In The Loop With: Michael Fojtasek
In The Loop With: Michael Fojtasek, a loyal friend of The Loop, renowned Executive Chef and owner of Olamaie and Lil Ola’s Biscuits, a runner, father, husband, and ‘Son of Southern Cuisine’. He credits his mother and grandmother, Olamaie (a matriarchal name in his family spanning 5 generations) for his love of Southern Cuisine which is the inspiration behind his award winning culinary work in Austin.
When he is not building an incredible community in the kitchen, Michael is perfecting another craft: the art of running. He once told us, “... a new evolution is inspiring. Learning a new facet of something I have loved to do for a long time feels congruent to restaurant work.” Michael inspires us to intersect the beauties of running with one’s passion in life. Anyone on his team can attest is favorite saying is better said by the great Sheryl Crow: “Life is a winding road”. No better person to lead communities down a winding road than Michael.
Our conversation with Michael:
If (maybe when) a biography is written about Michael Fojtasek up to this point, what does the blurb on the back of the book say?
"Haha. It says “Everyday is a winding road.” I’ve been saying it since the day we opened Olamaie. Everyone who works or has worked at the restaurant knows this is my favorite saying. They all love Sheryl Crow."
There has to be a connection between Olamaie, Little Ola’s and a certain inspiration for the name. What is the origin of your restaurant names ?
Olamaie is my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother, and daughter’s name. My mother and grandmother are responsible for my passion for food of the South."
The pandemic has been life altering for so many, but it seems the dial was [is] turned up a bit for those in the service industry. How has the Austin restaurant community been navigating these time together?
"The collective resiliency of the the Austin hospitality community is phenomenal. When I speak to peers in other cities, they never relay the same type of collegial connection to one another in their respective cities. I feel I can pick up the phone and call anyone in Austin restaurants and ask for input or support."
I imagine the kitchen and the dining room in restaurants operate as two different worlds. The calm nature of the dining room is a utopia compared to the hectic rush of everything happening behind those kitchen doors. Does running helps you navigate the crazy world of being a chef. If so, how?
"In my operations, our dining rooms reflect our kitchens. We work very hard to keep both sides operating in a way that feel welcoming, not only to the guests, but also the staff. However, running has become an integral part of how I manage the tremendous amount of stress related to operating a restaurant business through the pandemic. For me, getting out first thing in the morning for a run is how I can start the day with my best energy, focus, and openness to the world. It helps me feel prepared for challenges that come along in the day. If I start the day with a win (run), the rest of the day seems to be easier."
When you reopened your doors in November there were some big changes made; increases for hourly kitchen staff, health insurance, paid sick leave, and vacation time for all employees. These are all benefits that are not always afforded to those in the service industry. Describe your community and your decision to implement these benefits.
We had been talking about a shift in benefits for a long time. The pandemic provided a reset that made it easier to put these systems into place. The hospitality industry has not been healthy for a long time. As leaders in the field, we feel we must set the example for how others can enrich the lives of all who work in the industry.
Through Little Ola’s Biscuits and Olamaie you have had to guide people through this pandemic. What does being a leader of a community mean to you? What is important in cultivating a community of people.
"When we sign up to be business owners, I believe it becomes incumbent upon us to be community leaders. I feel it is my responsibility to train the teams that work with me to be the best they can be when they move on from working with me. I am showing [my teams] how to do it for themselves, their future employees, and their future communities. If I show them the way, they will be able to go forth, do good work, and help evolve our industry to a place that is valuable and sustainable for all who work within it."
Why do you run?
"To chill the fuck out. Running helps me feel calm and successful. Even on the bad days."
What are some of the attributes of trail running that make it a medium of running you enjoy to test your limits in? How has running given you some tools to excel in a leadership position at your restaurants?
Running in the solitude of nature with a small group has become my favorite thing to do. Road running has been a part of my life for a long time. I have had lots of injuries there. The trails have been almost injury free. Like in my work, a new evolution is inspiring. Learning a new facet of something I have loved to do for a long time feels congruent to restaurant work. We are always evolving and adapting. To me, trail running requires a similar strategy.
Where does your background in running start ? Can you talk a little about how your journey in running and journey in life crossed paths.
I have been an athlete my whole life. Previous to cooking, it was the place I had the most success. Growing up I was focused on team sports. I believe the team aspect of kitchens is what helped me find my passion in restaurants. In my 20s I started running. Over the last 20 years, running has been a through line. It’s been a real indicator of how I am. If I’m getting out to run, I am probably in a good space. Sadly, the inverse is true. These days, running has become a part of my community activity. As a young cook, I would drink after work. When I opened Olamaie, I stopped doing that because I didn’t have the energy to work as much and drink. Work consumed me. It also siloed me. I lost connection to those in the field that I used to hang with. Now, I am thrilled to know that I can MORE readily find someone to run with than drink. I still love to have a drink. I just can’t stay up past 11 pm very well. I’m pretty good at 5 am, though.
Favorite food? Ribeye and pasta
Favorite run in Austin? The whole Greenbelt. Zilker Park Trailhead to Hill of Life and
Favorite race you’ve completed? Honolulu Marathon 2012
Favorite shoe ? HOKA Speedgoat 4
What are a few of your favorite austin restaurants (outside of your own)?
L’Oca D’Oro, Suerte, Tatsu-ya, Little Deli