chefs interrupted

Jody Williams and Rita Sodi Bounce Back

The Via Carota partners discuss the view from their window.

From left, Jody Williams and Rita Sodi at home in New York. Photo: Pari Dukovic
From left, Jody Williams and Rita Sodi at home in New York. Photo: Pari Dukovic

Between the two of them, chefs Jody Williams and Rita Sodi own three insanely popular West Village restaurants (Buvette, I Sodi, Via Carota) plus an aperitivo bar (Bar Pisellino); they were in the midst of construction on another project when the coronavirus suspended ordinary life. We talked to them in early May by phone in their West Village apartment, where they’ve been sheltering in place and preparing to reopen for pickup and delivery.

How are you?
Rita Sodi: Up and down, up and down. Our days are going by fast.

Jody Williams: We haven’t left the house in 54 days. We haven’t left the house since the 16th of March. I haven’t wanted to go outside, not because I’m afraid; I haven’t wanted to go outside because I don’t want to see my restaurants shuttered. We used to dream of being home for three months. I mean, Can’t I just stay home for one day? Rita says these two things: dolce far niente (literally “sweet doing nothing”). What’s the plan? No plan. That’s great. Sweet nothing. The other thing that she said the first day was chi si ferma è perduto: “If you stop, you’re lost.” We’re pushing through everything we ever started and dreamt little by little by little. It might be the end of us, or we may reap the benefit of it. I can’t tell from here. But we believe in what we’re doing, and we love it. We’re trying to figure it out: what’s worthwhile, what’s safe, what’s the future. Hopefully, we’ll all work together: Our landlords will work with us, and our people will work with us and our vendors.

That sounds optimistic.
JW: Well, I can talk to you today. I probably couldn’t talk to you two or three weeks ago, or even mention employees or any of the restaurants, without choking up. Before we closed Buvette and Via Carota, we set a table in the corner of each restaurant waiting, waiting for the time when somebody could come back in.

How do you pass the time?
JW: We watch NY1, which is like our best friend now. Our NY1 crew, our New York mayor, our New York governor, and our cats—we’re all together. Right, Rita? And we spend so much of our time learning new shit, you know, whether it’s about medical testing or SBA nuances. One day we sat from 9 a.m. ‘til 1 a.m. in the morning with the same half-drunk coffee in front of us working on a loan. It was like a co-op application times four times ten.

A lot of people including chefs and restaurateurs left the city at the beginning of the pandemic. Why didn’t you?
JW: We never even thought about it. We would never leave the city. We’re two minutes away from our restaurants. We’ve got to be here. You can’t just walk away. Our people are here. We’re going to figure it out, or, you know, we’re going to go down with the ship.

What’s it like where you are in the West Village?
JW: The street really tells the story. It’s amazing how it can be so deserted and quiet. We actually hear church bells every hour on the hour that we never heard before from up on Greenwich Avenue at Jefferson Market Library. The first time, we said, “What’s that?” And I’m thinking, Turn your phone off, Rita! And you see the complete change of the seasons, which went from bare trees to a few in white blossoms to losing the blossoms, and now the trees are all green and really filling out. And then there was a moment when we saw a rat walk slowly across Sixth Avenue, literally in the crosswalk at two in the afternoon, because cars haven’t been on it much—

RS: He tried to go to Starbucks but it was closed —

JW: We saw time stop. And you see time going quickly, quickly, at the same time.

Can you enjoy it at all?
JW: Yeah, we are sort of able to savor the moment, like, enjoy coffee without rushing out the door. It’s sort of surreal that we’re at a point where we’re able to disconnect and then, like — Wait a minute, we gotta deal with this, and this, and this. So there’s these two worlds that we’re able to exist in, except when you go to bed. You can’t sleep because of the anxiety, and waking up, and nightmares.

RS: We need a little help sleeping.

JW: We never spent so much time in our own kitchen. It’s been quite lovely, a lot of it, but it’s on the nightmare level on the outside. I think back to just being concerned about everybody making it through this. It’s not ever us just sitting here having a cup of coffee. The weight of our employees, our neighbors, our customers — everything, you know, is always there.

But you have to eat.
RS: Yes, the first thing we say in the morning is “What are we having for dinner?” We try to eat early, not too late, and have one big meal where we sit down and everything.

What are you having for dinner tonight?
JW: Peas … peas and pork chops. It’s in our rotation. Rita cooks the peas. The other night, they were frozen from FreshDirect. I was like, “How long do you need for the peas?” And she was like, “45 minutes.” This is a bag of frozen peas that Rita Sodi’s going to cook with a clove of garlic, water, salt and pepper, and olive oil, and I swear to God, the peas were so beautiful. And I realized why she’s such a great chef is because she takes tiiiime; she doesn’t cut corners. She will cook those peas for 45 minutes. She will sauté that spinach for 45 minutes. And I appreciate that, and I reap the benefit of being quarantined with her.

RS: That’s very nice. Thank you, Jody.

Do you cook together?
JW: Sometimes we work together. I think I’m an excellent sous-chef for Rita. I prep; I’m very fast. I already got the peas out when you were riding the [Peloton] bike. But Rita doesn’t really help me when I cook because I don’t think she knows what the hell I’m going to do … and neither do I [Rita laughs].

What other things do you cook?
JW: I torture Rita with my curries, my curried lentils. I love Mexican food, so I cook Mexican food. Rita’s very forgiving.

Why is Rita laughing?
JW: I love cilantro. She doesn’t eat cilantro. Last time I cooked Mexican, she went into the kitchen after, and I said, “What are you doing?,” and she said, “I’m getting some Alka-Seltzer.”

You’ve decided to reopen your restaurants for delivery and pickup, maybe by the end of the month. Was it a difficult decision?
JW: Well, we feel a lot of angst. We want to be there for our guests. We want to have a voice. We don’t want to extinguish the spirit of our restaurants in this neighborhood by being shut down, and we don’t want to be an attractive nuisance for people to, you know, get sick. We’re trying to balance what’s right, what’s the guiding principle, and when is the right time? Nobody’s expendable. You know, it’s not like, “Okay, the back of the house can jump in and cook.” That’s appalling. If Rita and I aren’t going to stand in that kitchen and cook, then nobody’s going to stand in that kitchen and cook. I don’t really want to go back in wearing a mask, and in this kind of bullshit world, but unfortunately we gotta plow through this. We’ll do everything we can to make it work.

What are you thinking of doing?
JW: We’re actually building a much bigger e-commerce platform for Via Carota, I Sodi, and Buvette, so we’re going to see what’s possible. We’re late to the game. This was aspirational for us, but now it’s critical.

RS: Maybe a meal kit or a little sidewalk market or a grocery selling everything you need for a week.

JW: We might do our vinaigrette, Bar Pisellino’s panini and tramezzini. Rita might do her meat sauce. She’s also got a killer cacio e pepe sauce in the works. But we’re definitely not going to put a plastic table out and sell Aperol spritzes in plastic cups to people who aren’t wearing their masks.

How about lasagna?
RS: Yes.
JW: Oh my God, yes. And cans of olive oil; Rita has 50 gallons of her family’s olive oil arriving Friday from Italy.

What about Buvette?
JW: Buvette’s never done takeout, but I would love, tonight, to have a big bowl of cassoulet. I would love to have tarte Tatin. Now this is when I want to cry. I would love to have terrines and pâtés and rillettes, you know? That’s a new business to me. I like my old business. But we’ve all got to do things.

This interview was edited and condensed.

*A version of this article appears in the May 25, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Jody Williams and Rita Sodi Gear Up for Takeout