From Olive Garden to Olamaie — Amanda Turner’s Inspiring Culinary Journey
Inclusivity and diversity through the art of cuisine
By Liz Harroun
Photos by Weston Carls
Amanda Turner began her culinary career when her plans to go to art school fell through due to financial constraints. She had been working as a lead server and trainer at an Olive Garden for three years in Tyler, but knew it was time to move on — even if it wasn’t to study art.
“When I asked to move to culinary, I was shut down by my then-culinary manager,” says Turner. “He said I wasn’t qualified because I was a woman and didn’t speak Spanish,” says Turner.
“That really irked me, so I began researching culinary schools,” Turner continues. “That’s how I wound up at Le Cordon Bleu Austin in 2009.”
One Culinary Student, Three Jobs
In January 2010, Turner began staging (working for free in the kitchen) at Uchi on a weekly basis to learn the ropes.
She also gained invaluable experience by juggling multiple roles. She took on additional shifts at her current job while cooking at the University of Texas’ Jester Hall and the original East Side King at The Liberty.
“I was still in culinary school and balancing three jobs,” she says. “It was a lot! Let’s just say I didn’t sleep much during this era.”
“But I was young and super excited about cooking, so I kept pushing.”
One particular day while staging at Uchi, the woman who usually ran the station wasn’t there. Turner later discovered it had been a test for her.
Turner ran the station by herself for the first time.
“It was maybe one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done but I knew I had been training for this,” she recalls. “I leaned in and just put my head down all night and worked.”
“At the end of the night, the sous chef had the entire kitchen applaud me and I was so happy!”
Soon after, she accepted a job on the opening team of Uchiko.
Finding Her Way Back to East Side King
Opening Uchiko while attending culinary school was extremely difficult. Turner found herself working at the sauté station, typically reserved for the most experienced chefs.
While she enjoyed her time there, she realized it wasn’t the best fit. She returned to East Side King in a full-time role.
“Those were the pirate cooking days,” Turner says. “The shifts were long and hard, and we were busy!”
“South by Southwest at East Side King still remains some of the hardest services of my life,” explains Turner. “But I made so many great friends working in the trailer and I learned a lot about myself.”
At the same time, Phillip Speer, the then-culinary director of the Uchi restaurant group, frequented East Side King with a strong interest in recruiting Turner back to the group.
Needing more stimulation, she eventually said yes.
Climbing the Ranks and Expanding Uchi’s Empire
She returned to the flagship Uchi location to work under Chef Speer in pastry, something she’d been wanting to learn.
After running the production team for a couple of years, she worked her way up to lead line cook.
Turner also assisted in the launch of Uchi Houston, contributed to research and development for St. Phillip and Loro, and created numerous dishes for the menu.
She won a company-wide cooking competition and was a key member of Chef Tyson Cole’s team. The team also won the very first “Rock Your Taco” at the Austin Food & Wine Festival.
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Moving On, Moving Up and Moving Abroad
However, Turner was getting a bit restless. She knew it was time to move again.
This time, she found herself at Odd Duck, where she ran the baking program for two years.
With a decent amount of management experience, she was ready to become a sous chef.
Since Odd Duck didn’t have any openings, she accepted a sous chef position at a new Italian restaurant opening on the east side, Juniper.
At Juniper, Turner worked mostly with Uchi alumni. She was promoted to chef de cuisine.
She won a Ment’or Grant for continuing culinary education, which allowed her to work in Japan for four months in 2018.
“I learned a lot about Japanese culture and technique, but also a ton about true hospitality,” says Turner. “For that experience, I have nothing but gratitude.”
Shortly after she returned to the United States and Juniper, Turner won the 2019 CultureMap Tastemaker Award for Rising Star Chef.
She then became the chef de cuisine at Jester King Brewery, where she reinstated its hearth sourdough program.
The Pandemic Era and a Farm-To-Table Return
During the pandemic, working in the restaurant industry became a whole new game.
Turner accepted a new job the Tatsu-Ya restaurant group right before COVID forced doors to shut. While she was able to work on interesting projects amid the pandemic, she wanted to return to farm-to-table restaurants.
Michael Fojtasek, owner of MaieB Hospitality and a friend of Turner’s, was working on re-opening Olamaie, a restaurant serving thoughtful Southern cuisine.
When his long-time chef relocated during the pandemic, he reached out to Turner to see if she’d be interested in the role.
“It was really a timing thing for me as I was starting to think about what my next steps would be,” Turner says. “I thought it would be a good fit, and it has been.”
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Tradition Meets Contemporary at Olamaie
“I have a lot of freedom at Olamaie,” Turner explains. “Chef Michael is very supportive of me and my vision.”
Turner says leading a renowned restaurant like Olamaie is both challenging and fulfilling.
“There is a high level of expectation that comes alongside managing such a place,” Turner adds. “We are trying our very best to continue to make Olamaie one of the best restaurants in Austin, if not Texas and beyond.”
Olamaie serves up farm-fresh Southern food rooted in tradition — but infused with contemporary culinary concepts. Think beef tartare with pickled beets, spring herbs and flowers. Or Gumbo Z’Herbes with smoked black pearl mushrooms, greens and calico rice.
Inspiring and Influencing the Industry
Turner was named a James Beard semifinalist for Emerging Chef, as well as the Rising Star Chef of the Year for Austin’s Tastemaker Awards in 2022.
She is proud to represent Austin as well as her heritage as a biracial, black-identifying woman. She recognizes the importance of people like her having leadership and visibility, which is why she takes on opportunities that allow her to speak about inequities in the industry.
Olamaie’s kitchen team is almost 50 percent women and femme, and prioritizes overall inclusivity and racial diversity.
“The more people are able to see someone like me succeeding, I think it helps to go a long way to inspire others that are in similar situations,” Turner says.
“We have a long way to go in terms of making kitchens equitable for everyone,” Turner continues. “I want to keep working toward helping that in whatever way I can.”
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