Get to know ... Bill Taibe, on the front line of Connecticut’s restaurant scene
WESTPORT — To recount Bill Taibe’s history in the food industry is to take a tour of the frontlines of the American food scene over the last 20 years.
Chef and owner of Westport restaurants The Whelk, Kawa Ni and Jesup Hall, Taibe, 42, a Weston resident, forged an unlikely path to haute cuisine. Raised in the small town of Patterson, N.Y., Taibe said a big night out to dinner with his family meant a trip to the Red Lobster in Danbury.
“I was just the worst student ever in high school,” Taibe said. Fortunately for Taibe, his friend’s uncle owned a catering company and offered him a job with the company after high school.
“Food just started to make sense to me and it was a way for me to control my mind and use my hands and be creative,” Taibe said.
From the time Taibe was 14 and began working in a butcher shop in Patterson, it felt natural for him to break down chicken and deer, but he never thought food could be a career.
“Twenty-five years ago, people were not talking about being chefs in this country, so for me, there was no real path, at least one that I understood,” Taibe said.
Nonetheless, Taibe enrolled in the culinary program at Baltimore International College, where he excelled.
“For someone who could barely make his way through high school, I graduated second in my class at culinary school,” Taibe said.
From Baltimore, Taibe moved to New York City to intern for Larry Forgione at his restaurant An American Place. The “godfather of American cuisine,” Forgione created a third space for casual American restaurants at a time when the only two options for NYC restaurantgoers were fine-dining French restaurants or neighborhood eateries, Taibe said.
“It was a real tribute to farmers and chefs and artisans,” Taibe said of Forgione’s food, largely sourced from the Hudson Valley.
After a year with Forgione, Taibe hoped to escape the expense of the city, so he opened the Zagat restaurant guide and found La Panetiere, a highly-rated classic French restaurant in Rye, N.Y.
“It was the most stressful experience I’ve ever had in my life. It was intense and hard and there was a lot of screaming and hot, but it was a great experience,” Taibe said of his 10-month stint at La Penetiere.
Always chasing the next challenge, Taibe then worked at the Port Chester restaurant Two Moons, which made southwestern American cuisine.
“I had a pretty good head on my shoulders and I was focused and knew what I wanted to do, so when I got to Two Moons I worked really hard and there was a great chef there. But a couple months in, the owners approached me and asked if I would take over,” Taibe said.
He was only 23, yet Taibe was the head chef at a respected restaurant. After two years, however, Taibe took a position as a sous chef at the Greenwich restaurant Wildfire. There, he met his wife Rachel, who was a bookkeeper at the restaurant. She still does the finances for all of Taibe’s restaurants, and the couple has two teenage sons.
Like at Two Moons, Taibe was promoted to head chef at Wildfire but left to work under Nicola Zanghi at the Italian restaurant Zhangi’s in Stamford. A year later, Taibe was approached to work as the opening head chef the new restaurant Grand in Stamford. Grand was a wacky place with modern American food and and adjoining nightclub, Taibe said.
“It kind of took over Fairfield County. People didn’t know what to do with it. There were hundreds of people at this restaurant, lines out the door,” Taibe said of Grand.
After Grand, and about 13 years ago, Taibe opened Relish in South Norwalk. “We started changing people’s minds about what can happen here in Fairfield County with food,” Taibe said of his time at Relish, which he said had aggressively loud music and dark lighting.
The bistro American food at Relish won praise in a New York Times review. However, Taibe said his business partner one night ordered movers to empty the restaurant of everything inside so he could pay personal debt.
“We lost everything and it took us some time to get back. I didn’t want to be back in restaurants. I was done. I put so much energy into that restaurant and then woke up one morning and everything was gone,” Taibe said.
A friend soon recruited Taibe to help open the Burger Bar in South Norwalk. But before he could open the restaurant, Taibe said he got a call from Stamford restaurateur Mary Schaffer, who asked him to be head chef at Napa & Co., an American restaurant in Stamford sourced by all local farmers, many of whom Taibe sustains close relationships as president of the Westport Farmers Market.
Two years into his time at Napa & Co., Taibe was ready to open another restaurant and discovered a location in Westport — small, forgotten and in disarray.
“I fell in love with the size and what I knew I’d be able to do with it,” Taibe said. Almost a decade ago, Taibe opened the 36-seat Le Farm restaurant at the location and trusted the town’s cultured, wealthy and intelligent community would help make the restaurant a success — which it did.
After six years, Taibe said he grew out of Le Farm, so he sold it to a friend, who opened The Cottage at the location. In the meantime, Taibe opened another restaurant in town, The Whelk, an oyster bar, and followed that up a few years later with Kawa Ni, a Japanese bar-food-style restaurant.
Going forward, Taibe said he plans to open more Kawa Ni restaurants, perhaps in Port Chester, N.Y., and West Hartford. He is done opening restaurants in Westport, but Taibe said the town will always be his home base.
Reflecting upon his impact on the state’s food scene, Taibe said, “We were on the front line of creating a Connecticut restaurant scene. I’m proud that now there’s many more people involved in it and there’s many other great restaurants, but I’m really proud we were there in the beginning, pushing this thing forward.”
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