Chef Jody Willams Doubles Down With Buvette
"I hope my business is as good today as it will be tomorrow, and I hope people are here. But if I can keep the energy up I have a lot more things I want to do."
Chef Jody Williams's Greenwich Village Buvette often comes off to diners as being so French, an observation Williams laughs at; "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." Her space is steeped in a sense of fun and adventure, with a style that seems incredibly personal yet also not quite definable, a result of the "trial and error" system self-taught Williams acknowledges gives her a bit of freedom to play. The menu is similar, where classic French dishes get coupled with some rather American elements. And then there's Williams herself, whose French is self-described as "terrible. But at least it's not loud."
So how did Williams go on to create the sweet little spot that's beloved from first light till far after dark, and then open a second of the same name in Paris? We got the bottom of her perseverance, and about what she's learned from owning restaurants in two of the world's greatest culinary cities.
You were largely steeped in Italian cuisine, having lived and cooked in Italy and here. How did French win out? I don't think it's won out. I imagine if you write a book you may begin with one story to tell, but it doesn't mean as write you don't have something else deep inside you. I love food and wine, period. 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.
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!
Well then, if Buvette is an extension of your heart and energy, how would you define that? How does it satisfy you? I love the word satisfying; it's such a quest! Now Buvette is not a restaurant and it is a restaurant; I want it to be a space that lets you be what you want it to be and do what you want, where 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 croque monsieur with Laughing Cow cheese, and at the same time we're shaving fresh truffles over eggs. There are fewer 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.
Do you ever pat yourself on the back for overcoming a hard market to such a successful place without formal training or a more rigid business model? Not really. 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. I hope my business is as good today as it will be tomorrow, and 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 a slow study.
Speaking of more to do, what was the impetus for opening up a Buvette in Paris? I was open to the idea of doing Buvette again and again—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, a helpful redundancy. "You don't have any tables? Go break eggs."
I love to take a chance on people. When I just opened, one guy from Paris walked and I asked if he'd want to come in at 6 a.m. and clean. I didn't think he would, but he became my first steward four years ago, a big contribution. So when he returned to France I promised him we'd do something. Meanwhile a regular customer once came in and 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. Purveyors there are very interesting, because nobody wanted to give us food! Everybody is really 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 was 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?"
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 a writer remarked that having a place in Paris validates you having a French place in New York. 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 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.