Brent often teases me about my chef crushes. They’re completely wholesome – I crush on people across fields all the time with no intention of anything developing beyond the purely professional. Because when you meet as many fascinating, hard-working, brave people as I do, innocent bouts of admiration are sure to happen, and happen often.
Chef Jody Williams was one such recent crush. The woman has her Buvette restaurant in New York and Paris, both in charming neighborhoods I’d love to live in. Hers are restorative spots, where you can lazily drink coffee and read your paper and gaze out the window first thing in the morning, then end the day with a dark red wine and rich food before walking the streets in search of a dark corner to make out in. The space abounds with charming bric a brac like pre-50-state American flags and tiny heavy-bottomed tea pots. If I were the pilfering type, I would bring a screwdriver and nab the little dachshund-head hooks in Buvette’s bathroom (luckily I admitted this to Williams and she directed me to thehooklady.com, so I’ll remain within in the law for a while).
Williams is a “self-taught” chef, meaning she worked her way up in the kitchen rather than attending any sort of formal education. She now splits her time between New York and Paris, and is open to a third location in, say, Tokyo. In our interview, she’s all positive energy and laughter, the slightly-hard edge of a New Yorker blending seamlessly with a clear joy at being where she is. Yes, I had a little crush on Williams. Read on and you’ll see why.
Jody Williams and Her Cross Continental Buvettes
How’s your French?
“It’s terrible. But at least it’s not loud.”
How did French win out after being so steeped in Italian? I don’t think it’s won out. I imagine if you write a book you may begin with one topic or one interest or story to tell, but it doesn’t mean as write you don’t have more stories or something else deep inside you. And I think chefs have a lot of cuisines and interests. Some of it could be growing vegetables and farming. For others it’s different cuisines. I love food and wine, period. Mediterranean traditions, Mexican and Indian and American. So I follow my heart – it sounds so trite to say – and if I happen to want to make tarte tartin I make tarte tartin. When I do a project I see from the beginning to the end, from the back door to the front door and how everything is going to work, see who I want to come and sit. Then I cross my fingers and hope for the best. I’m not calculating that I’m here or there. It’s like, “Hey, who doesn’t want to go to Paris?” Or Brooklyn! Who doesn’t want to follow energies or ideas? Great products, wine and food – let’s follow them! I got lucky.
Do you feel it’s a good time in New York for people exploring that? I think there’s a lot more independence in cooking with chefs who strike out on their own; there’s a business model out there, and then there are chefs cooking. It’s an incredibly inspiring time to be “true”. You go through periods when you have to pay your rent and have a job, so you’re not gonna cook only what you want to cook. It is, no doubt, a business and a job. But I think what motivates people is something more than that. You see that happening more, and it’s inspiring.
Where a lot of people might have extensive business plans and models in place, many have remarked that Buvette feels more like an extension of your kitchen. Then they’ve never seen my kitchen!
Ha! Well then, if Buvette is an extension of your heart and energy, how would you define that? What parameters do you work within so that Buvette feels satisfying for you? I love the word satisfying – it’s such a quest! I’m my worst critic in the world – it’s a painful experience trying to satisfy ourselves, isn’t it? Buvette is not a restaurant and it is a restaurant; I want to sort of purge “restaurant” out of here and let it be a space to let you do what you want and be what you want it to be. A place where where you and I can hang out and the only rule is eat and drink what we’re interested in and what we love. In Paris I can open up a can of 1664 beer (which I love) and serve you a croques monsieur with Laughing Cow cheese, and it’s fantastic. At the same time we’re shaving fresh truffles over eggs. There are less boundaries when you follow your heart. The concept was always about making a place to hang out with good drink and food. It was that minimal.
But people see it and get their opinions and attach them, “Oh, I feel like I’m in Paris!” All this is Americana, guys! The stools are from Ohio, these old flags are real – made out of hemp and not even with 50 stars. Of course Buvette is a French name and the menu is primarily French classics, but at the end of the day I’m self taught – if I wanna do something I’ve gotta just go out there and do it through trial and error.
And another thing; it’s the journey. What was the fun part? Getting here, learning, you know? All of those great experiences and bad experiences, or the ones that are a little painful… It’s good to refresh.
In some ways by going the self-taught, homegrown route you’ve taken the harder road. Do you ever pat yourself on the back for overcoming a hard market to such a successful place? Not really. I mean, in this business you get so immersed in the details, like making sure the hinges work. If you’re a chef and you own your business, you’re doing double duty, and it’s taxing. Here we try to be a very egalitarian kind of business; we have five adults who want to eat, drink and go home. I don’t think of myself as successful. I hope my business is as good today as it will be tomorrow, I hope people are here. But if I can keep the energy up I have a lot more things I want to do. Hopefully I’m a late bloomer and slow study… what can I tell you.
