Le Cowboy Shows Off Chef Grae Nonas’ True Grit
Nonas didn’t plan to open a restaurant during a pandemic. Austin is so lucky he did
By Laurel Miller
Photographs by Holly Cowart
Nonas is best known as one-half of the award-winning duo behind Olamaie (he was a 2016 James Beard Foundation nominee for Rising Star Chef of the Year, and he and co-owner Michael Fojtasek were Food & Wine Best New Chefs in 2015). In 2016, Nonas left Olamaie to helm Tullibee, a Nordic-influenced restaurant in Minneapolis.
Losing a chef of Nona’s talent was a blow to Austin’s restaurant community. But two years later, he was back as executive chef of Carpenter’s Hall, a position he held until early this year. Nonas was getting ready to sign the lease on a space in Brooklyn for his first solo restaurant when COVID-19 hit. He found himself still in Austin at a time when most of the nation’s restaurants were shuttered, with no job and two young children to support. “I was beyond bankrupt and two months behind on rent, but I was also going nuts not working,” he says.
Salvation came in the form of a temporary lease at the former Eastside Café, a 519-square-foot house on Manor Road. It’s now owned by Nonas’s friend, Suerte owner Sam Hellman-Mass. The property and house are slated for renovation in early 2021 for Hellman-Mass’ new restaurant Este, but in the interim, he offered it to Nonas to do as he wished.
Six weeks later, on August 10, Le Cowboy opened without fanfare: a cozy, 12-seat BYO restaurant that began as a weeknight takeout operation by necessity; Nonas reserves weekends for “family time.”
In late October, Le Cowboy began taking reservations for the 15-seat patio (its undetermined when indoor dining will commence), an intimate but socially distanced space shaded by a pecan tree and festooned with fairy lights. Inside, the vibe echoes the kind of unpretentious neighborhood red sauce joints indigenous to North Jersey, where Nonas grew up. The minimalist décor is comprised of personal items, including a JFK bust belonging to his grandfather (“Not the kind of thing you usually see in Texas,” he says) and a vintage record console. The kitchen is part of the open-plan interior.
Le Cowboy is a two-man show with Nonas’s friend Drew Ahumada running the front of the house. “He’s been an integral part of Le Cowboy,” says Nona. “I wash all of the linens and do 95 percent of the prep while he sets up the patio and works a full day taking care of other things. At the end of the night, we wash all the dishes by hand.” Nonas is clearly exhausted, but also exhilarated – the gratification that comes from putting your all into something deeply personal. “Since childhood, I’ve dreamed of unlocking the door to my own restaurant,” he says
The food? It’s delicious, of course. Every dish is earthy and honest, each ingredient – be it guanciale or fennel pollen – serves an explicit purpose. “There’s nothing to hide behind here,” says Nonas, waving at the modest interior. It may be his metaphorical soul on each plate, but he’s clear about what he’s offering. “I’m not trying to sell you a ‘Chef’s Table’ episode,” he says. “I’m just trying to sell you a plate of pasta.”
Should you drop by Le Cowboy before service, you’ll hear old-school punk blasting from the console. Nonas, wearing a mask (he and Ahumada get tested and check their temperature regularly), will most likely be making pasta or bread, because everything – literally, everything – is made from scratch, from the cloudlike stracciatella, a fresh cheese served with Sicilian black olives, orange and thyme, to the intense, bittersweet chocolate mousse crowned with whipped cream and a drizzle of fruity olive oil. The pappardelle with sausage ragu is the essence of fall, a chicory salad with walnuts and aged Provolone is understated, yet satisfying. Monday is reserved for takeout, and also “chicken parm” night.
Restaurateur/sommelier Steven Dilley of Bufalina and Bufalina Due is one of Le Cowboy’s biggest fans. “Having Grae open his restaurant in the midst of a weird, anxious year has been one of the best things to happen to Austin’s dining scene,” he says. “It’s become so expensive here, it’s really difficult for small, talented, independent restaurants to exist as well as remain true to their vision. What’s special about Le Cowboy is that it feels like a real distillation of Grae. He’s working within the limits of a small space and doing so without compromising the food.”
The menu is a nostalgic nod to the food Nonas grew up eating in Long Branch, New Jersey, and later, as a musician and line cook in New York. His restaurant’s name came to him one day while driving. “Le Cowboy is, in all senses, me,” he wrote on Instagram on its opening. “An outsider trying to find himself in cowboy country.”
Nonas has always felt like a misfit in Austin, but his childhood left him similarly adrift. The son of divorced parents, he found a surrogate family working in restaurants. It shaped both his values and his career, instilling in him an iron-clad work ethic and a resolve to pay everyone in his employ fairly.
It’s clear in talking to Nonas, who simultaneously exudes passion, vexation and vulnerability, that while cooking is his life, he’s in equal measure frustrated by aspects of his industry and certain limitations he’s experienced in Austin. “I put everything I have into my work, but when it goes sour, I drop the mic hard,” he admits. “I’m still learning and growing, and I care what Austin thinks about me. I don’t take being a chef for granted, either – it’s a privilege to do what I do. But I really just wanted to create the kind of restaurant I want to eat at.”
Even as Le Cowboy is the embodiment of much of what Nonas holds dear, it’s also the antithesis of what he loathes about the restaurant industry: the fetishization of chefs, high-volume, brash eateries, fussy food, fast-casual culture. Of the latter, it’s not that he rejects a good burger; rather, it’s the infrastructure that rarely takes employees’ welfare into account. “You shouldn’t have to operate a fine dining restaurant to pay people what they’re worth,” he says.
Until he can hire his own staff, Nonas is making do. “When I opened, I had to ask myself if I could do takeout and be happy with it,” he says. “There’s the same, if not more, thought that goes into the menu than fine dining, from prep to packaging, because it has to travel and receive well. Everything I do is mathematical and thought out: most of the pastas are eggless, so they hold up better. Sauces aren’t mounted with butter because by the time they’re served, the fat will be congealed.”
Le Cowboy – much like Nonas – is a work in progress. Now that it’s primarily dine-in, he can offer some dishes that “don’t travel well.” He’s not sure what’s next, since Le Cowboy is ultimately a concept born of the pandemic. “If it’s a failure, it’s okay,” he says. “If I had staff, it would be a huge risk, but it’s just me. If you don’t at least try, you’ll never know what could have been.”
Le Cowboy is open for dinner on the patio Tuesday through Friday. Mondays are takeout only, and the chicken parm is to die for.