Buvette’s Chef Jody Williams has never taken a formal cooking course, yet during stints heading the kitchens at Giorgione, Gusto, Morandi and Gottino, she’s established herself as one of the most soulful interpreters of the rustic Italian food experience. Now she’s focused her considerable talents on turning out honest French-Italian fare at the casually elegant Buvette.
Her kitchen career, says Williams, is built entirely of on-the-job learning. Raised in Sacramento by a single working mom, her early eating experiences swung between the “impoverished food system” of the local public school cafeteria and the agricultural bounty of the surrounding Central Valley. Visits with a food-loving, oxtail and mussels-cooking dad added some spice. While attending Centre College in Danville, KY, she discovered the handmade aesthetic of Shaker food; after graduation she headed for San Francisco in search of a kitchen job. Answering an ad in the Chronicle, she arrived for an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel and asked the doorman, “What does a steward do?”
She mastered that job, and was lucky enough to fall in with some people “who were passionate about food,” including a brilliant young sous chef named Mario Batali (now a Williams fan, and a Buvette backer). After six months, she set out for New York to become a chef, landing entry-level stints at Melrose, headed by the Wolfgang Puck-trained chef Richard Krause, and then at Thomas Keller’s Rakel. “I was probably the worst cook he ever had in his kitchen,” she jokes.
These were intense experiences. “I remember going uptown on the One train, exhausted and crying,” recalls Williams. “I had to be at work at eight and it’d be freezing outside, but I’d be the first one in the door at seven-thirty.” It was her “sense of humility,” and her willingness to say, “teach me,” she says, that saw her through those early days.
Next, it was off to Italy, where she worked both in Rome and in Reggio Emilia. She fell in love with “cooking as a craft”—learning how to make Parmesan cheese, tortelli and ravioli, and coaxing the secrets of minestrone from fellow market-goers. Her strong suit and what she loves most, Williams says, is hands-on work: “getting the doors open, doing brunch, lunch, turning in numbers, organizing and teaching cooks.” Where she’s still learning, she admits, is in “forging relationships” with bosses and quelling her tendency to be “a little stubborn, a hothead.”
Her path has been both haphazard and rich in experience, says the chef, who adds, “I’m a sponge. I pick and choose what I like and I mix them together.” She advises the aspiring chef, “Keep challenging yourself, go to the source, and learn from the best.”