How This Award-Winning Duo Balances Love and Work
Rita Sodi and Jody Williams on finding a happy mediumRachel Tepper Paley
September 10, 2020
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP), presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and Audi’s #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners and Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) Program alumni. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Below, Rachel Tepper-Paley catches up with James Beard Award-winning duo, Rita Sodi and Jody Williams, on how they collaborate both in and outside of the kitchen.
Partnership can take many forms. Many find its ideal embodiment in professional unions, which when calibrated just right, can help steer career dreams into reality. Others find the perfect partnership in romance, in which lives intertwine and strengthen one another. For a lucky few, it’s both. Such is the case for Rita Sodi and Jody Williams, two James Beard Award–winning chefs who fell in love and started opening critically acclaimed restaurants together. Between them, the duo have four concepts in New York City—Sodi’s gastroteca I Sodi, Williams’s French-inflected cafe Buvette (which also has outposts in Paris and Tokyo), the duo’s market-driven Via Carota, and espresso and cocktail spot Bar Pisellino.
“I never imagined I would have someone like Rita Sodi in my life,” reflected Williams. The couple met about a decade ago, she said, when Sodi first opened I Sodi on a leafy stretch of New York City’s Greenwich Village. Williams, who lived in the neighborhood, would pass by the restaurant’s construction site on her way home and marvel. When I Sodi finally opened for business, Williams was immediately struck by the pared-down menu, which still managed to feature not one but three different asparagus dishes. “It was asparagus season,” she recalled. “No chef would really do that! I was just in love with the food and the restaurant and the style. And I look down at the end of the bar and I see Rita there, sitting down eating her dinner.”
Williams went over and introduced herself. A storybook courtship commenced: Williams would bring Sodi fresh strawberries from the market. Sodi would share tips on where to source the best linens and a contact for her go-to accountant. In no time at all, they were a couple. The pair married in 2015.
Williams and Sodi followed vastly different paths to the food world. Sodi, a native of northern Tuscany in Italy, spent years in the fashion business working for Calvin Klein Jeans before ever stepping foot in a professional kitchen. A longing for the foods of her childhood—the tender prosciutto, pungent salami, and seasonal vegetables from her family’s farm in the lush Mugello valley—propelled her to open I Sodi, even amid the uncertainty following the 2008 financial crisis.
Williams, meanwhile, cooked all through her Californian childhood. “I was barbecuing when I was probably about seven years old on a little hibachi in the driveway,” she recalled. “I was always involved in some food, whether it was working in the cafeteria to subsidize my education or selling hot dogs after school.”
From an early age, Williams was inspired by California’s gorgeous seasonal produce: “At the old train station, it was a habit to get cases of basil and cases of peppers. There'd be so many pears falling off the trees that all your neighbors [were] making pear cake.”
After college, Williams jumped into New York City’s professional cooking scene. She eventually landed in Italy herself, earning what she dubbed a “doctorate in Italian food’ while living in Rome and the province of Reggio-Emilia over the course of six years. After returning to the Big Apple on a whim—”I just sort of go with the wind,” Williams said—she took a sous chef position at Lidia Bastianich's storied Italian eatery Felidia. It wasn’t long until she took a stroll down Fisher Street and spied what would become I Sodi.
After Williams opened Buvette, the duo worked separately, but together. Often, when Williams traveled to Paris on business, Sodi would step in to make sure the restaurant was running smoothly. If a door came off its hinges at I Sodi, Williams would call someone to fix it. “It's natural to share and support,” she said. Still, their kitchens remained separate domains—Williams didn’t tinker with I Sodi’s menu, and Sodi didn’t mess with Buvette’s.
Things changed in 2014 when the pair opened Via Carota, their first restaurant together. Rustic yet refined, Via Carota consistently delivers delightful Tuscan cooking, from wild-boar ragù over pappardelle to poached leeks, chilled and crowned with shaved mullet roe, and crumbles of hard-cooked eggs. The results speak for themselves: last year, Sodi and Williams together earned the James Beard Award for best chef in New York City. Not long after, they consolidated their position as the New York culinary scene’s it-couple with Bar Pisellino, an all-day Italian bar serving everything from espresso to elegant crustless white-bread sandwiches.
But the pair’s greatest challenge might be handling the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Like most restaurants in New York City, Sodi and Williams’s properties all shut down in mid-March as the virus hit full tilt in the five boroughs. “While our doors are closed and our hearts are sheltering, we will be thinking of the better times we shared with you on Grove Street,” read a post on Buvette’s Instagram account from March 20. “See you soon for Champagne and Croque Monsieurs.”
But the duo have shown resilience even in this time: Buvette, I Sodi, Via Carota, and Bar Pisellino have all since re-opened with new outdoor dining and delivery options. No matter the future, Williams and Sodi are clearly in it together.
“We really are very similar in how we like to cook, how we like to eat, how we like to feel in a restaurant, how we like a restaurant to make us feel,” Williams said.
That said, the two diverge in some respects: Sodi is a planner, poring over details until she has a fully-realized concept, while Williams tweaks ideas as she goes along. There’s a benefit to both approaches, Williams said. Balance is key.
“She makes me better,” Williams reflected. “And I hope I make her better.”
Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in food and travel publications including Bon Appétit, Bloomberg Pursuits, Eater, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more. Follow her on Instagram at @thepumpernickel.