An American Chef in Paris
NYC’s cultish French bistro Buvette now has a Paris outpost that’s every bit as popular as the West Village original. Nikki Ridgway spoke to chef and owner Jody Williams about serving French fare to Parisians, why travel trumps school, and her first cookbook, Buvette: The Pleasure of Good Food
“People ask me, ‘Should I go to culinary school?’ and I tell them to go travel,” says chef Jody Williams. “Go to the source, find the history and see the tangible things that are here today but will be gone tomorrow. Right?” Exactly right, chef.
Days before the launch of her first cookbook, Buvette: The Pleasure of Good Food, and Bon Appétit’s May issue spotlight on her eight-month-old Paris bistro, Buvette Gastrothèque, Williams is one of the most buzzed-about chefs on either side of the pond, but she’d much rather talk about an archaic gadget used for cleaning wild chickpeas than Pigalle’s new hot spots. “When I’m in Paris I eat at the old-school places like Chez George and order duck rillette and tarte tatin for lunch,” she explains. “I’m self-taught so I feel naturally drawn to restaurants that are more ingredient-driven.”
After leaving her native California, Williams honed her craft during six years in Italy and as the “worst chef in Japan” at a French-Japanese restaurant near Osaka, before a six-month pit stop in Sydney and the “Michelin-starred thing” in New York. The result of almost a decade on the road is Buvette, NYC’s beloved downtown bistro, which opened on Grove Street in 2011. “Everything I do at the restaurant is based on my travels," Williams says. “The way we move through the space and always serve from silver trays — that’s me sitting in Piazza San Marco in Venice watching the waiters weave between tables with their steady stacked trays. No matter what you order it’s always served on a silver tray. I love that.”
From her melting pot experiences Williams coined the word gastrothèque to describe the Buvette approach to good eating and drinking. “It’s a serious dedication to the enjoyment of food and drink — all day and all night. That’s it.” It’s what makes the pint-size NYC restaurant feel intimate rather than crowded, and why the lengthy wait for a table is as much a part of the experience as the perfectly steamed eggs and the rich coq-au-vin.
Gastrothèque appears on the door of Buvette’s Paris outpost, which opened in the Pigalle district last autumn and already has a loyal local following — and one star fan in Martha Stewart, who recently had a Saturday brunch at Buvette NYC and then flew to Paris and dined at the Pigalle bistro on Sunday evening. “We were prepared to make lots of changes, but there was no need,” Williams says of the new opening. “I was very self-conscious about being an American serving French food in Paris, but it’s working, and now I get to go to Paris whenever I need to escape.”
On the horizon is Buvette Tokyo, helmed by Williams’s former pastry chef from NYC, but first there’s the launch of her cookbook, Buvette: The Pleasure of Good Food. “The process was painful,” she admits. “In the kitchen I know I’ll figure it out, but sitting still in a chair trying to write out a recipe killed me. It’s a hard process, and so emotional, but then I’d see a shot of the confit we created and cooked and think, ‘Did I do that?’"
Favorite Paris restaurant?
“I’m a terrible person to ask about what’s new and happening because I always choose the traditional places to eat, but there are a few restaurants doing really cool things right now. I know local chefs are taking a lot of inspiration from Le Chateaubriand, Spring and Frenchie, and coffee in Paris is finally getting the thumbs up. I love KB Cafe Shop just near us in South Pigalle.”
World’s best food market?
"In the early 1990s it was Campo de Fiori in Rome, which felt wild and unfettered back then. Today markets are more business-oriented, but I still love the fish market near the Bastille and the organic market where we get our vegetables for Buvette Paris. I’m often on Skype choosing ingredients in Paris from NYC."
Favorite foodie souvenir?
"I’m always looking for things for the bar, so an unusual liqueur, amaro or bitter — one you’d find with a hand-written label on a dusty, forgotten shelf."
Top street food destination?
"Thailand, where I would eat green papaya salad until I’m bursting out in sweat, or any Italian sagra, which are little festivals that pop up during the holidays. Most celebrate just one ingredient, like chesnuts, snails or olive oil, but you’ll also see young people out drinking little wines or grappas."
Best city for drinking?
"Dublin. It’s Guinness, Jameson and great music, right? The bars close early, but you can get wild and it’s always harmless. Or, really, anywhere in Italy, because I love starting with wine at lunch, going for a walk and then ordering a caffè corretto (coffee with shot of grappa), which levels you out in time for a late night dinner."
Most memorable travel meal?
"It was a restaurant in the French countryside during a 15-hour drive from Reggio Emilia in northern Italy to a wine festival in Bordeaux. It was the first time I’d had really great French country food: a huge spread of foie gras, duck, cold meat, a hundred types of cheese and too much wine. I don’t remember any of the names now, just that we ate everything in front of us and passed out on the lawn."
Dream destination to own a restaurant?
"I did it... Paris!"