Patricia Williams has been cooking in New York for almost 30 years, and her resume includes many restaurants that made a significant imprint on the city’s dining scene, including Barry Wine’s Quilted Giraffe, Arizona 206, and Sarabeth’s Kitchen. And after spending time behind the burners of Butterfield 81 and Morrell’s, she took on the daunting task of feeding hundreds of dinner and hotel guests at the Muse Hotel’s District, and continued cooking there when it became Nios.
Williams’s impressive career is actually her second: the Houston, Texas, native first moved to New York in 1972 to be a ballet dancer. She spent her twenties dancing with several companies, including the New York City Ballet, before deciding to retire at age 30. Following a life-changing trip to France, Williams, who is entirely self-taught, returned to the city to cook. The chef’s latest gig is at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club on the Upper West Side, where she took over the kitchen in March. Williams found a bit of time to speak with us about what it’s like to cook in a jazz club, as well as the dreaded institution of “jazz brunch,” and the similarities between dancing and cooking. Tune in tomorrow for the second part of the interview, where Williams weighs in on industry sexism, the biggest mistake she ever made in the kitchen, and what she feels is really motivating politicians’ concerns about salt.
Jazz clubs aren’t usually known for their food.
[Laughs] So I hear.
How did your collaboration with Smoke come about?
I had known them [owners Paul Stache and Frank Christopher] for a long time; I set up a very small menu for them six years ago. They were looking to really take it more into a restaurant and supper club. I had been running two hotels for four years. Two hotels can take its toll after awhile. They contacted me, and I said, “Sure, it’s 61 seats, let’s go for it.” I wanted to make sure the menu would be mine and that I could do exactly what I wanted. They guaranteed that. That was the first step.
What considerations went into creating your menu?
It’s a small kitchen, so I looked at what I believed would work. I can design menus and menus, but unless it works in the space, it doesn’t do any good to design them. And I always look at the season and then a balance of what’s going to work. I made sure we had salads and soups and things that would fit in with the neighborhood. And we tried things as specials to see how they’d be received. It’s very important for the menu to be reflective of your customer base.
What’s Smoke’s customer base?
It’s very varied. They’re locals, and then a lot of people from different countries who come to it as a destination — we get people from places like France and Australia. So I wanted it to be a varied menu, to have a duck dish, a chicken dish, several seafood dishes, pasta, and seasonal, organic vegetables. Those types of things really do appeal to everyone.
How’s the reaction to the food been?
Fantastic. This woman was in the other day and told me, “I don’t even like jazz. I come for the duck dish.” And brunch has been very well-received: on Mother’s Day, we had 100 people, and we only have 50 seats.
The term “jazz brunch” is known to inspire fear and loathing. How do you get away from its less flattering associations?
I wanted to get away from the standards, the benedicts and pancakes, and do a little bit more elaborate food that people weren’t used to having. So there’s oven-baked French toast with creme fraiche, and then instead of just salmon with a bagel and cream cheese, we do scrambled eggs with cream cheese with smoked salmon in the eggs. It’s not the same thing you get at every other place around the neighborhood.
With a few exceptions, your customers are there first and foremost for the jazz. How do you compete with the music?
I said, “People like good food and they’re going to notice good food.” During the music, you don’t want much chatting, and there’s no way for me to associate with guests during that time — they’re there for the music. So I tried to make dishes that were very bold. … I wanted to make sure that the food did make a statement on its own, and I wouldn’t have to define it.
Do you get a lot of requests from the musicians?
They eat off the menus. They love this new salmon dish with cockles and chorizo.
Are you a jazz fan?
Yes. I like a lot of jazz vocalists. I’m a huge fan of Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, and more contemporary singers like Lea DeLaria.
You used to be a ballet dancer. How did you decide to become a chef?
Dancers don’t eat, so it was food deprivation that propelled me to go into food. I decided a long time ago that I’d retire when I was 30 — that’s considered middle-aged for a dancer. I wanted to be young enough that I could turn over my career and be successful in a second career. So I moved to France. That was before the food industry and food [worship] really hit the States, but it was always a major part of how the French ate. I worked in little auberges, and came back to New York and made a list of the restaurants where I wanted to work. The Quilted Giraffe was the only four-star American restaurant to ever exist. I went to Barry Wine, who was the very hands-on owner, and said, “This is what I know how to do. I’m a dancer and a quick learner and if you take a chance on me, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.” So he did, and I started plating desserts.
Are there any similarities between dancing and being a chef?
Absolutely. I don’t know that I think food is an art, but I think it’s very artistic, and there are a lot of similarities with performance in that you get very hyped up and the adrenaline starts flowing. It’s the same with service: things are going fast and decisions need to be made fast. There’s a lot of technique involved in cooking — it’s important that the scallops have the proper sear, that the temperature is correct, etc. — and it’s the same thing with dancing.
You worked at so many places that were considered hot spots back in their day, like the Quilted Giraffe and Arizona 206. How does restaurant hype now differ from restaurant hype back in the ’80s and early ’90s?
It’s changed a lot. Most of that is through TV. Young chefs in culinary school think that the Daniels and Danny Meyers just got up one day and were famous, which isn’t true. Daniel started cooking at 13 or 14: this is not overnight success. These are people who really learned the trade and worked very hard at it. It’s not that someone gave them money and they opened a restaurant and they were successful. That’s the misnomer of being a celebrity chef.