A mere stone’s throw from bustling Flatbush Avenue, on the charming residential Carlton Ave, lies the restaurant James. One of Brooklyn’s hidden gems. We talked with Chef Bryan Calvert who, along with his wife Deborah Williamson, owns and operates this small, intimate restaurant with an accessible, American-influenced menu.
So Bryan, can you tell me a little about how you got started?
Sure. The restaurant came about as I was looking around to open a place in Brooklyn – and I had been looking for a while. I live upstairs. The space was a restaurant before and it didn’t work out and became available, so I jumped on it. It was exactly what I wanted: a small Brooklyn restaurant, close to home, in a good neighborhood with a lot of potential. And we’ve been open for three years now.
You mention you wanted to be in neighborhood with potential. How do you feel about the neighborhood’s dining scene now? I’m sure it has changed since you opened.
Well in the last five years Brooklyn has really become a hot spot for hand crafted, artisanal, Bohemian food and I think there’s a movement going on here to a certain extent. A lot of it’s farm-to-plate based. But also there’s a sense of community here and a sense of not doing things in the corporate way. And instead, doing it the way you want to do it and not following any kind of formula. I guess you could say now that there is a Brooklyn formula.
So what’s your background? When did you get into the business?
I’ve been in this industry since I was about 15 years old. It’s the classic story of dishwasher to prep cook to actually working in pastry to hot food cook and then to CIA and all that stuff. So I’ve been doing it for a long time and I also have a catering company that I launched in 1999. I was a sous chef at Union Pacific restaurant and I worked there for a long time. I actually worked with Rocco Dispirito for about 5 or 6 years as a sous chef for him through various restaurants and needed a break. My girlfriend at the time was a stylist for Annie Leibovitz and told me that Annie was looking for a cook, a private chef, to cook for her and Susan Sontag at their summer home up in Rhinebeck for 3 or 4 weeks.
It sounded like a cool idea, so I discussed it with Rocco and told him I was going to leave and that I might come back or I might not come back. So I worked for her for about a month and being a cook, knowing a lot about the restaurant world and not much else, I didn’t realize the weight she had in the world of photography and the rest of the world, journalism and all that stuff.
So when the summer was over, Annie asked if I’d be interested in catering her photo shoots in her studio on 22nd Street. And I said “Sure, yeah, great” and all of the sudden I had Herb Ritts calling me and Mark Seliger and all these really well known photographers who wanted me to cater their shoots. So without planning it or expecting it, I had a catering event business. And that lead to bigger parties. Fashion, arts that sort of stuff. So I really never intended on leaving the restaurant business but the catering event business started calling me, so I took advantage of it.
And you’re still doing that now?
Yes we still do it.
What’s the name of the company?
Williamson Calvert Events and Cuisine.
So are you still doing photo shoots and things like that, is it other things?
No, the industry has changed a lot. Budgets have shrunk. But we do a lot of cocktail parties for that kind of crowd. Mostly larger parties – photo shoots are kind of small, 12-15 people on location, craft services but better. So we don’t really do that anymore. We’re doing mostly more formal events now.
Is it difficult to juggle the catering and the restaurant? How involved in the catering are you?
Well we’re the founders of the business and we do a lot of the work. But, you know, we’re a boutique, our hands are in everything, we definitely have a team of people. But I do the menus, menu development, work on the food and beverage, stuff like that. I might not be chopping onions in the kitchen anymore, but we’re involved as much as we can. The same goes for Deborah who does a lot of client relations and things on that end. In terms of juggling both, since everything is food based it really works well together. It’s all about menus, it’s all about producing great food and service. So conceptually, it’s the same.
Executing it is where it’s completely different. Because in a restaurant you have brick and mortar, the same stoves, the same pots and pans, the same staff. There’s a continuity to it. With events – which are difficult and also exciting as a chef – it’s very alive because you’re challenged with different ideas. In other words, someone might call and say “we want to do a party with a Rat Pack theme.” So they want a 1950’s martini, Sammy Davis, Jr. kind of stuff, “do the menu for that.” So then I have to do the research on it and maybe do something out of my comfort zone a little bit, but it’s challenging and it’s great from a chef’s perspective.
And service-wise too. For events, you’re put in different locations, you have different configurations, “how are we going to do this? How are we going to style this? How do we make this look like it should be natural?” For the restaurant, we know all that, we’re here everyday. And we think we did a nice job creating a nice feel. We’ve changed a little bit but not much. With events, everything can be completely different each time.
So how often are you here in the restaurant?
I’m here more or less everyday. I might not be cooking on the line every night, like tonight.
You still do cook on the line?
Oh yeah definitely. As much as I can actually. But I’m here everyday, my hand is in everything, I taste everything. I obviously write all the menus.
So where did the name James come from?
James was actually my great-grandfather. The name has been with me for a while. I know it’s a very simple name but whenever I thought about doing my own restaurant, it always just popped into my mind. I knew I had a great-grandfather that was a chef in New York and I thought that was kind of cool. I didn’t really know much about it actually. But when we decided to do the restaurant, I talked to some family members and one who is a detective. He’s very into family genology, so he did some research on it and he found a lot stuff. A lot of information and paper work.
