Now celebrating its five year anniversary, Olivia is the creation of executive chef James Holmes whose culinary journey has led him through kitchens in New Mexico, France and New York. In 2008, he opened Olivia to an eager demographic in the South Austin area looking for more elevated dining options on the south side of town.
Among Olivia’s top menu picks are veal sweetbreads with house-made boudin, "surf & swine” with seared scallops and tender pork rillon, both of which make for a filling dinner. But you can’t go wrong with a simple order of crispy fries served with garlicky aioli—perhaps some of the best pomme frites in town.
Olivia is also home to one of Austin’s best brunch menus featuring dense buttermilk biscuits smothered in rich sausage and cream gravy; fluffy buttermilk pancakes; short rib hamburgers; cornbread quiche with roasted jalapeño, white cheddar, charred corn and cilantro cream. (Here's a tip: For a savory treat, don’t miss the “sloppy bo,” a play on the good ol’ sloppy Joe using a special recipe from Olivia’s chef de cuisine Max Petty.)
For Holmes, inspiring and encouraging his colleagues to strike out on their own is something he considers an important part of mentoring young chefs.
“I’ve had a lot of people come through my kitchen who just really ‘got it,’” says Holmes, who now also runs sister restaurant, Lucy's Fried Chicken at two locations. “It’s important to surround yourself with people talented people who have what it takes to get ahead. I’ve been lucky to not only work with chefs who are talented, but who are just great people as well.”
Here are just a few of the immensely talented Austin chefs who once staffed Holmes' kitchen:
Originally hailing from San Angelo, chef Andrew Wiseheart rounded off his culinary education at Le Cordon Bleu in Austin with a bit of culinary-inspired traveling around Europe and California's Napa Valley before settling back in Austin. His first stop? Olivia.
"Before I moved to Austin I had held an executive sous and sous chef position and was looking for a job where I did not over-commit myself,” says Wiseheart. “Olivia was one of three restaurants I wanted to work at and if I didn't get a job, I was going to leave town. James gave me a chance as a line cook, which enabled me to step back and watch how he ran his kitchen. To this day whenever I come across an issue, I refer back to James' management style. He is an inspiring guy and there are still a lot of practices that James did that I respect and now use in my kitchen."
Today, Wiseheart is executive chef and co-owner of East Austin’s Contigo which serves up homestyle food using classic techniques at the cozy ranch-inspired locale. Though the menu changes seasonally, top dishes include the savory oxtail slider, creamy duck fat-infused white bean dip and the roasted Dewberry Hills chicken.
Just about to celebrate its one-year anniversary, this charming little French cafe and grocery in the North Loop area is the first restaurant project from Sarah McIntosh, a former sous chef at Olivia.
"Coming from kitchens in California where everything was so regimented, it was a nice change of pace to be in James' more relaxed kitchen,” says McIntosh. “I could tell he was passionate about what he was doing and cared about his employees. I have found a happy medium between the two in Epicerie's kitchen."
Dishes from Epicerie range in flavors from fried gouda served with whipped honey, sherry-soaked cherries and Marcona almonds to rich and soulful white bean cassoulet with house-made boudin and crispy sage. Don’t miss a plate of piping hot beignets dusted with powdered sugar or selection of cheeses from the wide variety available from back the deli case.
Stretching his wings as the executive chef of his own kitchen at Mettle, the classically-trained Andrew Francisco draws on his many culinary inspirations—from French to Asian and back home again to Texas—for the industrial-chic restaurant at the end of East 6th Street.
Having cooked in other Austin standbys such as Vespaio and Asti, Francisco’s recent foray into running his own kitchen came by way of his last gig as chef de cuisine at Olivia. Today, some of his top dishes at Mettle include the flat iron steak with smoked blue cheese and Szechuan peppercorn sauce and tangy beef tongue tacos served with house-made escabeche and salsa verde.
Holmes has often said that he couldn’t have opened Olivia without the help of longtime Austin service industry veteran Jerry Reid. Reid, whose previous managing stints at the likes of Mezzaluna and Vino Vino gave him not only great front-of-the-house credentials, but also a knack for creating a well appointed wine list. Reid has since joined up with former Alamo Drafthouse executive chef John Bullington to open up A-OK Chinese restaurant on South Lamar this December. (Bullington also shares a connection with Holmes who was a consulting chef at the Alamo Drafthouse menu previous to opening Olivia.)
This casual counter-service restaurant will serve up a sampling of classic Americanized Chinese dishes from hot and sour soup to sesame chicken with qualified by Reid as “really good,” using “quality ingredients,” to make the kind of Chinese food he grew up loving—only better.