Greg Baxtrom on How Restaurants Can Survive “The Apocalypse”
The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Greg Baxtrom is the chef and owner of Olmsted and Maison Yaki, two award-winning restaurants in Brooklyn. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Greg has turned the former into a food bank for restaurant workers with the help of the LEE Initiative. He also cofounded the New York Hospitality Coalition, which is dedicated to helping hospitality workers navigate the legislation and policy shifts enacted as a result of the virus. At his apartment in Brooklyn — under the close watch of his dog, Spud — Greg made steak and potatoes, and discussed how he’s coping with the state of the restaurant industry.
I was in the Boy Scouts for a very long time, to the point where I'm an Eagle Scout and I’ve even been inducted into a secret society. The whole reason I loved being a Boy Scout was because I got to hang out with my brother and my dad and go camping once a month or for weeks on end during the summer. The Boy Scouts are all about teaching skills, so with these camping trips you’d start out with the parents cooking for you, but eventually they’d start teaching you to heat up beef stew over a fire or something. And then, as you kept getting older and older, eventually you’d have to make the beef stew, not just buy a can of it. That's really where I started to fall in love with cooking.
In high school, I was such a nerd.
In high school, I was such a nerd. Not only did I go to Boy Scout summer camp every year, but I also went to a culinary camp called Kendall College in Chicago. And while I was there, you had to do one three-month internship. I, however, chose to do three. And one of them was at Alinea for the first sixth months they were open. I ended up staying on for an additional three and a half years.
From there, I went to Spain and did an internship at Mugaritz and then a couple of weeks at El Bulli and a few weeks at Arzak. Then I moved to New York to work at Per Se. My plan was to stay at Per Se for a few years, become the sous-chef, and do that thing. But while I was there, Grant Achatz, who is still a very present mentor in my life, was eating at Blue Hill Stone Barns, talking, catching up with Dan Barber, and my name came up. Dan called and offered me the chef de cuisine job. So I left Per Se after a year and a half and went to Stone Barns, where I was the chef de cuisine for two years.
In a lot of fancy restaurants, you just have to take on a brooding, self-loathing persona. If people think you're beating yourself up, they think you're working hard, and I was tired of doing that. I helped some friends open their restaurants; I was Jerry and Jessica Seinfeld’s personal chef for two years. And then when that was done I founded Olmsted.
After 20 attempts of trying to open up a restaurant, finding a partner, finding a space, or finding the money, I asked myself, Okay, so, if you're not going to get millions of dollars to open up your own Alinea, what is it that you want to have? And it was, I like to eat at the bar, so some type of bar in the restaurant. I also wanted there to be an agricultural element, so there had to be a garden. I wanted a small enough dining room where things could still be controlled, but large enough where I could actually employ enough people to achieve the things I wanted to do. And this strip on Vanderbilt Avenue is just so charming and lovely. I feel like Mr. Rogers sometimes when I'm walking around here, waving to the dry cleaner and everything.
I feel like Mr. Rogers sometimes.
Two and a half weeks ago, we were forced to lay everyone off. We contemplated trying to pivot to delivery, but there’s a misconception that if a restaurant shifts to delivery, maybe it's not ideal, but it's still a lifeline to get them through this. And it's just really not the case. Maybe Olmsted would make 10 percent or 20 percent of its revenue, so at best that’s supporting 10 percent or 20 percent of the staff while putting them in harm's way. And it’s really kind of counterintuitive to tell people to try to find work when we're being told to stay home for our safety.
It felt like every 12 hours the whole situation changed. Sunday we layed everyone off. On Monday we started to contemplate delivery, and by Tuesday de Blasio announced the shelter-in-place mandate. So we just said, “Forget it.” By Thursday my partner Max Katzenberg and I had started the New York Hospitality Coalition. We realized that sales tax was due on Friday and were put in this terrible position of paying sales tax or paying our last payroll. That was the catalyst to start the coalition. Fortunately, it did end up getting suspended the next day.
The reality is the Olmsteds of the world are going to come back.
The reality is the Olmsteds of the world are going to come back. They may have to be slightly different, but they'll come back. It's everyone else. It's the Indian restaurant that already wasn't doing that well but getting by, to no fault of their own, that will close. It’s my favorite Thai place down the street that’s not on Eater every other week. I'm worried about those places. So that's where we're focusing a lot of energy — regurgitating, processing all of this information that's coming at us, and trying to disseminate it to everyone else that's going to need it. Now there are coalitions popping up all around the country, and even national ones. And there's 75 of us that get on a call twice a day to do just that: digest the day and hear everyone’s ideas.
The other side is this food bank. The same day we decided to start the coalition, I saw my old friend Eduardo Jordan post a video casually talking about opening up a food bank. So I called him and said, What's the deal? How are you going to pull that off? He connected me to Ed Lee immediately, and within three hours of seeing that post we were opening up a food bank. That's the Boy Scout in me.
That's the Boy Scout in me.
The LEE Initiative has partnered with companies and helped connect them with restaurants around the country to get cash to bring back some staff and to buy food. It's hard to get donations, and it's not because people are not incredibly generous. It's just that no one knows where this is going. We're having to accept that everyday things have to change, and you can't get frustrated over that. But this is filling my time. Max and I are on phone calls nonstop. I am tired at the end of a 12-hour day with my phone in my hand and my computer on my lap.
Right now, restaurants need to deal with paying rent, but also, when it comes time to open again, we're going to need cash. There's no money left in our bank. It was all used to shut down the restaurant and pay our staff. That’s why I feel obligated to do the food bank, because I don't have money to help people.
I don't think this is going to be a two-week food bank.
Today, we're serving just under 200 people a day, but we have the ability to do more. If people keep donating food, that's amazing because we can keep using it. And the more funds that go to the LEE Initiative, on a national level, the more that larger companies will continue to support it. I don't think this is going to be a two-week food bank.
At home, I made a pretty simple steak and potatoes for myself. It doesn't have to be beef tenderloin, but I had some lying around. You just tie it off, and you sear it on all sides, then roast it in an oven with some aromatics like thyme, garlic, and rosemary. I roasted it off until it was medium rare, then let it rest. I usually serve it with a bitter green salad like escarole or frisée. I don't need a ton of red meat, but when I do eat red meat I want it to be a nice piece of steak. And when I have a hankering for steak I want steak and potatoes.
So, at the same time, more or less, I made pommes dauphinoise. You just use a mandoline to slice potatoes nice and thin, and shingle them with some butter in a pan. I shingled it all the way around and then added some chopped garlic to it. And so you just keep shingling until you get the height that you're looking for, and then pour cream all over it — and use your hands. The way you can tell how much cream you use is when you push it down the cream should rise above the potatoes and cover them. And then it's just a whole bunch of Parmesan, salt, and pepper. That takes about a good hour at 350 degrees.
I actually learned how to make dauphinoise potatoes at one of my internships from culinary camp. It was in France, just south of Lyons, and by the time I was done I was really only allowed to make two things: these potatoes and the chocolate mousse that we have on the Olmsted menu. You don't normally put cheese on it. When I first made it at my internship, I went to go get all the ingredients for it and the guy was like, “You fucking American. Put the cheese away." But I do it anyway.