Meet a Chef: Abby Olitzky of Spencer

Credit: Cat Buswell
Credit: Cat Buswell

At Literati, we’re exceptionally lucky to count talented chefs amongst our most faithful customers. Today marks the inauguration of Spencer, a new Ann Arbor restaurant by Abby Olitzky and Steve Hall, as well as the beginning of a new series on the Literati blog: Meet a Chef, where we’ll present profiles of some of the chefs who visit our store, to give you a peek into what they’ve been cooking up, and what they’ve been reading. Spencer, which will specialize in casual lunch offerings, charcuterie, and out of this world cheese plates, opens today, October 21st.  

We first got to know Abby and Steve’s delicious creations (a sublime cake filled with poached fruit and heavy cream and honey comes to mind) through their pop-up, Central Provisions, which often graced The Espresso Bar with its sweets and savories. And, now, we celebrate Spencer! From the moment we found out about our new neighbors, we at the bookstore have been having somewhat of a collective charcuterie countdown. Whenever Abby comes into the downstairs cookbook section of our store (or her partner in life and food, Steve Hall, does) we know that we are about to learn something new and inspiring about the delicious pages on our shelves, and we love hearing about the recipes they’re cooking up at home. We’re honored that our cookbooks find their way from our store, usually by way of a canvas tote overflowing with Kerrytown Farmers’ Market goodies, into Abby’s kitchen.

Cheers to Spencer!

How would you describe Spencer’s mission, and how did it grow out of Central Provisions?

Spencer is a restaurant dedicated to quality and craft. We envision a friendly neighborhood restaurant that balances the feel of a casual wine bar with craveable fare of local ingredients. Open from late morning to late evening, we will serve coffee and pastries, take-out lunches, seasonal small plates, cheese and charcuterie boards, and distinctive beer and wine.

We see Spencer as a part of the community something that has grown organically out of Central Provisions. From doing events and pop ups, we have created a community that we hope to continue to expand. I don’t think we could be where we are without a loyal following. We see this as a natural extension of what we are doing. We can’t wait to be open for a mid-morning scone and light lunch, for an afternoon drink, for a warm, weeknight meal. We strive for a place with a sense of familiarity, of shared experience, of being in one’s own home. We will have beautiful wooden communal tables, elegant furnishings, counters brimming with pastries and parchment-wrapped sandwiches, sparkling taps of beer (eventually).

Tell me about your background as a chef. What brought you into the profession, how did you train, and how have you evolved as a chef?

I realized pretty early on how much I love cooking and everything to do with food. I like how food is a way to see and explore culture. Cooking is usually the happiest part of my day. I took a food culture class on a whim at NYU and I was so excited by it I took more food anthropology courses. After that I did the usual: cooking school, restaurants. I moved back to San Francisco to be close to my family and do the restaurant thing. I commuted an hour and half each way to work at a restaurant north of the City, in Marin County. Then I worked at Delfina, where I made pastries and gelato. Steve, my partner, was working at Mission Cheese in San Francisco at the time, but he’s originally from Michigan. I went in one day to eat cheese, and chatted him up about Zingerman’s. Then he tracked me down at Delfina’s and handed me a loaf of onion rye bread, and everyone I worked with made fun of me. So we visited each other’s workplaces a lot, I brought him some homemade Pink Pearl apple and Peacotum (peach apricot, and plum hybrid) jam, and we’ve been together ever since. Soon we were talking about opening a restaurant, and we decided to return to Steve’s home state of Michigan to do that. I always strive to keep learning. I think one thing I think about cooking for me now is being confident in what we are putting forth. I want to serve food I love to eat, not just make.

Favorite ingredients to work with? Most beloved dishes?

Anything from the Ann Arbor farmer’s market that looks too good not to try, that could be asparagus, fennel, sungold tomatoes and any chicories… I also really love good finishing olive oil and finishing sea salt. Beloved dishes have to be savory pies, galettes. I love making pie dough and pasta and I really love a long braise.

Can you tell me about a few cookbooks that you love?

In general, I get very excited about cookbooks. And Literati does an amazing job keeping a well-stocked collection. The Zuni Cookbook by Judy Rodgers is incredible and still holds true today. I love Nigel Slater books for the amazing photography, storytelling, and just a well-made cookbook. I really love Preservation Kitchen; it is practical and thoughtful. I love preserving and then finding new ways to use what you have worked so hard to preserve. I am excited for the Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson and This is Camino (a beautiful restaurant pushing our idea of California food.) But I love getting to know someone and picking out a great cookbook for their lifestyle.

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