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“This is me!” Real Talk with Austin Chef Amanda Turner

Chef Amanda Turner

The path for Chef Amanda Turner hasn’t been without its cracks. Juggling multiple jobs, sexism, racism and endless hours in the kitchen, Turner battled her way through the difficulties with a knife in hand, ready to prove her worth.

The challenges paid off. After working at prestigious restaurants such as Uchi, East Side King, Odd Duck, and Juniper (to name a few), Turner was offered a position as Chef de Cuisine at Olamaie by Michael Fojtasek in Austin, Texas. Here, Turner reclaimed her Southern roots, incorporating learnings and flavors from other cuisines into her contemporary dishes. Her culinary prowess landed her as a semifinalist in the emerging chef category of the James Beard Awards.

While her skills in the kitchen are unequivocally impressive, it is perhaps her dedication to inequalities in the industry that makes her such a lauded chef. In fact, she prioritizes diversity and inclusivity in her kitchen, boasting a kitchenful of workers that are almost half female-identifying. We had the opportunity to talk to Chef Turner about overcoming obstacles, earning recognition, and her role at Olamaie.

It sounds like you’ve overcome a lot to get to where you are today. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in becoming a chef?

I think it’s difficult to quantify what one particular thing is the most challenging. Is it being a woman? Is it being a Black woman? Is it learning skills in an industry that is full of adversity? It’s been so long since I have been in this industry, and also a long time since people have begun to treat me with some respect, that I often forget what those more difficult days were like. These days my biggest obstacle is people perceiving me to be much younger (re: less experienced) than I actually am. That respect in our society is inherently given to older people, and less to people of color or women is a frustration I have endured my entire life. I expect that feeling is not going anywhere.

What does receiving such prestigious recognition for your talents from institutions like the James Beard Awards and Austin’s Tastemaker Awards feel like?

You know, it feels great! I always have this little voice in my head that says “You’re not good enough” or “You just got this award because you are an icon of diversity, it has nothing to do with your skill” – however, I am getting much, much better at just accepting that people think I am good! I feel like at some point we have to look at ourselves objectively; what have I achieved? That doesn’t happen because people just like you, it only happens because you have put in the work and made an impact. For those reasons, I am incredibly proud of receiving these recognitions and I am also so happy for my team and anyone that has ever worked with me, because the tide rises together.

How has working as the Chef de Cuisine at Olamaie been? How has it inspired your creativity?

It has honestly been really great coming on the team at Olamaie. I was at a place in my career where I was ready for a new challenge – and it was very challenging for me to even consider cooking Southern cuisine (for reasons that have been very widely discussed, no need to rehash here). That being said, in every endeavor I enter into, I am thinking about “how can I make this my own.” My cooking background is relatively diverse and I like to utilize all the skills I have when I am doing my work, so I think it helps to be in a position where I can create dishes that are unique to me, and definitely to our city. I have very much been inspired by Chef Michael Fojtasek and his legacy and leadership at Olamaie for the past 10 years. It’s been a true honor to work alongside him and for him to see and understand my vision and give me the opportunity to make something that has always been great my own.

You’re known for incorporating many different cuisines into your dishes. Why is fusion vital to you? 

I think that “fusion” is true Americana. We are the bi-products and the birthplace of massive cultural fission, combining and working side by side. We grow up eating pizza, pasta, chow mein and fried chicken – and thinking “This is America.” To me, I am fusion (inherently) because of my ethnicity. We grew up in the 90s and were told there are no limits to what you or anyone else can do. Only years prior, my parents’ union was illegal in the state of Texas. We’re not the only frontiersmen, but we are a force of people that have grown up with the privilege to believe we can do anything. I think that’s where I really find myself and try to own. What is cuisine? My cuisine is a reflection of who I am as a person. I never want to feel like I am put inside of a box.

What are some of your favorite dishes on the menu at Olamaie?

My favorite dishes at the moment are a very Japanese-inspired crudo using smoked kanpachi with green tomatoes, coriander and strawberries. It is very simple, but also very representative of the season. Late spring is when the cilantro goes to flower, and the coriander blooms that grow have a completely different taste than cilantro. It’s a fun combination for me.

We are also becoming very known for our pork chop, which at this point has had many iterations. I think the most particular thing that we do is brine it in a whiskey brine, and then it gets glazed and grilled on a konro (Japanese-style grill) which is heated with binchotan. In my opinion, and after my time in Japan, binchotan is the best-tasting charcoal. It definitely gives our pork chop a far more complex flavor than people are likely expecting.

If you weren’t working in Austin, what other culinary cities would you want to work in?

I would love to live in Tokyo again. It’s just such an incredible city. I also really enjoy San Francisco, New York and Portland. But honestly, I enjoy traveling and seeing so much variety. I try to take inspiration from those travels when I can.

What’s your favorite part of your job? 

Watching people learn skills and gaining confidence over time. I am not trying to toot my own horn, but at this point I have a long track record of teaching people from the ground up and having them work for me for often year(s) at a time. It is the most rewarding to see young cooks become chefs, figure out what they want to do, and grow and blossom from there. I am incredibly proud of all of the people that I have had the pleasure to work with, especially those that let me lead and guide them.

What’s something on your culinary bucket list you’d like to accomplish?

What I would like to accomplish is to open my own business. I feel like I am on the cusp of getting to the place where not only do I know what I want, and who I am –  but that I can accurately represent myself. Not only culinarily, but as a person. I’m not afraid to put myself out there. I’m not afraid to get on a stage in front of hundreds of people and say “F–k [Texas Governor] Greg Abbott” – to me that’s growth! And that’s what it takes to do more. I am excited for the next chapters of my career and hopefully having something someday that I can look at and say “This is me.”


Amanda Mactas

Amanda Mactas is a NYC-based food, travel and lifestyle writer. She is currently the Food & Travel Editor at Bella Magazine and has written for publications such as PureWow, Wine4Food and The Daily Meal


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