Austin Restaurants' Next in Line
Next in Line: Olivia Chef de Cuisine Max Petty works hard, plays hard and busts moves
Editor’s Note: As Austin continues to grow and thrive as a culinary epicenter, we’ve started to see certain big-name chefs grow to demigod celebrity status. But in kitchens, bars and restaurants across the city, there is so much more talent that often goes unrecognized publicly. Next in Line is a monthly column celebrating back-of-the house heroes who might just be the next household name.
Name: Max Petty
Position: Chef de Cuisine
Hometown: I was born in Seattle, Washington, but when I was 12 or so, I moved up to very, very northwest Washington state, to the peninsula where Twilight is filmed — Port Angeles.
When did you first start cooking?
I have a really big family. My mom has 13 brothers and sisters, and they all live in the Seattle area, so all our get-togethers were at my grandma’s house, where pretty much everyone was hands-on. So all of my childhood was about cooking.
What was your first cooking job?
My sister opened a restaurant when I was about 14. That’s when I really, really got into it. She made me train — sauces and stocks and salads — start from the bottom, and then I helped run her kitchen for three or four years. Joy’s Wine Bistro was French Mediterranean-influenced, with a lot of fresh ingredients: fresh seafood from living up in the Pacific Northwest, a lot of local vegetables.
Where else have you cooked?
After that, I lived with another older sister who’s a lawyer in DC. I worked at Cream Cafe and Lounge for the chef Terrell Danley — really great guy. He did a lot of Southern influence, very Creole — it was phenomenal. He started really late in the game — I think he was about 45 or 50 when he was my chef, and he started cooking when he was like 33 or something. It was inspirational; he was a lawyer and quit what he was doing to cook, which was really great to see.
I do what I do to build a connection with people and see them tasting our food and what that does for them.
I got to stage for a few days at a Jose Andres restaurant, Zaytinya. I didn’t really work there, but it was incredible just to go and see what it’s like, some of the big hitters. Jose Andres is a big influence, with his scientific take on rustic dishes and all that. But I hated DC, the city, so I moved to Oregon. Ten days later, I met Jen (now my wife), and it’s been six years since then. I was working, making some stupid senior home meals from 4am to 2pm. I wanted to do fine dining, and I just didn’t know where I was going. Jen inspired me to go to culinary school. So, once I started there, I worked at a pizza place. Pizza was always a big part of my life growing up. My mom is a bread baker, so she’d always have pizza dough made. So I worked at a pizza place in downtown Eugene for a while, then I worked at King Estate right as I was graduating.
Anyone who knows anything about wine: they got best pinot noir, best pinot gris in the country a couple of years ago. The King family is an incredibly family. I started as line cook and ended up moving through all the stations, and then — because I was the most interested and most eager and I’d never shut up about it — they offered me the charcuterie chef. They had a kitchen about a mile down the road just for charcuterie. So I did that for about a year or so, and it was the best year of my life. I could do whatever I wanted with whatever budget I wanted and experiment with every recipe I could find or create: salamis and prosciutto, fresh sausages ...
How did you end up in Austin at Olivia?
My wife got a new job, so we moved to Austin. I was fortunate, because it led me here. I loved my job at King Estate but, other than that, in Eugene, there wasn’t much to offer. It was very small.
I was literally on the phone with James [Holmes] on the way down here, and I started [at Olivia] the first day I lived here. I started here as a pancake brunch cook when I was 22. I worked garde manger for a good six months. I shut my mouth and I worked really hard. I wrote down everything and paid attention to everything, no matter what station it was. I showed my commitment. I was mature for my age; no one thought I was 22, which was good. I moved down the line eventually, started working grill, sauté. Andrew [Francisco] paid attention and saw how hard I worked and made me sous chef, and then James and Andrew left, and James sat down with me and said “I have this weird feeling you could do this.” And I said, “I have this weird feeling no, but I will sure as hell give it a try, and I’ll take it very seriously, and I won’t let you down.”
I make sure, in my kitchen, that everyone has a good attitude and a good vibe, because that vibe goes out with the dish to the table, and it continues all the way home.
Have you ever felt like your age affected your role in the kitchen?
It doesn’t. It did at first. I took the job as chef de cuisine when I was 23, so I was by far the youngest, and it was difficult. Then, after a while, you work hard, and you’re passionate about it, and it’s just a number. We’re all learning, and I still continue to learn all the time. They call me "Chef," but I encourage them to call me Max because I’m still learning, no matter what age I am. We’re all in the same boat. Yes, I kind of drive the boat, but it’s just a number; I’m very fortunate to have what I do, and I’m going to keep giving it my all. And I do get flak about it sometimes, but I’ve worked very hard, and this is the opportunity I was given, and I’m gonna take it! I just turned 25. Sometimes I’m afraid people don’t take me as seriously as I want them to, but really that’s on them, and I can’t control that.
What chefs were your biggest inspiration?
