For a few years now, Olivia restaurant has attracted those with a taste for classic techniques blended with rustic Texas sensibilities. The first of James Holmes' restaurant endeavors, the sleek South Austin locale was well into a good stride when Holmes conjured up his second, more casual fried chicken concept, Lucy’s Fried Chicken off of South Congress.
While busily splitting his time between the two widely popular locales, Holmes was able to trust the capable management and chef skills of friend Andrew Francisco to keep Olivia’s kitchen firing on all cylinders until Lucy’s could set its own regular pace.
When you talk to Holmes, it seems the harried process of running two completely different restaurant concepts has reached a healthy equilibrium. Lucy’s draws a steady crowd looking for cold brews, a good bucket of chicken and a friendly game of washers in the side yard. Olivia, still enchants the more refined crowd especially during the summer season, when Holmes and Francisco hosted a special dinner series of menus inspired by different themes.
"There were some Olivia regulars who didn’t get the Lucy’s concept, but now there are Lucy’s fans who don’t really prefer Olivia... I’ve just learned to wear my chef’s hat at Olivia and my cowboy hat at Lucy’s. "
Wednesday night not only serves as the final close to this summer dinner series, but the first in which Holmes will take center stage as Olivia’s head chef, bidding farewell to friend and colleague Andrew Francisco who is moving on to open Mettle with Rainey Street maven Bridget Dunlap on the East Side.
The theme for this evening’s dinner: Goat and Thirsty Planet Beer. CultureMap caught up with Holmes to look ahead to Wednesday night's event, and his homecoming to Olivia.
CultureMap: Now that Olivia and Lucy's have had time to grow and stake their claim in the Austin food scene, how do you find the experience of running two different restaurants at one time? Is it like raising two different children? Is it the same? More stressful? Or do you feel like it's more about having a good operating formula down?
James Holmes: The first restaurant is like your first child — literally since both of my restaurants are named after both of my daughters. The first restaurant is the first child, and when you get to the second child, you want to make sure you don’t neglect the first child. All those things people tell you, are true. It was really hard. No doubt about it. As soon as I was spending less time at Olivia, you realize how much you miss it.
Lucy’s was just a totally different type of restaurant with problems from having to remodel an older restaurant. It was tough. It was well received by most people. There were some Olivia regulars who didn’t get the Lucy’s concept, but now there are Lucy’s fans who don’t really prefer Olivia. But that’s OK. I’ve just learned to wear my chef’s hat at Olivia and my cowboy hat at Lucy’s.
CM: Word has spread that you are now taking back the main role of executive chef at Olivia. Although you've always had final say on things at the restaurant, what made you want to step back into this role in the kitchen?
JH: Yeah, Andrew Francisco is going to start Mettle over on the East Side, which will be the first time he’s ever opened a restaurant, so it’s really great. We’re good friends and have had a really good run over the past three years. When I was opening Lucy’s, he was mainly running Olivia and I could trust him to do a good job. But Lucy’s is up and running and I’ve got a good crew over there to run the kitchen and I’m excited to get back in the kitchen and be back at Olivia.
The great thing about having a seasoned and experience chef like Andrew is that you don’t have to worry about food costs or creativity because you’re thinking along the same lines. But I never felt right asking him to run dishes that were more my style. I wanted him to be able to do his thing.
CM: Anything new or different we can expect now that you’ll be back at the helm?
JH: I can bring back some of my old favorites and just do some things that I’ve been wanting to do. I’ll have more influence in the menu and will have time to be creative again and bring back my personal style. As a chef you’re always trying to move forward and progress. I may bring back the lamb’s tongue fricassee, which was always a favorite and maybe some of my favorite mussel dishes. I tend to do a little more “blood and guts” cooking that’s not as refined as what Andrew did.
It’s like a guitar player leading a band, you can tell who the guitar player is when you hear him even though you may not be looking at the band. It’s the same with chefs, you can usually taste their style of cooking.
CM: This summer you’ve hosted a series of interesting summer dinners. Talk about the one for Wednesday night: Goat and Beer. What made you want to craft a dinner like this?
JH: We love Windy Hill Farms and have been using their goat a lot for the past year. I’ve always loved goat meat and it was hard to find goat for a while. And so to have a guy doing it right and you know what they’re being fed and that they’re being treated humanely and it’s just great. I’m looking forward to having a little cabrito on the menu.
This is a little more rustic, hearty type of meal and so we wanted to pair it with beer. I like my wine, but I’m really a beer drinker at heart. Thirsty Planet does a great job and these beers work really well with what we’re serving.
CM: Any dish in particular you’re excited to serve?
JH: Well, we’re going to roast a whole goat to serve, and goat ribs, which will be fun. But I also really like the goat tartar that we’re going to serve. It’s an unadulterated taste of goat meat, which is a little gamey, but really fun.