Well, if I knew you better I’d pat you on the back! Well, thank you! Listen, it’s incredibly awarding that people enjoying this place. I’m very lucky that my staff likes to show up every day – that’s the real takeaway. It’s people coming in and out the door, the people in the neighborhood. And it’s beautiful when it all comes together in the moment, and the plates are coming and going, or you make a new dish, taking it apart and remaking it, eliminating all the trial and error to make it good.
What about Paris? What was the impetus opening up a Buvette in Paris? I was open to the idea of doing Buvette again and a gain – it’s a very simple place and idea. And on purpose it’s something that I want to be able to replicate. It’s only dinner. It’s only breakfast. We’re not scared. There are five people here who can make the chocolate mousse; “You don’t have any tables? Go break eggs.” It’s really old-school here, there’s a lot of tradition.
All the stars aligned. When I was learning how to cook I knocked on doors and said in bad language, “I’m good cook? Serve you?” I knocked on a lot of doors, so when kids knock on my door, I love to take a chance. So this guy walks in from Paris and does a trail as a busboy and didn’t dig it, and I’d just opened Buvette and asked if he’d want to come in at 6am and clean, thinking he wouldn’t come in. But he was there, and he was my first steward at Buvette, four years ago. This kid who never had any experience, Thomas, was cleaning, then learning how to cook the croque monsieur and chocolate mousse, then how to receive the vegetables. And he washed the floor every day. He made a big contribution to this.
So when he got back to France I made a promise to him that we would do something – maybe a packaged this or that or merchandise. I was up for it and kept telling him to be out there, that it’s like panning for gold, to believe. Meanwhile a customer that comes in said, “My sister has a place in Paris and she loves Buvette here. Do you want to see it?” And it was able to happen.
Was anything in that experience unexpected compared to opening in New York? It took a lot of hand holding to learn all the rules. The French are so socialist, I was blown away, which was crazy good for these guys – they have to get five weeks vacation! The French health department is brilliant – they really want you to do it and help make sure you do it right. Also, purveyors there are very interesting, because nobody want to give us food. We went around collecting coffees and olive oils and everybody really is proud and very into their mono-varietal coffee or whatever it is. They don’t want to sell to you unless they know your restaurant and are proud of it. I’d go to the little lady wearing three sweaters selling just herbs and I’d give her my card; she’d give it right back to me. It’s so disheartening! I’d call the baker and the baker says, “Why are you calling me?” “Because I want to buy your bread.” “So, why are you calling me?”
So how did you crack that? We overcame that with perseverance. I started making Thomas talk for me as much as possible. Then I’d show them my wine list and how I wanted to work with one vineyard, or one purveyor. Then they’d come in and look and say it was beautiful, or notice who else we were selling and then want to sell to us.
In a review of the Paris Buvette I read somewhere the writer remarked that you having a place in Paris validates you having a French place in New York, which caught my eye in a not pleasant way. I think that’s just a snarky thing to say.
That’s what I thought. So validation had nothing to do with opening there I presume? Buvette New York doesn’t need any validation. Buvette is a waffle sandwich. I’m doing carrot cake half the time. I don’t hold anything up to a litmus test of being French. So it wasn’t validation, it was just that over there I had Thomas and Linden and we said, “Hey, we can do this, so let’s do it.” It was risky – we didn’t know if anybody was going to talk about it. It would be easier for me if they didn’t talk about it and the neighborhood just filled the seats.
Do you feel a strong tie between the two Buvettes? We weren’t going to put the name Buvette on the door or the New York address – we just wanted to be a neighborhood place, not a promise. But then a guy opens the door and says, “Is this the same Buvette as Greenwich Village?” And he was ecstatic – he has a friend who lives down the street here. So we put the name on the door! But we were really scared, because we didn’t really know how it would take. We didn’t want to be “American”, but so many people here told us we had to it in Paris, so it was the reception of Buvette in New York that inspired it.
You had to overcome cultural differences and tackling a new audience; do you feel the same sense of community now in Paris that you have in New York? Yeah, we love it; they’re taking care of us now! They’ll come in and send a guy that’s made some organic apricot juice, or something. You get in the circle and then it all happens.
At this point, you have two small but very successful places in two of the most beautiful cities in the world. When you wake up in the morning, what makes you most excited about what you have? I get so much joy out of Paris and New York. Like this morning; they’re six hours ahead, so they’re in dinner and we’re just starting up. We opened for breakfast today, at 8:30 over there, so I’m like, “I wanna see the pain perdu; you’re slicing it too thin, man!” “Well they’re not finishing it!” “Well, they’ll never buy it if it doesn’t look good!” Technology, where we can Facetime and see each other, is really making this not necessarily easy, but it helps. There’s no substitute for having your hands in there, but I can know what’s going on. I have an escape.