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How These Brooklyn Restaurants Adapted to Serve Their Community During the Pandemic

Masked staff inside of one of chef Greg Baxtrom’s restaurants; the exterior of Maison Yaki
Courtesy of Maison Yaki
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After a career including stints at Alinea, Per Se, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Greg Baxtrom jokes that his “resume is obnoxious.” The chef opened Olmsted, his much-praised restaurant, in Brooklyn in 2016, to acclaim from neighbors, reviewers, and celebrities alike, followed by Maison Yaki, his French-inspired yakitori spot, across the street in 2019. The past success of his restaurants, however, could not have prepared him — or any restaurateur — for the coronavirus pandemic, and his two locations closed along with every other New York City dining establishment on March 16, in response to the mayor’s decree.

“It closed before its first birthday, it was barely even a year,” Baxtrom laments about Maison Yaki. The two restaurants, situated across the street from each other in Prospect Heights, had just gotten into a groove with the neighborhood and staffing. “We would share a lot,” says Baxtrom. “A lot of the cooks from Maison Yaki would start their day here and do some prep work and then go across the street and vice versa,” meaning they didn’t have to buy additional appliances for the second location. Then, COVID-19 paused everything.

Reopening As a Food Bank and Pantry

Since Baxtrom also lives in the neighborhood, he was committed to becoming a source for relief in whatever way he could as the pandemic surged in New York. “We were operating as a food bank, where people could come and pick up food,” he says. This led to his partnering with Chef Edward Lee’s The LEE Initiative, which helped provide funding for payroll and meals until demand for the program tapered off.

Then, Baxtrom and his team converted part of the space into Olmsted Trading Post, a store where you can pick up pre-mixed cocktails and Olmsted’s own charcuterie and bread made by its pastry chef Alex Grunert, as well as quirky pantry items like canned escargot. This let them somewhat restart in the neighborhood, as well as resume some business with their suppliers. All of the attention spent managing reservations at the neighborhood’s most popular restaurant was redirected to organizing contactless home deliveries.

Pedialyte, diapers and other supplies packed into paper bags
Courtesy of Olmsted

When the city announced that outdoor dining could resume, Baxtrom noted he “didn’t feel confident just opening Olmsted as Olmsted, at least not yet.” Instead, he reopened their large backyard and called it Olmsted Summer Camp, almost a pop-up within his own restaurant. At Olmsted Summer Camp, Baxtrom offers delicious versions of uncomplicated summer classics like fried chicken, ribs, and coleslaw.

Providing Resources for Black Chefs

As Olmsted adapted, there was still the space at Maison Yaki to consider, and seeing the crowds that marched down Vanderbilt Avenue on their way to protest at the nearby Grand Army Plaza, Baxtrom felt motivated to do more. “I’m a chef and I have a building over there with a kitchen and a network. So I just said, ‘Fuck it ... Someone out there needs good PR. I can just give a restaurant to these talented individuals that are overlooked, quite frankly.’”

He started the Black Entrepreneur Series and donated use of the Maison Yaki kitchen to Black chefs and entrepreneurs by promoting the project on Facebook and Instagram, plus reaching out to his network for recommendations. The program kicked off with chef Lani Halliday, with whom Baxtrom connected immediately. “You could tell by the first interaction with her she will have a show on [TV] at some point,” he says. “She’s just that person.”

Other chefs invited to the Black Entrepreneur Series include Mohamed Wahiba, Michelle Williams, and Jared Howard, who was recommended to Baxtrom by chef JJ Johnson. Although Baxtrom’s still working out the details with every collaboration, so far it’s been a financial success for the invitees, and thanks to his platform and a partnership with San Pellegrino, Baxtrom has been able to raise additional donations from Fine Dining Food Lovers, which will allow the program to continue a little longer while he and the rest of the restaurant industry figures out what the future holds.

Courtesy of Olmsted

Today, Olmsted’s Instagram is more likely to update you on their latest groceries or last-minute offerings than the creative recipe development they made their name on, but that’s okay for the moment. Baxtrom is focused on seeing his restaurants through. “For me, it’s just about getting to next year, to getting to the next spring, to getting to nice weather again,” he says, adding that he feels like he’s experienced the worst of the pandemic challenges, and thinks he’ll be able to make it through to said springtime.

“Now we’re at a point where, thank God, we’re busy, we’re starting to get into a groove,” he adds. “The weather will really hurt us, but I can say that we’ll make it through COVID.” Even as he sees a future for his restaurant, Baxtrom hopes to build the industry back up for everyone else, as well. When asked how people can best support his restaurants, he says: “Just come. Come to Maison Yaki, and share posts about these chefs.”

“They’re all primed for their own business,” Baxtrom continues. And, as he points out, he’d like to see them get a fair chance as the industry works toward its new reality.

To find ways to support Olmsted, Maison Yaki, and other restaurants you care about, visit fb.com/SupportSmallBusiness. Keep up with chef Greg Baxtrom by following his restaurants on their Facebook pages, and in the meantime, you can make one of his favorite cocktails with the recipe below.


Ingredients for Greg Baxtrom’s watermelon cocktail
Courtesy of Olmsted

Baby Flower Watermelon Cocktail

Batch together for the base:

3 parts Clairin Le Rocher (12 ounces)

3 parts Svol Aquavit (12 ounces)

1 part Lustau Amontialldo Sherry (4 ounces)

2 parts rich simple syrup, or 1 part water to 112 parts sugar (8 ounces)

Lemongrass syrup:

4 ounces lemongrass

16 ounces sugar

12 ounces water

Seasoned Baby Flower watermelon juice:

Take the weight of fresh watermelon juice, and add 0.4 percent citric acid and 0.1 percent salt. (For example, 1,000 grams of watermelon juice would require 4 grams of citric acid and 1 gram of salt.)

Cocktails:

8 ounces of the batched base

6 ounces of the seasoned Baby Flower watermelon juice

2 ounces yuzu Juice

1 ounce lemongrass syrup

⅛ ounce fish sauce

Shake with a small amount of ice, strain over pebble ice in large, hollowed-out Baby Flower watermelon bowl. Garnish with watermelon wedges.

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