Spend a couple of hours in the company of Bill Taibe, Weston resident and native son of Patterson in Putnam County, and you will instantly understand the role of the contemporary executive chef-restaurant owner — mentor, creative force, innovator and curator.
With a devoted following and a collection of glowing reviews amassed over his career, Taibe has dominated the culinary landscape in Fairfield County for some time now. He currently has not one, but three hugely popular and distinctively different restaurants, all within a 2-mile radius in Westport. Each offers a particularly unique experience for diners. But then, creating that perfect experience is the driving force behind this visionary.
The Whelk, Kawa Ni and Jesup Hall represent an impressive portfolio, each offering a dizzying take on varying types of cuisines. Kawa Ni, a Japanese pub whose name means “on the river,” opened in 2014 at Bridge Square on the Saugatuck River at the site of a former Chinese takeout joint. Taibe tells me that he used to leave the kitchen at The Whelk — his seafood bar and restaurant, which opened in 2012 around the corner on Riverside Avenue — and walk over to get Philly-cheesesteak spring rolls for his kitchen crew. One night he discovered it had shuttered and subsequently convinced his partner, Massimo Tullio, that it would be the perfect spot for an Asian-influenced bistro. He secured the space and went off to Japan for three weeks to understand, as he puts it, “what it felt like to be in a restaurant in Japan.” You see, for Taibe, it all comes back to the experience. How a guest feels upon entering his places is what matters most. “I want them to get the concept the minute they walk in.”
In fact, this raison d’être is evidenced in all of Taibe’s past endeavors, whether working for owners or collaborating with partners. It was a combination of the scene and the food at the critically acclaimed Wildfire in Greenwich, where he earned a lofty “27” food rating from Zagat. Prior stints, most as a sous or executive chef, included time at Two Moons in Port Chester, Napa and Co. and The G/R/A/N/D in Stamford. Next came Relish in South Norwalk, his first solo establishment, of which he says, “This was probably when I was really the most food-focused. We were making food no one was doing at the time (15 years ago), offering twists on French classics like braised oxtail and incorporating foie gras into American standards.”
Then, in 2009, along came LeFarm, a farm-to-table hotspot with a Taibe twist. In 2015, Taibe chose to close it after six successful years, but during its tenure he was a James Beard Foundation semifinalist four times for its annual Best American Chef award. In 2016, he landed a plum space in the historic, original Westport Town Hall building. With its beautiful stone facade and storied Westport past, it seemed to Taibe like the perfect space in which to conceptualize his latest venture, Jesup Hall, an accessible contemporary tavern with a focus on reinterpreted New England fare. Once again raising the bar in both the food and experience categories, he continues his mission of sourcing the best possible ingredients from local farming partners with whom he has cultivated lasting relationships over the past 10 years.He credits Annie Farrell of Millstone Farms in Wilton for teaching him everything he knows, “about using food from the ground.”
At his latest venture, vintage maps and historic photos of Westport dot the earth-toned dining room, a comfortable space where we met during those quiet hours between lunch and dinner service. During the day, the space is filled with beautiful light from its large windows, in stark contrast to the dark and cozy bar area. The evolution and trajectory of Taibe’s success are my focus. What drove this talented chef, who at 42 has accomplished what many others fail to do in many more years in the back and front of the house at restaurants across the globe? I ask when he knew he wanted to do this forever. “You’d have to go back more than 20 years,” he tells me.
Growing up in Patterson and attending Carmel High School, Taibe struggled academically. “There’s not a lot of glamour to my story. I just found food,” he says. Whether exploring the woods in his hometown, discovering the smell of spring onions or working odd jobs with his buddies — breaking down animals in a butcher shop at the age of 16 — Taibe found his passion and, with a little coaxing, pursued it. His parents, an Irish mother and Italian father, had roots in Queens, and several family members were police officers, a career path he had considered. Their cuisine at home was basic, as he describes it, “typical American family fare, nothing extraordinary, but we ate well.” The odd kitchen jobs along the way led to a stint in a popular Armonk catering business, The Brown Bag. At the age of 20, he started in their prep kitchen performing basic tasks, before assuming additional responsibilities on the line. It was the chef-owner there who recognized his natural talent and encouraged him to attend culinary school.
