Buvette's Jody Williams: "I Don't Like Any Label"
Walk into Buvette (42 Grove Street, 212-255-3590) during the throes of its dinner service, and your best bet is to surrender yourself to its rhythm. You will not find the icy hostess who guards the threshold of most New York restaurants, keeping a hold of the table turns and reservation book. You'll likely feel like you're in the way as you scan the room for a seat, and once you find one, you'll very likely be sharing elbow room with a stranger. It is exactly how chef-owner Jody Williams intended it, and so long as you're able to give up formal dining's rigid rules for a night, you'll probably have a great time.
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Williams grew up in California, and after studying art history and liberal arts in college, came to New York City and began cooking professionally. "I got my first job out of the Village Voice," she says. "I didn't have a lot of experience. So I show up and they say, 'Go downstairs and change.' I said, 'Change into what?' I didn't see it at all. So I started. They gave me a lot of challenges, and I met a lot of interesting people. It was untraditional work, an untraditional lifestyle, and a fit for what I was doing at the time."
She later worked under Thomas Keller at Rakel before splitting for France -- "a very difficult place to join the ranks," she says -- and then she traveled around Italy, where she landed a job in a small town. "I thought I'd stay a month, maybe three months, and I stayed three years," she says. "When I first got there, I thought, how are these people going to do 100 covers? I had been French trained with the mise en place. But I got it. I got the rhythm and the seasonality that we're all relearning now. We would contemplate the zucca, the pumpkin, and whether it had too much water this year as compared with that year. It was a really great experience, and I started dreaming."
She soon outgrew the village and headed to Rome, where she spent an additional three years before returning to New York. She was set on opening her own place then, but she was strapped for cash. So Buvette started small and gradually grew into the restaurant it is today, a place that attracts neighbors and regulars from the early morning until late at night. Unwilling to rest on her laurels, Williams has since expanded to Paris with a second Buvette, and she's exploring space in Tokyo, too. And she just released a cookbook, too. "There's a point where this becomes work and a job, and I try to stay away from that," says Williams. "Since I'm one of those chefs that's self-taught, I get to move around collecting experiences."
In this interview, Williams weighs in on being an entrepreneur in New York, the secret to building a neighborhood joint, and two surprising things Parisians do.