Cold weather sometimes has a way of changing your mind and your heart. It certainly did with Grae Nonas, who was on his way to becoming a great Italian chef and now is poised to become one of America’s great Southern chefs.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he found himself cooking at a one-Michelin-star restaurant in Tuscany. That led to working the pasta station with Anne Burrell at Centro Vinoteca in Manhattan’s West Village. Next he cooked at two Mario Batali New York restaurants, before changing gears to cook American farm fare for a Danny Meyer alum in Westchester County, NY.
“After awhile I really needed a change of scenery,” says Nonas. “I’ve lived my whole life on the East Coast, but a brief vacation in L.A. reminded me of how tired I was of the snow and how much I wanted to do something new.”
Thankfully, Nonas had the cooking chops to get himself in the door of Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s Animal. That led to another gig at the duo’s sister restaurant, Son of a Gun. There, he met chef Michael Fojtasek, a native of Austin who longed to cook Southern cuisine back in his hometown.
They opened Olamaie two years ago and their take on modern Southern cuisine led to a James Beard nomination last year for Best New Restaurant. This year, Nonas is a Beard nominee for Rising Star Chef.
“To me, Southern food is what American food is all about,” says Nonas. “It has an identity that comes from the different cultures that settled there, and each Southern city interprets those influences differently, but the cuisine is unmistakably American and rooted to the land.”
It’s amazing what a little sun and change of scenery can do.
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