He found the picture that we hang now in the vestibule over there. (A picture of Cavlert’s great-grandfather is hung above the small hallway that leads to the restaurant’s kitchen.) So it just seemed to make sense. So his story was that he came over from England in the 1870’s. He wasn’t a cook in England, he was a hired smith who made horseshoes and things like that, but he didn’t like that and he wanted a better life. So he came over and became a cook and worked as a domestic servant in some of the wealthier households, met his wife Annie, saved their money and opened up a little restaurant.
Now we don’t have all the information about the restaurant. It’s sort of sketchy, little pieces here and there, but we believe he had a restaurant at the turn of the century in the Mount Morris area which is basically upper Manhattan, 100th Street, something like that. Apparently, the restaurant went out of business and they went back to being domestic servants. But that’s why we have the drink called James Revenge. The story goes that the economy went bad, the restaurant wasn’t doing well and his partner took all the money and ran away.
Man, that’s terrible!
Yeah. There was a family story that, his partner’s name was Howard Johnson and went to open Howard Johnson’s. It was a family tale. And when we opened the restaurant, my cousin the detective did some research and realized that it was about 30-40 years off. So it was completely untrue! Not true at all (laughs).
So when it comes to menu at James, how often do you change it and where does your inspiration come from?
We change it seasonally – it changes all the time. We don’t change it everyday or even every week. But more like monthly and an additional change here and there. We do buy a lot of seasonal ingredients so it changes with the season. We just made a few changes now. Like, we have the asparagus salad on the menu, we have ramps on the menu now and spring stuff like that. It’s funny because we try to buy locally – especially the produce – and when the weather was nice we wanted to change the menu. My wife and I would see asparagus and all these spring dishes on the menu in a restaurant and it wasn’t ready locally yet. The farmers we buy from didn’t have it available so it really just popped up about 3 weeks ago. So we change the menu pretty frequently, we do specials all the time.
What are your thoughts on the balance between changing the menu too often and not changing it enough? I hear some restaurant owners and chefs say that regulars always want something new but at the same time they have to keep certain dishes on the menu to appease others. It seems like it can be challenging.
Well its definitely challenging for a kitchen to change the menu all the time, everyday. It’s a dream come true as a chef and also a nightmare at the same time. Because not everything is going to work out, sometimes it takes a few tries to get it right. So if you change the whole menu every night either you’re a genius and everything’s perfect or you’ll have some hits and misses. Generally, the way we work here is that dishes sort of evolve. We will try it and run it as a special and we’ll fool around with it for a few days. Usually a dish lasts on the menu for about 6 weeks here.
But also you have some signature dishes – for example, we have the spinach salad. It’s been on the menu since we opened. It’s really a nice salad and people love it. I’ve thought about taking it off the menu, but I haven’t because it’s very popular. The customers are happy with it, the kitchen is happy, the ingredients are available pretty much all of the time. We get our spinach from Long Island and even in the winter they grow it in greenhouses. So I think you have to have a balance.
We have some dishes that have been on the menu since we opened more or less, a few of them and some others have evolved. So I think we have a nice combination of that. Changing the menu everyday also requires a lot more work and produces a lot more waste. Also, I think people like familiarity. They want to be challenged but they also want a go-to. Like we have a burger on the menu and that’s not going to change. We sell a lot of them and people like that. They can get something different if they want, but it’s there and they know that. We meet their expectations.
I heard that you have an herb garden upstairs?
We do. All the herbs we use here are from the garden. It’s just starting now actually, it takes a long time. Usually its June and July and then in the Fall is much better. Basically, we grow strong potent herbs that don’t take up a lot of space, because we don’t have a lot of space. I’m not growing tomatoes up there, I tried that. There’s no way we can produce enough for the restaurant. But the herbs are great. A bushel of thyme goes a long way.
So you mentioned that you live above the restaurant. Do you ever sneak down here when the restaurant’s not open and cook up something in the kitchen?
All the time! At the 3 in the morning? Definitely. Lots of times what happens is when I have an event – it’s funny as a chef, and I think this is common for most chefs – you’re around food all day long, tasting stuff and you’re running around, you don’t really eat. You’re on your feet all day and at the end of the day you finish, pack your knives, take your uniform off and you realize, “I’m straving!” So a lot of times after events I come back it can be 1 or 2 in the morning and I come in a cook a steak or a burger or make a simple salad. I did it last night in fact! There was some leftover staff meal, spaghetti and Bolognese. It was great! I was happy. Eating great food at 2 a.m. I do it in the morning sometimes too. Make some eggs or something like that.
I guess that’s one of the perks of living directly above your own restaurant! So do you have anything happening in the future that you can tell us about?
Well we’re persuing other projects right now. But they’re in the early incubation so there’s nothing concrete. Not too long ago we started doing a burger night on Mondays and Sundays Suppers, three courses for $25 here at James. But there’s definitely more to come…
James is located at 605 Carlton Avenue in Prospect Heights. They open at 5:30pm for dinner Monday – Saturday with brunch on Saturday and Sunday.