The award-winning chef is back in Austin and creating a new identity with his first solo venture, Carpenters Hall
by Laurel Miller
Photographs by Alex Lau
Grae Nonas is one of those rare and magical things: a chef’s chef. Cerebral, talented, hardworking and more focused on taking care of his crew than pursuing fame, the 33-year-old husband and father of two is certainly wise beyond his years.
Nonas made headlines in mid-2016, when he announced he was leaving Olamaie — the award-winning Southern restaurant he opened with co-chef/native Texan Michael Fojtasek — to helm a project in Minneapolis. When news broke last fall that Nonas was returning to his adopted hometown (he grew up in Long Branch, New Jersey) to become executive chef at The Carpenter Hotel’s signature restaurant, Carpenters Hall, I know I wasn’t alone in my anticipation. Olamaie is still one of my favorite restaurants, but I was eager to see what Nonas would do on his own.
The hotel is part of Austin-based hospitality group The Mighty Union, which specializes in meticulous renovations of historic properties. It opened in November in the former Carpenters Local 1266 Union Hall, amid a grove of pecan trees off South Lamar. The main building — which includes the restaurant, reception area and Hot L Coffee — was built in 1948 and has already become exactly what was intended, per the website’s tagline: “A neighborhood spot that just happens to be in a hotel.” With a steamy beverage and a freshly made kolache or a decadent, gooey chocolate chip cookie (Nonas’ recipe) in hand, just try and resist sinking into one of the vintage leather sofas in the adjacent cozy lounge.
Carpenters Hall is all about Texas-inflected, accessible and often retro-inspired food, and three months in, it’s already the “bustling community place” Nonas hoped for. The kitchen is open from 7 a.m. to 12 a.m., serving three meals as well as abbreviated midday and late-night menus dictated by the seasons and Central Texas climate. Says Nonas, “We pretty much buy the product we need for the day and source as locally as we can.” That respect for ingredients is also evident in the house-made bread, pastry, pasta, charcuterie, preserves and pickles.
Unlike many restaurant projects overseen by lauded chefs, Carpenters Hall isn’t obfuscated by Nonas’ accolades (2016 James Beard nominee for Rising Star Chef of the Year, 2015 Food & Wine Best New Chef along with Fojtasek). “For the first time in my career, the guests have the experience of the space being more about them, less about me,” he says. “I want them to feel that this is their place.”
The frequently updated menu offers glimpses of Nonas’ trajectory from North Jersey childhood and line cook at some of the most prestigious kitchens in Manhattan and Los Angeles to authority on Southern cuisine. Depending on the day, there might be a grilled pimento-cheese sandwich with bread-and-butter pickles or a delicate tortellini en brodo plump with house-made ricotta (the namesake broth as rich, flavorful and restorative as any nonna’s should be). There are healthy-yet-hearty salads and an already-legendary chicken schnitzel with black garlic chimichurri.
“The Italian notes on the menu come from my growing up in North Jersey…” he trails off and nods toward the ceiling, indicating an old country-western song emanating from hidden speakers. “Like the fact that this is playing right now, it oddly fits. It reminds me of a 1970s Goodfellas restaurant thing, when that type of music was big.”
The youngest son of divorced parents, Nonas found salvation and a surrogate family in restaurant kitchens at an early age. “My mom had a garden and cooked a lot, and I got my first kitchen job at 12. I started as a dishwasher and worked up to prep work. I didn’t grow up with my parents together, so we were always traveling to see one or the other,” he says. “The thing about professional kitchens is the camaraderie and sense of family — someone always took care of me, fed me, made sure I had a way to get home after work. It also made me realize kitchens are a team effort. If I work hard, my work becomes my family.”
After high school, Nonas was playing bass and singing in a band and cooking “to pay the bills.” When the band split up, he decided to pursue culinary arts and considers Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Santa Monica’s Animal and Son of a Gun formative in his career. “They were the first people to teach me to believe in myself as a chef and as a person. That was tremendously empowering, learning to trust my instincts.”
Nonas worked with Fojtasek at Son of a Gun in Los Angeles, and in 2014 they moved to Austin to open Olamaie. “I think as a person, Olamaie was my freshman year,” he says. “This is my sophomore year, me getting closer to being myself. Olamaie was and is very much about Michael and where he comes from. I’m still trying to find myself as a chef, but what I know about myself as a person is that I care about people. Despite all of the hours I work, to get immediate feedback from diners means something. I work as hard as I do for my team, to further their careers, just as the chefs I came up under did for me.”
The other thing Nonas knows about himself is that his actual family is the other thing in his life that motivates and fulfills him. Of his wife, Chiai Matsumoto, who formerly did marketing for Ramen Tatsu-ya, he says, “She’s the wonderful person who takes care of us” [referencing daughter Aja, three and a half, and son Aki, nine months]. “We moved back to Austin because my wife’s family is here and our friends are here — it felt right.”
When I comment on how much he’s accomplished thus far and ask if he considers himself a perfectionist, Nonas takes a moment to contemplate his response. “I worked extremely hard and long to get this far at 33. I’m not even sure I’ll ever feel like I’ve gotten there. I just push to be the best I can be. I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist — I’m just confused. But I’m enjoying the ride of life.”