Olmsted's Zwann Grays On Diversity, Natural Wine, & Hope For The Future Of Restaurants

"I believe that out of bad comes good."

I reach Zwann Grays on the phone around 11AM on a Thursday, just an hour before she has to head to work at Olmsted, a neighborhood restaurant in the heart of Prospect Heights where she’s served as Wine Director since 2017. But there’s nothing rushed about our conversation. Grays patiently heeds all of my questions, intently listening and thoughtfully answering, lending the impression that she has all the time in the world. Whether this warmth of hospitality is endemic to her personality or was cultivated over years working at NYC’s most notable wine destinations—Anfora, Bouley, Terroir Park Slope, Estela—I will never know. But it makes me want to continue talking to her, and it makes sense why guests at Olmsted and its sister restaurant, Maison Yaki, do as well.

“My approach has always been to listen first to what the guest is wanting,” explains Grays, “and to effectively read the table.” In best case scenarios, the listening is reciprocal, allowing Grays a window to share the stories of winemakers in the hopes of changing the negative perception around natural wines. But if it’s not, well, that’s fine too.

“The whole story has to make sense, and I’m here to support the most beautiful expressions of natural wine that are made by beautiful people who treat their workers beautifully. But it’s nothing evangelical. It’s just what I believe in.”

Our conversation veers from there towards the movement for racial equality sweeping our nation. I ask Grays, a female person of color in a historically white, male industry, how optimistic she is for the longevity and sustainability of changes that we’re starting to see. I ask her what would need to happen differently now to render this push—compared to the countless fleeting pushes that have come before it—more successful. Her answer? Listening, again.

“Failure to listen is a part of the problem, it’s a part of the tragedy. We need to listen to more voices before responding."  

And by “listening,” Grays doesn't mean exclusively on social media.

Although she acknowledges the relevance of platforms like Instagram—"to not check in on Instagram is to be totally left behind," she jokes—Grays ardently rejects the notion that publicly sharing your pain is the only way to support a cause.

“There are many ways in which to promote and maintain change,” Grays contends. "Instagram is a tool people use to express thoughts and opinions and to promote things that they believe in, so it's great for that. But in the space of change, for some it's an actual reflection of the action they are taking in real life and for others it's just a bit of showing face."

If you peek at her profile today, you’ll find that Grays posts sparingly, opting not to opine on the simmering racial movement or dispel polemical thought into the social media ether. Instead, she’s directing her energy into personal, offline spheres of influence.

"I'm most optimistic in the space of which I have more control—like education overhaul initiatives."

On the list of organizations, nonprofits, and collectives she supports? The Okra Project, which supports Black Trans people through in-home/in-safe space food provision from chefs who are also Black and Trans; the Open Wine Forum and Industry Session, two spaces working to decolonize wine education specifically for the BIPOC community; and Wine on Wheels, the fundraising arm for Wheeling Forward, an organization providing advocacy, support, services, and community for those living with disabilities—their annual Wine on Wheels Grand Tasting has turned into the largest wine tasting for charity over the past nine years, Grays tells me, and is something that the wine industry looks forward to annually.

"I’m not a big sharer in general, so you won’t find this on social media. You have to understand Instagram to be what it is.”

Another instance of meaningful, but not evangelical, work towards change. Grays is not "showing face." She's showing up.

Red beans and rice. Beef stew. Creole-fried chicken. Gumbo.

Those are the dishes Grays lists when I ask her what she remembers eating as a child growing up in a 3rd-generation family in Houston, Texas. Although her mother, who was on the path towards a Masters degree, often didn’t have time to cook—"food took a back seat in most cases," Grays tells me—her grandmother did. And when she came to visit, Texas-Louisiana flavors would abound.

“My grandmother worked as a cook in a café, and I remember enjoying her meals in ways I never thought I would enjoy food,” Grays explains. “Eating around the table was a thing we always did, a moment to come together.”

Despite her appreciation for food, Grays never set out to work in restaurants. She had her eye on another industry entirely: publishing. So when she secured an internship at People magazine the summer before her senior year of college, everything seemed to be falling into place exactly how she had envisioned.

