An interview with Buvette’s Jody Williams
Words by Evan Hanlon Photographs by Alpha Smoot
Buvette chef Jody Williams draws on her extensive travels, varied experience and collection of treasures to create a favorite space for everything from “newspaper to cork popping.”
The word “buvette,” translated from French, means a host of roughly similar but not-quite-the-same things. One can go with “coffee stall” or “refreshment room” or even “pump room.” But at its essence, it means something both specific and conceptual at the same time: “refreshments.” It’s this specific and conceptual form with which Jody Williams has imbued her gastroteque.
‘We serve from sunlight to candlelight. It’s bright and cheery, and you have your space to spread out and read the paper. At nighttime, we pop some corks, it fills up, and you lose your space. Or rather, use your space, differently.’
Such malleability of space and time also translate to homey ambience, wholly appropriate and necessary for Buvette, which is located on the corner of Grove and Bleecker in the West Village, New York City—home to long-term residents and camera-laden tourists alike.
‘It’s your piazza, your place to come and do this or that. And it functions well in this kind of neighborhood. We have a lot of people who come in daily and go straight through from newspaper to cork popping, and there are plenty of others that come in and out all day. We get a little bit of everybody: those regulars as well as tourists just walking around who find themselves in front and intrigued. We don’t take reservations. It’s very egalitarian. Everybody can get in if you’re willing to wait just a bit. It’s just show up, squeeze in, and eat and drink all day and night. And things here move quickly. You don’t have to wait long to find your place, usually. Though you never know on any given day.’
The universal sense of home comes from more than just the clientele. There is a reason people stop in, and keep coming back, which begins with Williams’s own beginnings.
‘It sort of makes sense that I began in a very traditional way to learn to cook, and I’m here in a very traditional but innovative place to eat and drink, and do business, too. When I finished college I studied history and literature and I decided, “Oh, I’m just going to learn to cook.” I was in San Francisco at the time, and it was really a vibrant and interesting place for food. Chez Panisse was going on. There were the old-fashioned farmers’ markets out at the train station, where you would just get crates of vegetables. So it was that kind of scene where I put my foot in the kitchen door as a steward, just cleaning up and setting the house to see if I liked it, and I did. So I thought, well, “I’ll just move out to New York and knock on doors.”’
New Yorkers have always taken for granted their place in the pantheon of fine dining, even more so with the rise of a new Northern California sensibility around the province of food. The chaos of creativity and borderline lawlessness of eighties New York, however, created a very different experience for not just artists, but burgeoning chefs, as well.
‘I moved to New York after college and just started knocking on doors. It was wild. Cooks in those days were party animals. Restaurants had their own culture that matched what the rest of New York was like at the end of the ’80s, when the meat market was still a meat market. I would just read the Village Voice, look for jobs, and show up at the door. Still, I always gravitated toward the best. You know, what did I have to lose? And I would fake it. I would work as hard as I could, and I would fake as much as I could, and learn as fast as I could. And probably be the worst cook in the kitchen. But I thrived in that environment and the physicality of cooking. It comes to me innately. I have an oven in the back of my head, so when I walk away from the kitchen, I can still see what’s baking.’
Buvette feels completely of a place and time in the modern New York, but there is a distinctly Continental feel that runs throughout the establishment. That Old World feel is both purposefully and instinctively imported by Williams from her own collection of overseas experiences and materials.
‘I learned enough that I could really call myself a cook in New York City. So I decided to go to Europe to explore, and set up some opportunities. I was planning to spend six months in a little village near Bologna. I ended up staying for three years. It was a very kismet experience, a lot of floating without any real purposeful direction. I said, “When the ivy grows to the second floor, I’ll move to Rome.” And three years later, the ivy grew, and I moved to Rome. Once I got there, I said “If I just stay awake for three days, I can get a job, find a place to stay, and arrange my life here.” And I did. I worked all over Rome. The Hassler at the top of the Piazza di Spagna, Harry’s Bar on Via Veneto.’
The sojourn, however, did not end in Europe.
‘I actually ended up in Japan, which was incredible. You see that Japan does French food like the French. I’ve had some of the best French wines in Japan. They get the culture, and that’s what finally sunk in there. I was learning food, I was learning language, and ultimately I was learning culture. They’re all so related that you can’t really understand one without the other. Part of learning how to cook, you’re learning how to live well. I got that especially in Europe. It wasn’t about cooking, or the job, or learning how to be a chef. It’s about life.’
After being out of the United States for six years and nearly as many cuisines, it was time for Williams to come home and start something for herself.
‘One of the things about being self-taught is that you take the job to educate yourself and to risk, to learn, to put yourself out there. When that job doesn’t fulfill those criteria anymore, that’s it. I wasn’t interested in just a paycheck, so I’d look for the next place, whether it was in pastry or butchery or a larger, more corporate organization. Eventually I got to a point where I had nothing to lose in starting to do my own thing.’
Buvette, however, is not necessarily a discrete form that was arrived at by a carefully articulated plan. If anything, it reflects the accumulative processes on which Williams has built her career, and more broadly, her life.
‘I had ideas for a long time, and I’d accumulate them from all the corners of Rome while I was there. But it was only when I got back here that I realized I needed to start something that would bring all those things that I was missing together. I wanted to make a place where I would hang out, where friends would come together. If that meant sitting on wine boxes and cooking off a panini press with an espresso machine, so be it, that’s okay. That was the original idea. I wasn’t planning a big restaurant. Let’s just get a place we can fill. I’ve always worked in the Village, and so I started filling here.’
And there’s a whole lot of filling that’s happened. Formerly the home of the Pink Tea Cup, Buvette retains the tin ceiling as a souvenir to its venerable precedent. The rest, however, is an externalization of the collection of experiences that Williams has gathered up until now: piles of corks, baskets of baskets, storied silver trays, and a seemingly endless supply of small plates and jars from which the menu du jour is served.
‘It all started with writing a letter and making a phone call. I saw this space and said, maybe the landlord will speak to me. And he did. So we met, I told him what I wanted to do, and he said, yeah, let’s build this place. Then you start getting the people together that you know can build what you want. Your tile guy, your painter, but most importantly, me with all my stuff. I’ve always had big collections of junk, dishes, silverware, boxes, antiques, and this and that. And slowly it’s all found its way into the restaurant.’
Along with a large, hand-chalked outline of France, which looks out over the tile, wood, and slate dining room.
‘I always wanted to do French. I had a great run of doing Italian, and I wanted to play with something else. I knew in my head there was a place called Buvette, and I just wanted to do it. I wanted to make tarte Tatin, and coq au vin. I wanted to take big dishes and make them small, take an elaborate meal and make it in two bites. I wanted to work on a gastroteque, the American equivalent of a vineria, but that goes all day, so you can take your breakfast and coffee here, too. It can be your café, it can be your stand-up/sit-down dinner, your indoor/outdoor picnic. It can be all these neat things. You tell me what it is.’