Olivia - A Tail of Two Chefs

There's a new young hotshot on the range in South Austin

New Olivia Executive Chef Max Petty (Photo by Kenny Pailes)

Chef James Holmes opened his restaurant in 2008 and named it for his daughter, Olivia. In the years that followed, rave reviews, a loyal clientele, and an ever-changing, locally-sourced menu cemented Olivia's place in the forefront of Austin's vibrant restaurant scene. Today, the menu isn't the only thing that has changed at Olivia.

Holmes recently hired chef Max Petty to helm the executive chef duties at Oliva. “I’ve always surrounded myself with talented and hungry people,” says Holmes. “You can do two things, hire an older, experienced Chef and work around their in-grained abilities, or you can hire someone like Max, who is young but extremely talented.”

Petty is only 23 years-old, but he has worked in restaurants since he was a teen-ager in Oregon. Last year, Petty was the charcuterie at King State Winey in Eugene, Oregon. He loved his job and had happily immersed himself in the art of butchery. Then, his new bride, Jennifer, received a job transfer to Austin, bringing Petty and his considerable talents to Oliva as garde manger and line cook. “The bottom of the totem pole,’ says Petty.

“When I knew that the executive chef position was opening, Max and I sat down for 2 hours,” Holmes recalled. “When someone is young, they’re hungry and they work hard. At first he was working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day. He’s so eager and full of new ideas. I shared with him some things that I liked to see and he was open to that, but with his own spin. Out of respect for the previous chefs, we brainstormed together and completely created a new menu. We pretended we were opening a brand new restaurant.”

The addition of chef Petty’s dynamic talents has indeed transformed Oliva into a brand new restaurant, while retaining Chef Holmes Southern slant on the eclectic menu. “Working with Chef Holmes is wonderful,” Petty says. “He lets me experiment and do all the weird things I love to do while teaching me the business and professional side of the restaurant. He also loves head to tail cooking as much as I do.”

Chef Holmes generously nurtures Petty’s gifts for creating intriguing dishes using fresh picked vegetables from the restaurant’s garden, sun-rise yellow-yolked eggs from Helen, their hen; and earthy-flavored, locally-sourced ingredients. Traditional recipes are transformed with a dash of molecular gastronomy into Petty’s Charcuterie Brandade, a chicken and veal terrine served with head cheese, maple mustard and home-made kimchi to add a hint of acidity and spice.

Petty’s dish of Ball and Brains, a sly twist on the words “ball and chain” is composed of lamb fries and pig’s brain and is a cure for a bad case of jaded taste buds. “I wasn’t sure about that dish, but the customers loved it and we sold out,” says chef Holmes.

Petty’s skills as a butcher, along with his zeal for curing, pickling, and brining meats are performed in a tiny space in the back of the kitchen. He breaks down and incorporates every part of the pig, as we say in the South “from the rooter to the tooter.”

Petty is a fascinating combination of classically trained chef and mad scientist. “I created a charcuterie refrigerator so that I could control the temper and humidity of the meats I butcher,” Petty says. “I’m making my own prosciutto. I packed it with salt and I’ll press it one day per pound for the next 20 or 30 days. I also coated the open edges with lard and black pepper and wrapped it in cheese cloth. Once it’s done curing, I’ll be adding it to everything we make from appetizers to desserts.”

My husband Michael and I dined on Oliva’s famous brunch menu including chef James “Picnic Style” fried chicken and home-style potato salad, Dandy Don Meredith chili pie, and the plate-shattering Willie Nelson Chicken Fried Steak. The brunch menu has expanded to include items like chef Petty’s Thanks A Lox, a house-cured organic salmon on pumpernickel toast; and his Spicy Pickled Pig’s Ear Sandwich. This sizzling entree is guaranteed to wake you up in the morning. Petty’s “MacDaddy” sandwich is a flavor-packed scrambled egg, crispy pork belly and miso-glazed riff on the pedestrian English muffin sandwich offered at the golden-arched fast food restaurant.

We also visited Oliva for dinner and feasted on a tasting menu prepared by chef Petty. We enjoyed an amuse-bouche starter of Peach Gelee with a feisty spark of hot pepper along with several amazing appetizers. Locinto’s pork and Petty’s innovative culinary techniques result in a meltingly tender Trotter & Tail dish served with white beans, tesa bacon, and roasted peppers topped with a perfectly cooked quail egg. The fresh flavors of the Scallop Crudo pop with the heat of a garden chili, the citrus-sharpness of grapefruit, and a sprinkle of smoked black salt.

I could write pages of praise for chef Petty’s meltingly tender Wagyu Tri-Tip with roasted marrow mixed with butter. It was beyond fabulous. Oliva’s famous frites (french fries) and tangy, house-made ketchup and garlic aoli were served on the side. The waiter promised that the garlic aoli would be “a life-changing experience.” My husband finally had to stage an intervention to get me to stop eating the frites dipped in the two sauces in order to save room for our other entrees. I was thankful that he did, because the entrees at Oliva are meant to be savored and celebrated.

I’ve never been a huge fan of liver, goat, or sweetbreads so I decided to focus on those dishes as a test of chef Perry’s skills. All of the entrees were a fabulous combination of old-world flavors with a modern twist. His lamb liver served with polenta; the silky smooth goat rillette (like a pate) with jalapeno barley; and the sweetbreads with a side of red cabbage and tesa bacon enhanced with a honey-black pepper demi-glace gave me a new-found love and appreciation for dishes I typically don’t enjoy or order.

Oliva is one of the only restaurants where one can enjoy scrumptious Southern comfort food served side-by-side with delightfully creative “nose to tail” dishes in a beautiful environment with a unique, South Austin vibe. Chef Holmes’ willingness to share his own considerable knowledge and talents has not only been beneficial to his new executive chef, Max Petty, it has also been a culinary gift to the hungry diners at Oliva.

Guest blogger Angela Shelf Medearis is a cooking teacher and cookbook author known as "The Kitchen Diva"

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Chef profile, Olivia restaurant, Chef James Holmes, Chef Max Petty

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