Bitters … Sweet!

How a New York City Actor-Waiter-Bartender Turned into a Budding Entrepreneur

Tobin Ludwig.  Upright Brew House, Hudson Street.  June 2014.

Tobin Ludwig. Upright Brew House, Hudson Street. June 2014.

NEW YORK CITY — Presidents issue pardons, tennis tournaments hand out wildcards, restaurants hold tables for VIPs … so call this the blogger equivalent: On this, my birthday, I’m invoking personal privilege and profiling an honorary family member who, though he’s been intermittently involved in the restaurant trade, isn’t a chef.

Tobin Ludwig, one of the trio of young entrepreneurs behind the relatively new brand Hella Bitters, is something of an adopted son, or at least baby brother, to me and my wife, Caitlin, here in New York City. Tobin’s mother Josette, was a dear friend to my late mother in-law, Joan, and when he came to New York to spend a year here before college, we worked our network to help him secure a job, landing him a gig as a barista at The Harrison, which was about to open in Tribeca.

The timing of Tobin’s arrival seems comical now, but wasn’t at the time:  September 9, 2001.

Two days later, on September 11, he was woken by his roommate at the 92nd Street Y.  The guy’s girlfriend had called from Israel, alarmed about the attack on the city that was in progress. Tobin shuffled out onto Lexington Avenue and saw the smoldering towers way down south…. 

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A Tale of Two Chefs

At Home, and in the Kitchen, with San Francisco’s Sean and Reneé Baker

Sean and Renee Baker, outside Omnivore Books.  San Francisco, California. February 2014 (photo copyright 2014 Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

Sean and Reneé Baker, outside Omnivore Books, San Francisco. February 2014. (photo © 2014 Table 12 Productions, Inc.)

I’ve spent a fair bit of time in San Francisco over the past year, researching the chefs of the 70s and 80s. But I’ve also been very much in the present, in part thanks to Sean and Reneé Baker, who have graciously hosted me in the guest room of their Noe Valley home on my last few visits.

As Toqueland readers may know, Sean is a partner in both Gather restaurant in Berkeley, and Verbena, which opened on Polk Street in December, and where he is the chef. Reneé is a private chef who works for a Bay Area family, cooking for them at home and on the road when they travel.

I first met Sean and Reneé during the Chef’s Holidays program at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park two years ago. Over a beer in the pub, we talked about the pluses and minuses of being a two-chef couple. They met in the kitchen at Millennium restaurant in 2004, then cooked together at Google before their professional paths diverged, Reneé finding her current gig when a desired change of pace led her to perusing the possibilities on Craig’s List.

My assumption was that living in a two-toque household must have helped their relationship endure because chefs’ spouses (they were married in 2011) often feel that they come in a distant second to their partner’s work.

Reneé concurred: “If I wasn’t in the industry, I might not understand why he isn’t home for fifteen hours every day,” she said. “Women not in the industry might not get it, or stick around.”… 

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TALKING SHOP: Jody Williams (Buvette, New York City)

The Buvette Chef and Author on Her New Cookbook, Loving Vague Recipes, and Why Intentions Matter

Jody Williams (photo courtesy Grand Central Life & Style)

Jody Williams (photo courtesy Grand Central Life & Style)

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? … 

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Bon Voyage

Boulud Sud’s Executive Chef Travis Swikard on His New Dinner Series, Working with Daniel, and Moving Up the Kitchen Food Chain

Boulud Sud Executive Chef Travis Swikard (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Dinex)

Boulud Sud Executive Chef Travis Swikard (photo by Evan Sung; courtesy Dinex Group)

At just 30 years of age, Executive Chef Travis Swikard is already a young veteran of the Daniel Boulud empire, having spent five years with the company here in New York City, first at Café Boulud under Executive Chef Gavin Kaysen and now at Boulud Sud, where he was promoted to Executive Chef in the fall.  On Monday night, Travis introduced a Voyage Dinner Series through which he’ll present the cuisine of a different Mediterranean country or region one night each month. This week explored Israel and the next three dinners will serve up Greece (Monday, May 12); Sicily (Monday, June 16); and the Côte d’Azur (Monday, July 14).  All dinners are at 7pm and the cost is $95 per person, exclusive of tax and gratuity.  Tickets are available at events.danielboulud.com.

We sat down with Travis the morning after the Israeli dinner this week to discuss his career, and the series:

TOQUELAND:  How did you first get interested in cooking?

SWIKARD:  I grew up in between my parents’ houses.  I lived with my mom most of the time and my dad every other weekend.  My dad was a really good cook. I loved to cook with him and cook for my family. I think I was four years old, five years old and my dad was making a steak Diane in the house and he put the cognac in the pan and almost blew up the house.  I looked at him and I said, “I want to be a chef.”

How did you start cooking professionally? … 

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Best Laid Plans

I Meant to Post More from Italy, I Really Did 

Imola, Italy

I’m just back from my Italian adventure with Michael White. To those who have checked in on the site for more postcards from overseas, my apologies–a number of factors conspired to prevent blogging from on the ground. I wasn’t able to get the post done before a family vacation that immediately followed the Italy trip, so a wrap-up post or two on an unforgettable trip will follow soon, though not immediately.

Andrew