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.
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.
What was the original idea behind Buvette?
I wanted to carve out a place where I’d want to be. There are things I love about restaurants and things I don’t like. I don’t want to make reservations or go through two hostesses. I don’t want to be told how to eat, to be told I should order a first or second course. I was missing the piazza, the place where you go hang out. I don’t care what you do, just come in. If it’s good, you’ll eat. If it’s great, you’ll stay and drink. If it’s warm and welcoming, you’ll come back. So I came up with the word gastrotheque — we serve food and wine all day long, and you can grab a chair and bring your friends in. I wanted to purge all the formality — just come in and do your thing. And at the same time, we have smart waiters who can maneuver and balance and tame you and involve you in the process. I want people to feel comfortable eating here every other day, or twice a day.
You’ve had a unique entrepreneurial experience here. Tell me about that.
I could not build a restaurant out of my pocket. When you’re stuck, you need to be really creative. That’s a great place to be — I thrive in that.
Is this city uniquely challenging for building a restaurant without investors?
The city offers a lot of opportunity to do neat things and traditional things — and the city’s very hard. And the public is much more educated and savvy and alert. They’re here with their phones and cameras — you’re very exposed these days. You have a combative bureaucracy in New York. But there’s still a lot of opportunity. There are people here. I don’t see a lot of people in small towns. Once you figure it out, it’s easy. You’ve got nothing to lose, just do it. Do something that fulfills you. You make mistakes and you learn.
Why the West Village? And how has the neighborhood changed?
It’s changed a lot — I’ve been in the West Village always. I live here as well. It’s my neighborhood, my people. There’s no more Chumley’s, which is a total bummer. That sums up everything — and you can’t get Chumley’s back, which sums up the other story. There are a lot more restaurants, and there’s not the seediness or edginess that there used to be — even to be open late is seen as a problem. I believe restaurants are a public service — and not everyone in New York is up at 8 a.m. People come in at 2 a.m. and need a quiet place to be. You do it right in New York, and it’s a good thing. This is not Westchester.
This has become a neighborhood staple so quickly — what’s the secret to a great neighborhood restaurant?
You’ve got to have the intention from the ground up. A lot of restaurants are businesses meant to give fast return on an idea or trend, be it ramen or pizza. I like things that are timeless; I wanted to build something that was going to last. There are restaurants in Italy that have been there since the 18th century. That inspires me.
Why Paris after New York?
I love the city and I love the food. I had a young man come here looking for a job; his wife was transferred to New York for banking, and I had just opened the restaurant, so I said, “You want a job, be here at 6 a.m.” He had no experience. So we teach this guy to wash dishes, make béchamel, make croque monseiurs, peel artichokes — it was great. He made every mistake. One time he pulled a rack out of the refrigerator and ruined all the mise en place. That was like four days work. Anyway, so finishes his year and he and his wife move back to Paris. I really respected him, and we worked really well together. So I say, “You move to Paris, you can open a Buvette.” In the meantime, I’ve made Buvette so it could be everywhere. We keep it simple. We have two cocktails: a Manhattan and a Martini. We do whole milk and coffee, no skim. I love streamlined: I keep one vodka and one gin.
He thought about it, and he writes me a letter and says, “I’m going to start looking for a space.” I’m thinking, are we going to go make tarte tartin in Paris? We meet a woman who has an Indian restaurant in Paris, and she says, “Why don’t we turn it into Buvette?” The neighborhood was not quite happening, but it was soon-to-be. It felt so perfect, so right for us. I was very self-conscious about being an American there — but where better to learn than in Paris? And you know what? I love it. The French people around me were very encouraging. And the success that we’re having here, it’s not so different. It’s just a longer commute.
Any big surprises at your restaurant in Paris?
Chicken cooks twice as long. I started making coq au vin in Paris, and we were using these heritage birds, and it was like, these can go for another four hours. Other than that, I guess I’m surprised that the French do things everyone said they wouldn’t do: stand in line for brunch and eat by themselves at the bar.
How did Tokyo happen?
My pastry chef moved back to Tokyo with her husband, who’s also in food and beverage. I said, “You guys, you gotta do this — I’ll do everything I can to help you do it.” They came to Paris to see how it works in another country, and I told them, if you want to do it, you have to be the entrepreneur and make it happen. So we’ll see — it’ll take a couple of years, but we’re pursuing it.
A lot of people have a hard time running two restaurants in the same city — anything observations on the difficulty with running restaurants in two different countries?
I guess I could make it hard, but every little problem has an answer. It’s not hard except that JFK is an awful airport.
How has the public’s attitude about food changed over your career? What still needs to change?
We now recognize what’s healthy and what’s not healthy. No trans fats. No big sodas. I love classic things, but now I do things thinking about health. Also, ethnic food is so woven into the fabric now. Mozzarella used to be a foreign object. People think about simplicity and where things are from and how much garbage you make — there’s a certain sense of responsibility. You have to have a philosophy as a chef — you have to be a caretaker.
What are your goals?
I want to keep playing out ideas. There’s so many things I like to do. And I’d like to do something else — I have a lot of ideas.
Best place in the city for a coffee:
San Ambrose Madison Ave or Cafe Sabarsky.
Best place in the city for a drink:
Summer: A stoop, a brown bag, and a cold beer. Winter: McSorely’s, Jameson neat
Quintessential New York restaurant:
Who would you most like to cook for?
Who would you be most nervous about cooking for?
A [person with a] nut-dairy-gluten-sugar-garlic-shellfish-allergy plus salt-free.
Dish you could eat forever?
Something you love about New York restaurants:
They’re open late, no valet parking needed, and they’re full of interesting people.
Something you wish you could change:
Department of health or immigration policy.
Pressing industry issue:
GMOs and over-fishing.
Anything that’s gone untold or been misrepresented?
What the hell with the small plates? I shove as much food on small plates as people do on big plates. You’re missing it. It’s food. It drives me nuts. Value — it’s a perception of value. But then, I don’t like any label.