ingredients that she and the cooks are going to play around with. It still checks all the boxes. The guests are happy, and the cooks are happier now because they’re seeing new dishes so it’s nice that it’s not just coming from me these days.
How would the team describe your approach?
I’m very tactile, even though I can totally make my life easier and just preorder everything from the farmers market, I don’t know how to do that. I go, I see something pretty, I bring it back, it hangs out at the restaurant for a couple days and I go through a couple of channels:
- Do I need to prove to myself and to people again that I can be very rigid and have a fine dining executed sauce like… Everybody on the planet has a white sauce that’s broken with green oil, do I have to do that too and channel that ego?
- The menu’s getting too serious, I think it needs to be playful, how do we introduce something kind of wacky, channeling my four years at Alinea…
- Other times it’s very Stone Barns like here is this great ingredient, everybody does this with it, what are we going to do with it? Or nobody ever uses this one, but it’s not because it’s weird and bitter, it’s great. It’s a rutabaga, it’s just intimidating so how do we use it?
How would you describe your style?
There’s a crab rangoon that we have on the menu. Why we have that crab rangoon is because there’s a woman named Ingrid who used to only sell to Dan Barber and Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz, and I hit it off with her so she sold to me. She used to come to Olmsted and I hadn’t used her crab yet on the menu and I started to feel bad about it. I went to the cooks about a year after opening and said, we haven’t used crab yet, what the heck are we going to do? One of my old sous chefs suggested crab rangoon and I said, honestly I’ve never even had it, but my sister used to love it.
So I was like, okay let’s do it, but let’s make ricotta cheese and hang it instead of using cream cheese, and we were growing kale in the garden at the time so we add sauteed kale so it’s not just cheese and fish, and I use the foundation of a sauce from Per Se and I added like 20 ingredients to it.
So all this work goes into it: It’s Ingrid, who was in the original French Laundry cookbook, and we grow the kale ourselves in the back and we make cheese and hang it, but we just fry them and throw them in a to-go box and then we serve the sweet and sour sauce in a fancy ramekin. I don’t need anyone to know that that’s all going in there. I want you to taste it and know that it’s delicious, but the story is there in every little thing, from where I get the plates to my dad building all my restaurants.
There’s a narrative in every little thing but I don’t need you to know — not you better know that I get Norwich Farms rutabaga because it’s $5 a pound and it’s ridiculously expensive, and you have to appreciate it for it to click in your head why it’s good. None of that, it should just be nice. It’s just a nice restaurant.
How do you train new staff, especially with the recent shortage?
You've got to go slower, it’s all in waves now. There were moments when I wasn’t feeling the turnover and I was fully staffed and then eight weeks later I lost 20% of my kitchen staff because we started to increase the covers and it was more difficult. It’s been trying to balance the new talent that’s applying for these jobs with the expectations of the business and going a little slower than one might’ve pre-pandemic.
How do you scale when those covers increase?
The way to really think of it is we need to do those covers. The individuals feel like it’s scaling up and that we may need more resources or more humans, but it’s just not the case. A restaurant makes a finite amount of money and has a finite amount of resources. For example, I chose to cap the books to make sure that while we go through this crisis that the food is somewhat in the universe of what it was pre-covid, but if I were to choose to do that forever, I would choose to close in 12 months.
Now the teams at both restaurants are very strong, very positive, and they know they want to be cooks so we can dial it back up and make it a sustainable business.
I own two restaurants and counting now and I still work seven days a week and I’m going to clean the bathrooms of my new restaurant today. It doesn’t end. It doesn’t change. It doesn’t become more romantic. It already was romantic. I talked to some of my chef friends from my Alinea days about how we used to stay up until 4 a.m., not drinking but talking about chefs and how excited we were when we saw a chef plate a new dish. I don’t think that’s because we were so dumb and naive or so conditioned to working in abusive restaurants. I was never screamed at, I just put my head down and worked and I knew that this was what I wanted to do. It didn’t occur to me to not be committed to something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
The whole thing is what is exciting. The challenges don’t go away — it’s endlessly challenging. I have to learn how to mount a blow dryer in my new bathroom. I have no idea how to do that, and I’m excited for people to come to the restaurant and use the bathroom. That’s all I care about, the guests being happy.
You can find out more about Chef Greg Baxtrom here:
- Greg on Instagram
- Olmsted and Maison Yaki on Instagram
- Work with Chef Greg at Olmsted
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