The restaurant Tappo, on the corner of First Avenue and 12th Street in Manhattan's East Village, was once a deli where you could buy Slim Jims and illegal drugs. Today, the interior looks and feels like a turn-of-the-century Italian farmhouse where you're served old-world dishes from Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain. The food, like chef Jody Williams herself, is gutsy and unassuming; order anything you want, on or off the menu, ingredients permitting. She serves simple country fare—blood-orange salad, jailhouse soup (bread and garlic), pumpkin ravioli—borrowing recipes that have been passed down from family to family at kitchen tables throughout the Mediterranean and Adriatic.
Gregory Brainin, chef de cuisine at the French restaurant Jean-Georges, says he eats at Tappo every week on his night off. "I love Williams's lack of pretense," he says. "What I don't understand is how she manages to produce a different menu every day. It's amazing." Chef, restaurateur and Food Network host Mario Batali calls her one of his favorite cooks in the world. "What sets Williams apart is her confidence," says Batali, who also happens to have been her first boss. "I would travel a long way to eat at one of her restaurants."
If the 39-year-old Williams is fast becoming an industry legend, she'd be the last to tell you. There are no awards on her walls, no celebrity photographs. Williams never attended culinary school. She gets just as excited about giving a luncheon for retired teachers as she does about cooking at the prestigious James Beard House—the mecca of the culinary world.
Williams grew up in California's bland suburbs, the daughter of a special-ed teacher and a businessman who divorced when she was 5 years old. "My mother taught me there was more to life than suburbia," says Williams. On weekends, Williams helped out at her father's hot dog stand on Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. There she fell in love with the physicality of the work and the adrenaline-fueled rush of feeding busloads of hungry customers.
At 24, she moved to New York City with the idea of working for the best chefs. A year later, Kathy Casey, a chef known for her Northwest cuisine, brought Williams to Italy to help her cook American specialties in restaurants all over the country. They made chocolate chip cookies at Rosetti's, one of Rome's old bakeries, and sloppy joes at Caffé Arti e Mestieri, an elegant trattoria in Northern Italy. The café's chef watched as Williams ladled barbecue sauce and offered her a job on the spot.
Williams didn't speak the language and had never cooked Italian food professionally. During her time off, she would visit farmhouses in the countryside to see what ordinary people ate. "My Italian was really bad at the time, so I couldn't communicate. But I would always bring a picnic lunch to sort of ingratiate myself with the family." Williams learned how to make Parmesan cheese and balsamic vinegar, raise quails and chickens, and tend fruit trees and herb gardens. "I learned more sitting around talking on a Sunday night, rolling out pasta, than at any of the restaurants I worked in. I saw cooking in a whole new way."
Back in Manhattan today, Williams feels she has finally made it. "My biggest compliment is when customers assume the chef is a man," she says from behind the bar at Tappo's open kitchen. "I catch a look of disbelief on their faces—I love that moment."