The Buvette Chef and Author on Her New Cookbook, Loving Vague Recipes, and Why Intentions Matter
Jody Williams’ new cookbook Buvette: The Pleasure of Good Food (Grand Central Life & Style; $30) debuts today. Written in collaboration with Julia Turshen and with an affectionate foreword by Mario Batali and exquisite photography by Gentl & Hyers, the book is a real charmer. It shares not just a number of mostly simple and high-utility recipes fashioned after the European fare served up at Williams’ West Village restaurant, but also pantry notes and essays on savoring food and drink that help explain the mindset that makes Buvette such a respite from the madness of Manhattan. With a recently opened Paris outpost and the mother ship on Grove street in a state of perpetual bustle, Jody’s pretty busy these days, but took time out last week to to sit at the long communal table just outside the kitchen door at Buvettte, and chat with us about her debut book.
TOQUELAND: The book really conjures a sense of place and what this place is all about, largely through you just talking about the food. It’s transporting. Was it a goal to create a mood as much as to share recipes?
WILLIAMS: I wish I was capable of consciously creating a mood. If there is a mood or a sense of place, it came out of this body of work subconsciously, and it makes sense for me that it would because the food that I’m cooking really is tied to a place. It doesn’t really change much when I learn a dish in Rome or I learn a dish in France and I bring it back here and try and cook it. I love the culture. I love the language. I love where things are from. Maybe that’s why it feels that way.
How long had you had it in mind to do a book? Is that something you’d always wanted to do?
I like stories. If you’re self‑taught, like I am, you write a lot for yourself about where you were.
Like a journal?
Exactly. A diary, journal.
You mean you do that literally?
Yeah. Let’s say I was in the fish market in Venice or something like that and I ask a lady, “What are you doing with this fish?” And she boils it in salt water with potatoes and olive oil and that’s it. You write about these things. You’re collecting recipes, you’re learning technique, so you end up journalizing a lot. So in that way I’ve always had something there: A book, an editor, and getting involved in all this might have been a little dream. Or I’d see people with books and be inspired by their books and indulge myself thinking, “Wow. How would I do that?” And so here was this opportunity and now here’s this book.
There’s a phrase that you use in the book with one of the egg dishes: “Intention does matter.” And then there’s this essay in the back that your co‑author Julia Turshen wrote about you and she quotes you saying that. It seems like that’s a big idea for you. What does that phrase mean to you?
Well, I don’t have a lot of recipes really written. I might have a paragraph about a dish that I make in my notes or in my journal, and that wouldn’t really be enough material to do the book. So Julia and I spent a month together cooking Monday through Friday. And a lot of times I would be making a dish and I’d say, “Oh, okay, so if you scorched that, we need to do this and fix it like this or do that.” And I would say, “Your intention matters.”
You mean you need to have in your mind at all times, the bull’s-eye that you’re shooting for?
The bull’s-eye. The feeling. Nothing’s perfect in life. Buvette’s not perfect, but our intention is really genuine. We want you to come in and find how you’re going to be comfortable here and enjoy yourself. And that carries over whether you waited a little too long for this, or this was this way today, or yesterday it was bigger. The intention is important and can compensate or resonates with people.
So in cooking then, the intention for any particular dish is the vision of what you want to have on the plate when it’s done?
Not necessarily the physical thing. We cook to feed somebody, right? To give a gift. To nourish. And your intention with that matters a lot. If I want to feed you really fast, get you in and out the door, that’s a bad intention to have, right? That’s not really good for your digestion.
And that’ll show up in the food?
Everything shows up in the food. And I think if you go back, if you look into Ayurvedic Indian medicine: You wash your hands and you begin to cook and you lay out a beautiful mise en place … on every level intention is going to be important.
Was this imparted to you by someone or is this your own philosophy that developed over years of cooking?
I’m just a sponge. If I was with somebody or I was in one of the three yoga classes I’ve taken in my life, if something struck me as having a purity about it, it came with me, subconsciously or consciously. If I see somebody not doing a nice job or slamming things, [I say] “Go home, get out of here. You couldn’t make any great dinner.” We could have ingredients, we have a recipe, now let’s give it an intention. Let’s say you’re making cookies for your neighbor and you botched up the cookies, still that beautiful idea to go and give and share is going to come through and it’s going to be okay.
I mean, even if you just take the garbage can in a kitchen. Double bags, you empty it, you wipe it out, it’s clean. That’s a bad example.
I don’t think it is.