“I had this fascination with the city,” she explains,” and there I was, in the Time Warner building. Wine wasn’t even on the radar at that point. Because I had a job at People magazine, and I thought, ‘this is it.’”

From there, Grays went on to get a job at the Miami bureau of People and, when that branch closed, decided to return to New York to look for work. Intending to continue writing, she was met instead by a struggling print media industry that, combined with steep NYC rent, left her with no choice but to start looking for side jobs elsewhere.

While working at TheNewsMarket, Grays began picking up hours here and there in retail at the now-shuttered Harlem Vintage. A few months in, she found herself chatting with one of the regulars about the financial hurdles of living in NYC as an aspiring writer. The customer proceeded to tell Grays about a friend who just started working as a food runner at a restaurant called Bouley 2-3 nights per week—and making a lot of money, she assured Grays. She offered to make an introduction, and Grays eagerly accepted.

“It turned out to be more money than I ever imagined,” she says. “Plus, I wasn’t in a cubicle. I was in a kitchen, which was a passionate and fiery place—although that’s another topic entirely.”

Grays soon found herself immersed in a world that, while far more unpredictable than an office job, was “magnetic.” She would go into work not knowing what to expect, and end work hanging out with coworkers that soon became friends.

From food, Grays found her way to wine, swiftly moving up the ranks despite what she calls “a space of loneliness in terms of who looks like you doing this.”

“It was just one of those facts of life,” states Grays, who took it upon herself to reach out to the fellow (few) people of color in the wine world. André Mack, the first African American to be awarded the title of Best Young Sommelier in America, became her mentor, fostering in Grays a fervent belief in her own abilities.

Grays with André Mack | @zwanng

Years later, she would find herself at Olmsted, a neighborhood spot helmed by chef-owner Greg Baxtrom that specializes in ingredient-driven, vegetable-forward dishes with produce sourced from a backyard garden.

Tasked with building the wine list from the ground up, Grays—who, by then, had years of experience under her belt at restaurants and wine bars across the city—knew her heart was in low intervention, natural wine. And while the team wasn’t immediately receptive to the idea—"they thought it was having ‘a moment’ and that it wouldn’t last," she explains—Grays remained steadfast in her beliefs and quickly began connecting with importers and distributors.

To this day, the list is exclusively composed of natural wines hailing from Europe and the United States, from a Rubén Díaz Paso de Cebra white from Cebreros Spain, to Idlewild The Bird ‘Flora & Fauna’ red from California—and even an Early Mountain Vineyards rosé from Virginia.

“I don’t see natural wine going anywhere,” says Grays, when asked about the future of the industry. “But conventional wine will still be around. People will still buy wine at grocery stores, because that’s real life. We’ll meet in the middle.”

These days, Olmsted is showing no signs of slowing down.

Their “Summer Camp” hosted in the 50-seat backyard garden features riffs on American classics: tonkatsu-glazed spareribs, magic crab boil, dill-pickled fried chicken, NY strip teriyaki shish kabobs, yuzu kosho corn on the cob, BLTs, watermelon, and more. It’s served as a large-format meal that strays from the typical course-by-course format in order to limit contact with servers.

Olmsted Summer Camp spread | @olmstednyc

They’ve also opened a Trading Post, with cocktails, snacks, sweets, jams, stocks, sauces, breads, produce, charcuterie, and more available for curbside pick-up or delivery. “It’s been doing very well,” says Grays, “so we might turn that into a full-on grocery store.”

Across the street, their sister restaurant Maison Yaki has transitioned into a commissary kitchen with pop-ups celebrating Black chefs and entrepreneurs like Lani Halliday, the owner of Brutus Bakeshop.

The propensity to turn towards hope and find the silver lining seems like a running theme with Grays. From a struggling print media industry, she found restaurants. Confronted with a lack of diversity, she sought out mentors. And when the pandemic hit, crippling the industry that she had come to love, Grays took it as a chance to get creative. To evolve. To start doing virtual tastings, taking more interviews, hosting pop-ups, and welcoming diners in a different way.

“It’s the summer job that I never had,” says Grays, "and a testament to the fact that out of bad comes good."

Zwann Grays | olmstednyc.com | Photographed by Evan Sung | evansung.com