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Opening a Restaurant in a Pandemic with Le Cowboy

By George Steckel
Aug 28, 2020
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It all started with spaghetti all’amatriciana. In this instance, the classic Roman dish wasn’t eaten in Rome, but rather in Austin, Texas, where Chef Grae Nonas and Drew Ahumada first met. Fast forward a few years and one pandemic later, to these two opening their first restaurant in the most unlikely of circumstances.

We sat down with Drew to chat about opening their debut restaurant, Le Cowboy, and how these strange times have given them the time and unexpected opportunity to do so.

Chef Grae Nonas has worked in some of the top kitchens in the country with Danny Meyer and Joe Bastianich. He spent time cooking in Florence and then ventured to Los Angeles to work with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo at Son of a Gun. Grae arrived on the Austin food scene to open Olamaie, which was met with great acclaim after which he went on to open Carpenter’s Hall, where Drew was working front of house.

Grae has been designing and dreaming about his first restaurant for years, but talks about opening a place this year didn’t start to get serious until late June, when the “you down?” conversation was had. It’s safe to say that all of us at Made In, and yes, we will speak for all of Austin, are grateful that they both were, in fact, down.

Four induction burners and what they describe as an “Easy Bake Oven” is the kitchen set up at Le Cowboy. Right now, with just the two of them, many hats are worn, in addition to face masks, and that is just the reality of opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic. While Drew’s official title is Operating Partner, you will find him taking orders over the phone, helping on the line, packaging food, and washing dishes at the end of the night.

“Jack of all trades. Master of none. With Grae and myself right now, no job is too small.”

So why has Le Cowboy found great success so far? Obviously it’s in part due to the sourdough focaccia Grae makes from his three-year-old starter, and the handcrafted orecchiette with homemade pork sausage and fennel pollen. But Drew and Grae were confident about opening Le Cowboy after seeing how restaurants like Suerte and Comedor were able to “get people excited again about eating, because at the end of the day everyone is stuck inside cooking the same thing and eating the same thing. If anything, people are more excited to get out of their ruts, while being safe and staying in”, said Drew. When asked about the support and love the Austin food community has given Le Cowboy, Drew paused.

“The fact that there are so many people who want to support us and see us succeed is just so special. This community is so tight-knit. It’s very astounding,” remarked Drew.

There was no adapting Le Cowboy for the times, Le Cowboy came to market during this horrific time for restaurants. They knew that in order to succeed they would have to be extraordinarily scrappy and resourceful. They hung up shelves, painted the walls; the logo was tagged onto a piece of butcher paper. They haven’t had the heartbreak of furloughing staff or coming in each day to an empty dining room. In fact, even when open for full service, they won't be seating more than 20 at a time.

So while Le Cowboy might exist not because of, but rather in spite of these circumstances, it remains an uphill climb. Premium, fresh meals don't shine to their full potential in tin take-out containers and the ebb and flow of demand for a takeout business are hard to plan for -who knew that the cool kids in East Austin eat their dinner before 6 PM?

It’s safe to say that the chemistry between Drew and Grae is unbeatable. Drew has had experience with both front of house and back of house, so he understands that there’s usually a divide between the two. However, the guys have made it their personal goal to close that gap. And right now, there is only one house and that house is Le Cowboy, where two dudes who love cooking and love sharing their passion for food are able to come together and make people excited about eating. “We want to feed people,” says Drew. “At the end of the day, that’s what Grae and I signed up for with the life we chose. The life we chose is to feed people and nourish them.” And that nourishment isn’t just putting food in an empty stomach. If you take a bite of Grae’s rigatoni all’amatriciana and are brought back to walking the streets of Rome, then Drew and Grae have done their jobs. 

The next time you’re in Austin, make sure to check out Le Cowboy. You’ll want to order the whole menu. And if you’re eating solo, Drew has promised me that you won’t be judged. If you want to eat Italian food cooked by two friends who love and are deeply passionate about the food that comes out of their kitchen, I cannot recommend Le Cowboy more highly.