These little mundane details. Every single thing. Fold your towels. And then the imperfections are going to give it a lot of character. Don’t sweat them.
Restaurant books are harder these days to sell than they used to be: Did this book go through other concepts or permutations before it became Buvette? Was it ever called, say, “The Self‑taught Cook?” Was there a development phase that led to the obvious, which is the Buvette book?
They had a choice between the Jody Williams book and the Buvette book, and they went with Buvette. [laughs] But it is a Buvette book looking at how I’ve come as a self‑taught cook to get away with all this. [Editor’s note: We didn’t realize this at the time of the interview but the book was originally announced by the publisher, in 2012, as The Kitchen Table Gastroteque: Perfecting the Art of Gathering With Recipes for Eating, Drinking, and Living.]
Very often when putting a cookbook together, there’s a desire for uniformity in things like yields. I was struck that in Buvette, in the first recipe chapter, there are all these egg dishes, and the yields are very different. A lot of them are for one. Some of them are for two. Some for more. Was there any kind of a discussion that had to happen to get permission to do that?
No. I think they just sort of took me as I came. And I love QB. In Italian cookbooks you’ll see QB. Quanto basta. Just enough. Much of what I cook is also a verbal tradition passed down, cook to cook, chef to chef, in the marketplace, friends, neighbors, this, that. I’m probably terrible at the recipe thing, you know? I don’t really do the recipe thing.
There’s this line in the introduction to The French Laundry Cookbook where Thomas Keller writes, “The idea of cooking and the idea of writing a cookbook are, for me, in conflict. There is an inherent contradiction between a cookbook, which is a collection of documents, and a chef, who is an evolving soul, not easily transcribed in recipe form.” There’s this thing that happens in live cooking where you’re bringing yourself, your experience, your palate to bear that it’s impossible to capture in writing.
Yeah. You read a lot of Italian recipes, they’re a paragraph. Go back and read Elizabeth David or even Richard Olney, right? And he’s very good. And he does an illustration which he drew himself. There are ways to free it up by being very vague and you’re going to have to make this decision. We don’t do that in this country when we’re writing books.
You mean everything has to be super-precise, down to the quarter teaspoon?
Right. I didn’t like that part of writing a cookbook.
But there’s a belief, certainly among publishers, that Americans don’t cook intuitively, to the point where if you call for a certain vinegar, you actually can’t assume readers might figure out that you could use a different vinegar or a different source of acid. You actually need to say, “Use this vinegar or these other specific ones.”
There’s a million ways to do things. I would have loved to just do the old fashioned, “Here’s a paragraph.”
With no quantities?
Yeah. Even French cooks, making a vinaigrette, no one’s measuring. Just get the texture and feel, things like that. Very hard to capture, but older cookbooks do. They’re really fun to read.
Wheat was the working relationship like between you and Julia? Did you two recipe test? When you said you cooked for five days a week for a month, was that the actual testing?
No. The testing was after.
So that was the Vulcan mind meld phase where she would get who you are and how you cook and your palate?
That’s a huge commitment on your part. For both of you, really.
I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know anything about writing a book. It was a lot of time.
And you two would dialogue during that time?
Yeah, dialogue. She was absolutely lovely and just brought such grace and positivity. She did the testing, then I just cooked dishes for the photo shoot. I didn’t even know I did not have to really cook the food for a photo shoot.
You mean that a stylist could trick it?
Yeah. You didn’t have to be falling off the bone.
You did the right thing.
So I see my bomboloni all different sizes. And it’s very much just the way I am, you know? My intention matters.
How did the foreword by Mario Batali come about?
Mario said, “However I can be helpful, just let me know.” I don’t like asking people to do anything. It’s really, really hard for me. But Mario’s a kindred spirit in a way. We cooked together all the way back in San Francisco [in the 1980s]. So he offered. My ups and downs, my bouncing around and stuff like that, he’s always got it.
It may be like asking someone to pick their favorite child but is there a dish or a piece of advice in the book that is a favorite for you?
I don’t know if it comes through but I do a lot of work with a fork and a spoon. The espresso granita in the back, scratch it with a fork. The pecorino or cheese that might go over the piperade, instead of finding that zester, just scratch it with the tines of a fork and get this nice texture in different sizes. When everything becomes different sizes or un‑uniform, it adds a lot of character and texture that I find appealing. And the flavors will be a little bigger, will be more salty on your palate.
It’s like an intentional imperfection.
Yeah, I love that. The intentional imperfections. How to create that imperfect beauty.