Serving up stories at Spencer Ann Arbor
Sometimes, when we step away from our conventional wisdoms about the way something must work, we are able to realize true beauty lies not in the intricate but the familiar. Start by going back to your roots and exploring the implausible ways the simple can be rendered magnificent. At Spencer, the small but fierce 32-seat restaurant on Ann Arbor’s East Liberty Street, the philosophy is a unique one, and one that we typically don’t see at restaurants in Michigan, or anywhere at all. The restaurant, or “passion project,” as co-owner Abby Olitzky calls it, is the love child of San Francisco-born pastry chef Olitzky and Ann Arbor native cheesemonger Steve Hall. The two met in California at the cheese and wine shop at which Hall was working when Olitzky happened to stop by to purchase cheese one day. After a few months, they decided to move to Michigan to open a restaurant. Upon returning to Hall’s Burns Park roots, Olitzky fell in love with Ann Arbor and they began searching for a location which is now the chic, cozy spot Spencer calls home.
Olitzky is the main chef at Spencer, and Hall handles the wine and most of the front of house business. The two work together to make an endearing, charming and dedicated partnership. The two cooperate along with other sous-chefs to craft the restaurant’s unique menu items. The diverse and interesting menu is only one facet of Spencer’s quirky, daring personality. On any given day, the menu can change based on what is in season, or simply what Olitzky feels the Ann Arbor community should taste that day.
“The menu is always changing, because I get bored sometimes. I want to come into work and keep things interesting and play around with all of the potential flavors,” Olitzky said in an interview with The Michigan Daily about the unorthodox conditional characteristic of the menu, always ready to change as seasonal ingredients or Olitzky’s creative urges do. Currently, the menu is dotted with brussels sprouts accompanied by grapefruit, chili peanuts and burrata, which to my dismay Olitzky advised me is being ushered off the menu in the next few days because brussels sprouts are heading out of season.
“Our style is what I like to call California Cuisine, sort of a European cooking style with local ingredients. It’s all about the local ingredients, though; we try to make them shine through and fuss as little as possible,” Olitzky said.
Locally sourced food means a lot to the team at Spencer. Olitzky buys all the ingredients at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and from a few other farmers working on biodynamic or organic growing practices with whom she’s forged relationships. Certain idiosyncrasies, like going the extra mile to find the freshest ingredients and using creative collaboration to put a remarkable twist on simple dishes is what makes Spencer so solitary in its glory.
“When I talk to the farmers about what vegetables we’re getting, I always try to search for ingredients we can treat as whole or as individual. I don’t want to mash up vegetables or take them far away from how I receive them. I want to showcase an ingredient as whole. The biggest part of cooking to me is that you have to have a voice that’s yours and only yours,” Olitzky said about her own culinary voice, one that feels authentic and focused on the ingredients and the way they can bring out the best in one another. Through her education and experiences cooking, she’s seen many different kitchens and had the ability to work in many different environments, all of which inform the way she cooks now — straight from the heart and with the beauty of the ingredient in mind.
Everything about Spencer is real and genuine, from the folks behind the magic, to the interior design. Daylight spills through the large glass windows at the front, warming the communal wooden tables and filling the place with a sunny serenity. The interior is decorated with fresh flowers and overgrown green plants, oil paintings and a cool brick wall, all fitting perfectly with the black and white tiled floors to create a homey yet simple vibe. The authenticity of Spencer’s personality comes from Olitzky, who is a firm believer in being true to herself when she cooks.
“We don’t change who we are when we cook, ever. Our best food comes out here when I’m the most authentic to who I am,” Olitzky said. She started out at New York University taking different classes on ingredients and food, and from there went on to the Institute of Culinary Education to hone her craft in cooking. She decided to head back home to San Francisco to pursue a career in cooking before meeting Hall and moving to Ann Arbor. Now, she can be found in the kitchen at Spencer six nights a week, though she’s been trying to take an extra day off, trusting her predominately female sous-chefs to cultivate their own unique culinary voices while keeping true to Spencer’s mission and mantra.
“As an individual, I want my cooking to feel personal and I want everyone who works in this kitchen to feel like they have a personal style as well,” she said. And personally it does feel as if all of the menu items at Spencer seem to tell their own story, as though they are not only dishes but entities with personas and significance. The team behind Spencer’s creative mind takes a dish like short rib and embellishes it with gusto, adding a pancake, pickled cauliflower and horseradish. They take pierogies and investigate new flavor profiles by adding arugula, sunflower, beet mostrada and caraway crème fraîche. While intricate, the dishes start with simple ingredients that mingle together to create flavor breakthroughs.
“I’m in the kitchen all the time,” Olitzky said. “I literally refuse to leave the kitchen. But that’s just how I like it. It’s easier for me to have women in the kitchen because I don’t communicate as forcefully or directly as other chefs, so oftentimes women gravitate toward my style. It’s hard to find people with the same ethos about cooking and have my same mentality about staying fresh and seasonal and focusing on the ingredient.”
In the major kitchens of New York City, men dominate the creative recipe building and physical act of cooking, making the restaurant industry a hard one to break into as a woman. Being taken seriously as a woman is incredibly difficult in commercial kitchens, where the patriarchy reigns. Just this past week, Dominique Crenn became the first woman in the United States to earn three Michelin stars, a distinguished honor for chefs. One may wonder how many other women also deserve the same honor but have had a more difficult time making it in the business.
“I worked for Dominique Crenn once,” Olitzky said. “It was like for a day. I was very young, and I was like… what is going on.”
“I’d like to say that it’s changing — that traditionally women cook to feed and are seen cooking in domestic kitchens and that we’re changing that, but really there isn’t much of a change in the industry,” she admitted, referencing the dichotomy between male and female chefs and restauranteurs. But Olitzky is part of the group looking to break the curve, commanding the culinary world fearlessly, marching to the beat of her own drum.