My sister is definitely a big one, because she started me off understanding what things are and why things happen and how things grow and getting to understand the science behind it before I was actually hands on, which made it incredibly easier. I feel like I’ve grown a lot differently than a lot of other chefs do because I looked at it that way. So her and my mom, just learning from them and growing up with them — but as far as chef-chefs, at King Estate, he was sous chef at the time and he’s the executive chef now — Ben Nadolny — he was great. I’m very big on attitude in the kitchen; he was a musician, and he brought that into the kitchen. He was very inspirational as far as how hard he worked and the attitude he had and what he could do with fresh foods. He was probably my biggest influence, and he could see what I wanted to do and let me do the charcuterie, let me have that opportunity.
Once or twice in the day, you’ll catch someone [in the kitchen] just crushin’ it with some dance moves. Bill Crites, one of my sous chefs, has a video of me dancing to Hanson on his Instagram.
What are your favorite and least favorite things about working in a kitchen?
I think it ties into one. I do what I do to build a connection with people and see them tasting our food and what that does for them. I go out with my wife to see and experience how it feels as people going out to eat. I make sure, in my kitchen, that everyone has a good attitude and a good vibe, because that vibe goes out with the dish to the table, and it continues all the way home — which, in some cases, is my home, if I’m the one eating out.
So I like that we can create, not even just flavorwise and all that, but building that connection, creating a happy environment. To be able to pass that on is incredible to me. It’s just like music: people listen to music to feel something, to relate. It’s the same way to me. It’s harder to see, but, if you do it right, it’s the same. That’s my favorite, and working with the cooks, building that connection there. Some of my best friends are the cooks I work with. I get to learn about them and see how they work under pressure. You really get to know the real them; I know every part of their lives. At the same time, the cooks in this industry can be temperamental and intense and all that, so passion goes both ways. It’s good to see both. It keeps you energized and loving what you do.
What’s your favorite music to listen to in the kitchen?
I don’t know if I want to answer that! I think we have a pretty rare kitchen, from what I’ve heard. Whoever gets there first gets to control the music, that’s kinda the rule, and it’s going pretty much all day. If I’m in a bad mood, which is rare but does happen if people aren’t doing what they need to be doing, then we’ll turn the music off and focus. But I really like to build that connection with music. My line cook’s dancing right now.
Usually, it’s a little poppy — well, a lot of pop music. I lot of Ke$ha, and it’s been stuck on Justin Timberlake for a good three weeks now. But I’m a huge fan of that stupid stuff. Taylor Swift — I just went to her concert. Just stuff that gets us revved up and in a good mood. No downer music, no things where we can’t understand the lyrics.
Does anyone break out in dance?
Oh yeah, definitely! There’s a couple videos of me out there. Bill Crites, one of my sous chefs, has a video of me dancing to Hanson on his Instagram. But usually once or twice in the day, you’ll catch someone just crushin’ it with some dance moves.
I spend lot of time reading a stupid amount of cookbooks. Sometimes I’ll just sit at the library and read them.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I have a lot of animals: two dogs and three cats. The two dogs I take to the park whenever I can. On Sundays, my wife and I are very committed to keeping our house that’s way too big for two people clean. I used to be a big tennis player. I play tennis with Finney [Walter, former pastry chef at Mettle]. Me and the guys play laser tag sometimes. Every third Monday, we’re all texting around noon, and we gather about eight people and go play laser tag. I swear, it’s incredible exercise! So it’s just a bunch of us huge dudes and a bunch of kids. A lot of reading a stupid amount of cookbooks. Sometimes I’ll just sit at the library and read them. I love movies; I’ll go to movies by myself all the time.
Favorite dish on the ever-changing menu at Olivia right now?
I’d say the crispy pig head is my favorite. There’s a little bit of soup made with Comice pears, butter and white wine and a new beer we got from Oregon — the Deschutes porter — then we threw some creme fraiche into it at the end. And then we cook a pig head, and we lay it all out, cut it up and then dredge it and fry it into this perfect little rectangle of crispy pig head. And that sits on top of the soup, so you get the porkiness and the fresh pear and butter. And it’s got some red cabbage kimchi from a local company, which I get at Boggy Creek every week, and pea tendrils from our garden.
Favorite food to eat when not working?
If it’s at home — oof, not much. On the weekend, my wife and I will put on Scandal, our favorite TV show, and eat trail mix for dinner. It’s awful! But we’re just too tired. Sometimes we make something, but not normally. I try to eat out as much as I can. I don’t have a lot of opportunity to because, like I said, I’m normally pretty tired. I love Contigo — very homey. I will sometimes sneak away by myself to go to Elizabeth Street Cafe just to get the baguette and butter and seasonal jam. It’s one of my favorite things. I don’t tell a lot of people, but I’m okay with telling people. The bread’s incredible. Lenoir was one of the best dinners I’ve had. It didn’t break any barriers as far as food, but that’s not the point. It broke barriers as far as the way it made me feel. I felt so comfortable and so welcome, like I was hanging out with my family and they were cooking some mean grub. It was one of the best days I’ve had in a while.