Taibe’s accelerated track at the Baltimore International Culinary College — completing a two-year program in 18 months — ironically landed this lifelong Yankees fan an enviable spot as a lead chef in a private club at nearby Camden Yards. Long days on campus preceded nights at the ballpark for pre-game service and paved the way to his first internship in New York City, another coveted spot with Larry Forgione of The Grill Room and An American Place. With that internship completed in nine months, he turned to the reliable Zagat guide and targeted the highly rated La Panetière in Rye where Bernard Bouissou was the chef-owner at the time. At only 23, he found himself on the line in a pressure-filled kitchen where orders were shouted in French and the atmosphere was highly competitive and demoralizing, something he had yet to encounter in his short culinary tenure.
“The industry is different now,” Taibe says. But those experiences laid the groundwork for his success as a chef, as he quickly rose up the ranks of some of the area’s most important restaurants. A hands-on professional with family in key supporting roles, Taibe takes great pride in the service and experience offered at his restaurants. “I have always pushed the envelope,” he tells me. “At LeFarm, we opened with seven employees. We had 36 seats, no bar, a dark dining room looking into an open kitchen and loud music blaring at all times. It was chaos, but in a good way.” Clearly the formula worked, earning him the highest accolade, an “excellent” from The New York Times.
The dishes at Jesup Hall, like those at The Whelk and Kawa Ni, are full of flavor and texture. Surprise ingredients you don’t expect to find in a dish take it from excellent to extraordinary. Taibe’s menus draw in diners, pushing them to be pleasantly surprised by dishes of such creativity and complexity that they want to eat them time and time again. This is the experience that Taibe and his team have built upon, success after success, leaving one to wonder what the future holds for his loyal customer base. For sure, the not-so-distant future will bring outposts of Kawa Ni, his approachable Japanese bistro with its transporting ambiance, he reveals. “It’s just a matter of finding the right real estate,” he says.
He admits, as well, to his love of Mexican food, traveling to Mexico City as often as his schedule permits. That schedule also includes his active engagement on the board of the Westport Farmers Market where he is a frequent fixture and innovator of many market programs. Taibe serves, too, on the volunteer board of Food Rescue US, an innovative app-driven operation whose mission is to recover and deliver excess food from restaurants and grocers before it spoils, eliminating countless tons of waste and stress on landfills and the environment. The Norwalk-based operation serves numerous communities across the country. If someone wants to help, they can connect via the app to find opportunities where their transportation services are needed. Innovative and unique, it is not surprising that Taibe was drawn to its model.
Now, with 78 employees among his three establishments, he has assembled a strong team, and it’s obvious that he takes his responsibilities to both customers and employees seriously. In his 20-plus years in kitchens from Manhattan to towns and cities across Fairfield County, and now in his beloved Westport, Taibe has earned his esteemed position as a celebrity chef and true culinary talent.
Seemingly, one thing Taibe is not? Impulsive. Every step, every decision, every detail of his operations has his signature flourish. His empire is small by restaurant group standards, by design. His expansions occur slowly, providing him with control over the product and experience his diners have enjoyed for years. He does not rest on his laurels, nor does he agree with his reputation of being a bit difficult. “I’m just always trying to improve. There is a need to constantly evolve and become better to be successful in this business. I like to stay on top of what is needed in the area.”
It is his level of involvement in his businesses and his generosity to Westport and its surrounding communities that no doubt have prompted the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce to bestow one of two “First Citizen of the Year Awards” to Taibe recently at The Westport Inn, a banquet he was proud to attend, he tells me.
I leave our time together with a far better grasp of the role of the highly evolved chef-owner in our current-day culinary environment. To stay competitive, it becomes clearer that what’s needed in addition to good space, superb food and a talented team of professionals is a “concept guy,” like Taibe, whose vision, commitment to his brand and penchant for reinvention is carving out a successful niche in a highly competitive space.