Behind the counter is Olitzky’s bookshelf of cookbooks — she’s constantly collecting cookbooks and reading different female chefs’ recipe books. The stacks of books may look like vintage decor, but really they’re a huge piece of Olitzky’s identity as a restauranteur and foodie. As we chat, her personal recipe book sits open in front of her — a Moleskine bursting with notes and papers, scribbled with her newest ideas, ingredient pairings and reminders. She etches “green things” into the margins as she remembers to put in an order for green veggies and brussels sprouts to one of the farmers with which she generally does business.
“I think in my future I want to write cookbooks,” Olitzky said. “I love reading cookbooks and food writing, and I really want to create one of my own.” She would follow her heart and intuition with the cookbook as well, and I would hope it would also be embellished with photographs, as the food at Spencer is not only a unique gastronomic experience, but also incredibly visually attractive. As seen on Instagram feeds every day, the moment that a plate of warm food is placed in front of a diner at a restaurant like Spencer is supplemented by a flurry of phone screens ready for a picture-worthy moment.
The food at Spencer is colorful and jubilant — a celebration of ingredients and the simple joys of life.
“I cook how I want to eat; I like to make a ton of different things and share all of it,” she said. “I don’t really believe in tapas and small plates. I hate those words. I cook here how I cook at home. Many smaller items, different things and options.”
Olitzky’s identity in cooking stemmed from when she was young and would take trips to the farmer’s market with her mother. Olitzky said she never stopped cooking, especially when she was training and being educated as a young chef. She was always in the kitchen, using her hands.
“Sometimes people ask me why we’re so successful here, and I say there’s no secret. I just don’t care to cater to anybody. I just cook what I want to cook.”
When Olitzky gets in the kitchen at Spencer, she submerges herself in a world where she focuses on herself as the chef, and the ingredients as her tools. Working from the inside out, she uses the plate as a mirror, reflecting her own identity through the dishes she curates. Removing the third party — in this case the patron — for a moment to focus on her own culinary style is a risk, but it is one that works in her favor. Spencer is packed every night of the week. The team’s commitment to its authentic backbone is what brings customers back time and time again.
“I used to come home from a long work day in the kitchen and decide to cook myself dinner instead of just grabbing something to-go,” Olitzky said. “I would have one day off in a week, and I’d spend the entirety of it recipe testing and cooking.” Olitzky’s dedication and commitment to the food she flirts with and Hall’s passion for wine and customer service make the most ideal pairing.
Every Tuesday in December, the pair transform the restaurant into a wine store for the afternoon. The bottles are organized by region, and the flexibility of the space allows for creativity. The Tuesday Wine Pop-Up Shop is accompanied by a food component, because wine should always be embellished with food. In fact, Olitzky was tasked with making homemade latkes for the event coming up a few hours after our conversation. The latkes turned out crispy and beautiful, as can be seen on Spencer’s Instagram promoting the wine event. This type of event doesn’t just happen in December; Olitzky and Hall are always coming up with new ways to spice things up.
“We have ticketed events, like wine and food events where we focus on a specific topic or region all the time,” Olitzky said. “We love to transform our space, do something fun and keep ourselves on our toes. We’re here to feed people in the community and to hope they latch on and get excited about the things we are excited by.”
Intimacy underlies everything Spencer does, from customer service, to the communal tables that invite people to share a meal with one another, and the intricate details in the dishes. There is never any removal from the food at Spencer. Each dish touches the hands of the talented chefs and is delivered to the customer, never falling away from its base of being an ingredient that was grown and curated from the earth. At Spencer, Olitzky and Hall have created a space for a rare and intimate relationship between food and creator, customer and creator, and customer and food.
“I like using my hands a lot, and I’m so obsessed with the meditative quality of being mindful while cooking: It is so focused in thought,” Olitzky said.
What makes Spencer’s heart beat is its earnest return to the simple and traditional coupled with the charisma and identity of a young, punchy go-getter always in the market to try something new. The restaurant’s personality did not manifest itself as such a dynamic individual, rather, the minds behind its character are what makes it so special. Hall and Olitzky are recently married and navigating the world of being in a romantic relationship while also being business partners.
“I can’t imagine opening a restaurant alone,without a partner who is personally involved with me somehow, even a family member or something,” Olitzky said. “Steve always has my best interest at heart. He’s always thinking about me first. If I was partners with someone who wasn’t invested in my best interest, I’d be worried about what’s holding them there and what’s preventing them from thinking about me as a person first.”
Hall and Olitzky share the same mantras and beliefs about food and the culinary world, another reason their partnership seems to work so pleasantly, and in Spencer’s favor.
“We don’t really see food as art,” Olitzky said. “The importance of food as art is being inflated and glamorized. At the end of the day it’s really a simple thing: It’s just food. I see food as a practice. As a belief. As a meditation.”
When asked about the possibility of opening another restaurant, Olitzky explained “There’s no rush for us to go anywhere from here right now, there’s no pressure to have to open someplace new just because that’s what other people do. We can keep pushing ourselves here. We can hone in and be creative here. We are not there yet, and that’s OK.”
Spencer is a delight. It is creative, and it is pushing boundaries. It is breaking barriers and building new walls. It is a shimmering gem in a world of commercial kitchens so focused on what’s next. It is a clear bell in a world of kitchens forgetting about the simple, forfeiting the beauty of the moment for the big picture. What Olitzky and Hall have done at Spencer is taken their hearts, their love for one another and their love for the world of food and created sustenance out of it. Anyone who walks into Spencer’s charming front door is in for an experience where the unique take on simple ingredients tells a story, and that in and of itself is the most wonderful dish a restaurant can serve.