Chefs to Watch 2017: Kate Williams, Lady of the House, Detroit
My interview with Kate Williams kept getting interrupted, but it wasn’t because I caught her in the middle of service. In fact, she wasn’t in the kitchen at all, but standing outside her restaurant as people driving by kept slowing down to ask when it was opening. Detroit’s collective anticipation for the unveiling of Lady of the House was on high for two years—fueled by rumored locations inside abandoned auto body shops and sold-out pop-up dinners. “It feels like it’s been 18 years,” laughs Williams. “It’s driven on my experiences, places I’ve worked and things I’ve liked.”
Growing up in an Irish Catholic family outside of Detroit, her culinary experiences began at home. “I have 48 first cousins on both sides, so the life blood of the family was at the dinner table,” says Williams, whose Irish immigrant grandparents met and lived in Corktown, just blocks from the restaurant.
“Whether or not the food was good, everybody made something. I remember that bonding. I got bit with the bug in high school and started hostessing and taking cooking classes. I didn’t want to do anything else.”
From there, she studied food science and butchery at Michigan State, where she saw her first humane hog slaughter. She went on to the French Culinary Institute, then worked in New York and Chicago before returning to Michigan in 2010. “I thought the move would be short- term, [but] I completely fell in love with Detroit,” she recalls. “There were places that made it through the tough years, but there was also this underground gourmet scene. It was cheap to experiment and be creative. I think that’s why the music, art and culinary scenes are banging right now.” From that burgeoning scene came white-hot businesses like Sugar House, Selden Standard and Great Lakes Coffee.
After spending some time at home, Williams left in 2014 to stage with Christian Puglisi at Relæ in Copenhagen. “He had this outlook about nurturing your staff and growing with your team,” recalls Williams. It was the encouragement she needed to come back to Detroit and then venture out on her own after a stint at Republic. “When I left I asked myself, ‘Why am I doing this and how am I getting there?’” she recalls. “‘Am I nurturing myself as a person and am I building something I’m proud of?’”
The soul-searching helped her settle on a property that housed a church, orphanage, sports bar and Irish pub on the land during its 100-year history. “We wanted a place that felt like it had always been there and would always be there,” says Williams of the space. “We want to throw a dinner party every night.”
Her New American menu, with French, Spanish and Nordic influences, conveys homey elegance via sourdough bread with house-churned butter, oysters, and a nose-to-tail animal program that produces rib-eyes, steak tartare and pork-fat spreads. Chilled summer squash soup is topped with Asian carp, nasturtium and roe (recipe), rainbow carrot escabeche is paired with mushroom hollandaise, and yellowtail tartare rests in strawberry vinegar with sesame oil. Desserts take things back home with a brown bread ice cream with charcoal meringue based on graham crackers Williams and her siblings inhaled as kids, and a sugar cookie with almond semifreddo inspired by the cookies she baked with her dad. Memories like those resonate with Williams and other chefs moving to Detroit to open and work in restaurants.
“It’s all these amazing people who spent years in New York and L.A. and now they’re back,” she says. “There’s so much pride about either being from Detroit or living here, so that’s cool to be a part of.”
Q&A with Kate Williams:
What cookbook is most important to you?
One I really love is The Art of Eating Well. It was a gift to me from an Italian roommate. [It was] originally published in Italian and, as I understand it, it was one of (if not) the first cookbooks of its kind written for the home chef that was not published in French. The author is so whimsical; he often just suggested amounts of ingredients based on what mood you’re in. That's generally how I feel about cooking.
What is your favorite ingredient?
Tartare, raw meat. Every menu I've done in past five years has had at least one tartare. I fell in love with it in Copenhagen and have never stopped exploring it.
What is the next cooking or technique you want to try?
I would love to be amazing at hand-pulled Chinese noodles. I've been down the two-hour YouTube rabbit hole watching those people too many times.
What music is usually playing in the kitchen?
Dolly Parton or Tupac.
What do you like to cook on a day off?
Eggs. I'm basically always cooking breakfast. I swear someday I'll open a breakfast spot. It's an addiction. Breakfast is so personal!
How do you find calm in your restaurant?
Ha! The mop closet (if it’s clean).
What is your pet peeve in the kitchen?
Towels on the table; labels being torn instead of cut.
What career would you have if you weren’t a chef?
Oh man, I always wanted to be on Broadway but it turns out I can't sing, dance or act. In high school, I worked a summer in the apparel department at Babies R Us and it was the greatest job I've ever had. Not sure what kind of career that would mean, but seriously, sign me up!
What restaurant is your dream stage location?
For some reason, I keep thinking of back in time for something like La Pavillon in 1960 or La Grenouille in 1962. I'm totally fascinated by that time in New York French haute cuisine.