Sam Tell Companies is no stranger to working with some of the best chefs in the business, including Chef Jody Williams of Via Carota, a renowned Italian restaurant in New York City and longtime Sam Tell client. This rustic eatery with eclectic decor creates a warm, welcoming atmosphere that perfectly complements its authentic, extraordinary cuisine.
The comfortable and casual feel of the restaurant mirrors the personality of Chef Williams, who can often be found wearing jeans and a button-down shirt rather than the white jacket you might expect on a chef of her caliber. Then again, Chef Williams has always done things a little bit differently.
Instead of culinary school, she traveled the world and “learned by doing,” as she says. Her name is now synonymous with high praises for her fan-favorite Italian and French fare in such publications as T Magazine and Bon Appétit, and she's also served as a judge on the popular Food Network show “Chopped.”
Jody Williams recently achieved an entire new level of chef stardom. She and her partner Rita Sodi were recognized by the prestigious 2019 James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Awards as "Best Chef: New York City."
In light of this incredible news, we thought it would be a great time to republish a conversation we had with her some time ago, in which she shares details about her career, and advice—not just for prospective chefs, but for anyone following a dream.
SAM TELL: I’d love to hear a little bit about your history. I know you didn’t go to culinary school. So how did you end up in this business, as a successful chef?
CHEF WILLIAMS: I got here by just doing what I love, doing what came innate and naturally, and traveling—I love learning about culture and food. Both Italian and French cuisines are taught handed down, so I thrived in doing that. I had a lot of fun. I knocked on doors at professional kitchens and learned. It was great.
Sounds fun! But I’m sure it was also a lot of hard work.
Sure. Cooking’s hard work. This is a tough business. But there are so many wonderful layers to it. You have to really be interested and passionate and motivated and ambitious to tackle [this business].
Definitely. What do you think is the most challenging part of opening up a new restaurant?
Well, it’s a small business. And I’m both a chef and a proprietor, so my job begins in the beginning and ends at the end. It’s all in one, you know? So that makes [this job] more challenging than just being a chef. Doing the whole restaurant: the whole mechanics of it, the whole menu, the whole design…I love that. I’m just as interested in how you sit and where you sit in the dining room as I am in the kitchen. [I love] all of it.
It’s so great to hear how much you love what you do. What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?
Well, like I said, there are so many levels when you’re running your own business and you’re also the chef. What’s really rewarding are the relationships I make with the people who I’m working with, and seeing their lives grow. Being a stepping stone for people to go on and do their own thing—that’s really great. When you have people working together year after year, it’s huge. You make wonderful relationships.
Our successes are also really rewarding. You know, having people enjoy what you do, and being thoughtful about how you do it: Making thoughtful choices and finding meaning in that, having a philosophy, taking a stand on how you want to work in the world. We’re always in the position to learn more. You don’t know what’s going to happen in the day. Cooking now is an exciting place to be. Culinary entrepreneurship—going into business, following through, distilling your own liquors, or whatever aspect of farming and politics—is really rich and invigorating.
When it comes to culinary entrepreneurship, you certainly know what you’re doing. I’d love to hear your thoughts on being a female in such a male-dominated industry.
I know it is [male-dominated]. I know that there is a disparity and income inequality—it’s out there, it’s the state that we live in. But from my personal experiences, we’re cooks and chefs, I never really took it as female or male. You’re just in there playing. I’ve been inspired by all kinds of people. I don’t really approach it as a gendered thing, even though I know that gender plays into people making decisions about me doing business and me being a person. We don’t escape that. So I’m not foolish enough to say it never mattered. I’m sure it has always mattered. But to me, I never really broke it down or saw it like that. I saw people who were incredibly helpful and inspiring, and I went in those directions. You gotta be smart, you gotta be strong, you gotta just be who you are. Speak up for yourself. If you’re passionate about something, and you want that job, and you want to be on the line, go for it.
That’s great advice! Switching gears to Via Carota, can you tell me about the kitchen design here?
The way we cook, and our approach about food, from the front door to the back door to the kitchen, sort of reflects our philosophy. It’s a very basic kitchen, but it’s high quality. When you’re working with the health department and the building department, and you need floor drains, and direct waste for hand sinks, and rules and regulations…you need professionals, you need experienced people. And you want to make that environment inspire you and help you work in a very efficient kind of way.
And did Sam Tell achieve that for you?
First phone call I make. They lay out many options that make me a better chef. They’ll make sure I get better equipment and a better design—a design that complies and works with me and my budgets and always exceeds my expectations. I’m always thankful for that.
Do you have a favorite piece of equipment?
I’m nuts about hygiene and cleaning and organization and surfaces and things done right. So an overall custom kind of feature like spices on a little ledge…all that stuff makes a difference.
Off the top of my mind, I was just looking for my olive wood truffle shaver that I love. We have black summer truffles in and we’re doing some pasta tonight with a simple black truffle over it. [The truffle shaver] is definitely a favorite.
Sounds delicious! And of course, one of my favorite questions: What’s your ingredient for success?
Keep trying. Keep being open to spontaneity and ideas. Have persistence, be open, stay positive. You gotta believe in yourself. And I’m not saying that I’m good at any of that. I need to believe in myself more…I need to do all these things more! But when I look out into the world and I pick out people who I admire, they have self-confidence and a thirst for living and doing. It’s not whether you fail or succeed—do it! When you get an idea, that’s a blessing. Follow through with it.
Sam Tell is proud to work with such an inspiring chef, and looks forward to keeping up with her future success. [Originally published 2015, republished May 2019]