On March 22nd we transformed The Plant Queen West’s sales office into an intimate restaurant and lounge and invited some of Toronto’s most prominent culture writers, influencers, and food critics to enjoy good conversation and even better food. Renowned Chef Greg Baxtrom prepared an extensive meal and welcomed the attendees with an off-the-cuff speech.
Read that speech below:
I’m going to shoot from the hip a little bit here.
My name is Greg Baxtrom, and I own a very small restaurant in Brooklyn. We’re located two blocks from Prospect Park, a park that’s larger than Central Park and the source of Olmsted’s name, as the designer of the two parks was Fredrick Law Olmsted. He also designed the Chicago World Fair, which is where I’m from.
I feel like I am no one to lecture about sustainability – I am just operating my first business and trying to do the right thing. My background is mostly fine dining – Alinea in Chicago, Per Se, Atera.
While I was at Per Se, I was offered the job as Chef de Cuisine at Blue Hill at Stone Barns for Dan Barber, who for many is the godfather of the Farm-to-Table movement in the U.S.
Dan doesn’t come from a fine dining background. He grew up on a farm in his family, and it was just very different from everything that I had seen before. At Per Se we were showing off Royal Kaluga Caviar, while Dan is ripping turnips out of the ground and saying, “Per Se can’t get [expletive] turnips like these!”
Dan has a much more cerebral way of cooking, and I admit that I didn’t fully appreciate it while I was there – I remember Dan once told me that he’s afraid of leaving the restaurant to me for a week in fear that I’ll run it like a military.
He just thinks more romantically about food than I did back then.
It wasn’t until after I stepped away from Blue Hill that I regretted not exploring the gardens to see what was growing – I just stayed in the kitchen and did my job.
From there I spent three years helping my friends open their restaurants around the world, whether it was at Lysverket in Norway, or Atera in New York.
I just bounced around, trying to figure out what I was going to do.
The goal was always to one day open up a three Michelin Star restaurant – nothing more romantic or responsible about it. Just accolades… but only once I opened my own small neighbourhood restaurant in Olmsted did my mindset change. I came to terms with how to use this skill-set that I’ve developed over the years and apply it in a more responsible and approachable way, without sacrificing any integrity to the food and dining experience.
Dan Barber played a role in that, as when I came to opening up my restaurant – it’s hard to unlearn my ‘militaristic’ like training. But when you worked with someone that was so passionate about doing the right thing, or would just passionately talk about the sugar content of spinach – it’s hard to ignore. It was hard to ignore that passion and not apply that to what we do at Olmsted.
So while I was at Atera, they had this aquaponic system in the basement, and I became very close friends with Ian Rothman, who is a farmer by trade. His wife is a lawyer who wanted to move to Manhattan, so he was this farmer trapped in in the city, working at this restaurant that wanted to build a farm underground.
Over those three-plus years of friendship, we had numerous deep conversations about what mattered to us and through our talks, Olmsted was born.
It was born with a deep commitment to farm-to-table living. I mean, even right before we opened we were having conversations about citrus. Can we use it? It doesn’t grow anywhere in New York State – can we use citrus as a farm-to-table restaurant?
There were also no fruit available to put on our desserts when we were first opening. So do we abandon our principles? Use pear and tomatoes that were stored from last year, and rhubarb from South Carolina? Thankfully for the desserts, we lucked out as local strawberries and rhubarb popped up our opening week, but what about citrus?
For us, it’s just this ongoing conversation. We decided yes on citrus because when I want a gin and tonic, I’m not going to ask to not put a lime in it.
Running Olmsted is a step-by-step process, figuring out what is the right thing to do, and what is practical. For example, in the restaurant, there’s a fifty-foot living wall, and we are now transitioning out from just being beautiful flowers to all edibles.
The fear at the beginning was if we just put all edible food on there it would look bare, because as soon as I thought it looked lovely, I’d cut it off to cook it. But now – our thinking is just ‘screw it’ – the point was to have this big wall to draw you to the back of the garden where we have this micro-closed system.
We have crawfish and goldfish in a clawfoot tub that we drain once a week and spray over the gardens to use as our aquaponic system. We have two quail that give us six eggs a week – so if a friend comes in we make them scrambled eggs or something. We have a small composting bin. We have perennials that reflect what’s on the menu – so if there are strawberries in a daiquiri then there will be a strawberry bush in the garden.
Right now we’re working to expand the garden – the dry cleaner next door is letting us rent their space, so we’re going to double the garden and set up a greenhouse to make that side the more practical side and the current side more for the guests.
I’m still pretty new at this, so I’m just taking it one day at a time.
For us, it’s been trying to combine what we care about on a personal level with our ambitions and integrity of where we came from while trying to be as approachable as possible. Behind every dish, behind every plate, behind every plant in the garden, there’s a story – but it’s necessarily one that our guest have to know first and foremost, ideally, Olmsted is just a delicious restaurant that’s fun to attend.
So we brought that here – we basically brought the whole menu. [Laughs] Go big or go home.
Alright, let’s eat.