Editor’s Note: Grae Nonas recently announced that he’s relocating to Minneapolis to open Tullibee, a new hotel restaurant focused on Nordic-styled fare. Plans for the restaurant Aya appear to be shelved for now. Tullibee is set to open this fall.
Beyond what he would find knocking around in a box of take-out chicken, Grae Nonas hadn’t tasted an honest-to-goodness Southern biscuit until his early days at the restaurant Olamaie. Yet, as the former co-executive chef for the eatery, Nonas helped create one so tasty that Olamaie still doesn’t list it on the menu for fear of running out. “I didn’t grow up eating Southern food,” says the Yankee. “To create something you don’t know anything about…is hard to do.” Given what Nonas accomplished with practically no prior knowledge of making biscuits or any other Southern cuisine, chances are good that his newest restaurant project, Aya—one that feels familiar to his hand and heart—will be worth the wait.
Nonas plans to open Aya late next year, but on this particular hot Sunday he’s puttering around the kitchen of his North Austin home with the Talking Heads playing from his laptop and his 1-year-old daughter dangling from his arm. Not by coincidence, her name is Aya, too. “We want her to be part of this,” he says. “You want something in your family that shows your kids who their parents are and what hard work means.” Nonas and his wife/business partner, Chiai Matsumoto, envision Aya (the restaurant) as a lively, fish-focused eatery with a choose-your-own-adventure vibe to accommodate hardcore foodies as easily as folks just there for the tiki drinks. It will eschew the usual nautical nonsense and Cape Cod pretension of so many seafood joints, though. Instead of pirate kitsch on the walls, “it’ll be the kind of place where pirates would actually hang out,” says Nonas, as he hands Aya (the girl) to Matsumoto so that he can coax some flattened rye dough into noodles through the strings of an old wooden Italian pasta cutter known as a chitarra.
The new restaurant’s menu will feature simple but nuanced meals like the one he’s making now: spaghetti alla chitarra with gulf prawns, Sun Gold tomatoes, grilled scallions and rye crumbs. The dish reminds Nonas of the Italian restaurants his grandfather took him to as a young kid in Manhattan. It also calls to mind one of his mentors, Andy Nusser, for whom Nonas worked at New York’s Tarry Lodge soon after attending the Culinary Institute of America. In between these formative memories lies a move to New Hampshire while still a youngster, a bunch of jobs in restaurant kitchens starting at the illegal age of 12, a band that nearly took off after high school, a short-lived attempt at higher education in New Jersey (“I flunked out of community college…which I didn’t know you could do”) and an unauthorized externship at Osteria di Passignano in Tuscany. “It wasn’t on [The Culinary Institute’s] list of restaurants, but I went anyway,” he says.
After various restaurant gigs in New York, Nonas moved to Los Angeles and got in with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo soon after they hit it big with Animal. Six months later, they tapped Nonas for their spin-off, Son of a Gun, where he and co-worker Michael Fojtasek bonded over old Southern cookbooks. That led to their Austin relocation in 2014 to launch Olamaie, where local fans quickly fell in love with that aforementioned biscuit and the mix of tradition and modernity. Nonlocals noticed, too; Food & Wine Magazine named Nonas and Fojtasek among the Best New Chefs of 2015, while the James Beard Foundation recognized Nonas as a “Rising Star Chef” semifinalist in 2015 and as a finalist in 2016. In the midst of the chaos of work and recognition, Nonas met Matsumoto at a shoot for Vice’s Munchies website while she was doing marketing for Ramen Tatsu-ya. They’ve been together ever since.
Despite the long résumé and accolades, 28-year-old Nonas says the new restaurant will, in a way, mark the true start of his career. Using a lid to burst tomatoes sizzling in a pan, he reaches for a way to explain what he means, until Matsumoto jumps in. “It’s your chance to express yourself,” says Aya’s future marketing director. “You should just talk to her,” says Nonas with a smile. “She’s the one with the words.”
Nonas throws together the other ingredients and slips baby Aya a cooked noodle that she eats with relish. Soon after, she passes out on Matsumoto’s shoulder, which prompts Nonas to get philosophical about the other Aya in their lives. “Until now, everything’s been under a guideline,” he says. “This is first time I can be exactly who I am on a plate. I love Olamaie, but I want to be able to play my music really loud.”
By Steve Wilson • Photography by Melanie Grizzel