Focus On: Chef Bill Taibe

Chef and Restaurateur Bill Taibe, is the mastermind behind the beloved Westport restaurants, Ka Wa Ni, the Whelk and Jesup Hall.  He lives in Weston with his wife and two boys who are 15, and 18—a sophomore and a senior in high school respectively. 

We pivoted very quickly to change operations as soon as schools in Westport closed– about a week before the mandate to close restaurants came through.  That Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, we had limited seating and precautions for all staff.  That Saturday I had a full 80-person virtual staff meeting, saying that I believed we were just going along in that way, and then an hour later I told everyone we were shutting down and going to delivery and curbside pickup. It was just my gut reaction to do that. Restaurants are important pieces to the social epicenter of the town and I thought it was our responsibility to do our best for our town, by getting ahead of this thing.  

We are still open and we have 36 employees fully working between three restaurants. I had to send 30 to 40 employees to unemployment and we are trying to do our best to help take care of them. We get nice gratuities from delivery and pick up and we Venmo money to people on unemployment as a donation because even with the extra subsidies, it’s just not enough.  

Sometimes I feel bad that we are doing relatively well under the circumstances. We are in a tremendous place and I would not want to do what we are doing in a different place or different town. We are trying to feel normal and help our customers feel normal and we’ve been fortunate to continue doing what we do best– creating great food. 

It’s funny, my brain works really well when there’s chaos. In fact, I might have been patient zero for ADD back in high school. When I’m kind of cornered and put in a situation to solve, move and pivot—that’s when everything fires away. This has been exciting for me–obviously, not in a good way– but in terms of problem solving and adjusting. Internally, these circumstances make us realize we get a sense of who and what people are. I have 36 employees thrilled to come to work and happy for that opportunity. I know other restaurants that are struggling because employees are happy to stay home and collect unemployment even if the work is there. 

Aside from the fact that lives are lost and people are dealing with serious things like this, we can have a social reset that is important. I would never wish this on anyone but I think it’s been a way to figure out and prioritize what’s important. 

I think [the pandemic has] been a way to…prioritize what’s important 

We are the center of a community. In my four restaurants, we’ve seen a lot and heard a lot and pulled people together. In terms of gathering and needing time together, this puts things in perspective. As a community I think we are picking and choosing those things that are important. For example, maybe we’ll come out of this thing and that party we want to have doesn’t need forty people but only fifteen who mean the most to us.  

I really think that there’s this sort of a beautiful awkwardness to the whole thing. It’s not right but there’s a lot of good from it. I am thrilled with how my children are dealing. I can promise that at 15 and 18 I wouldn’t have been dealing. We are not talking about that enough—their resilience and strength. Seniors won’t have last year of playing sports, won’t have a graduation or a senior prom. They will never get that back; these kids and people are complaining about not sitting at a bar? 

I know, too, my perspective is coming from a person who has not been in quarantine. I have worked more in the last month than in last five years. I had to lay off 40 and had to pick and choose and have been dealing with situations and decisions I never thought I’d have to.  

People are learning to care about others. I closed on the Saturday after schools closed not trusting people to do the right decision and make the right choices. I think what is crazy about COVID-19 is not necessarily how it can affect me, but the just as likely chance it does nothing to me, but that my making a poor decision could affect someone else. I take that seriously because I can’t carry that burden if someone comes into contact with a carrier in my space. 

I think we will come back stronger but I don’t think that will happen soon—I don’t think you’ll be sitting at my restaurants any time soon for probably 12 months. I’m preparing for that. We all should.  

When I think what I’m getting out of this– me personally—it’s that I can see who is helping each other and who is not, I want to be around the people who are helping and less around those who are not.  

In the early days of this, we were the first restaurant involved in Food For the Frontlines which was put together by Nicole Strait, an old dear friend whose daughter is part of Westport EMS. She wanted to do something for those workers that could also help restaurants make a little money. We put out 50 meals that first Sunday but we haven’t done another since—not because we don’t believe in but because we are doing relatively well under the circumstances and have received tremendous support from the town. I’d rather step back and let restaurants that need the income more have a chance. What we have been doing instead is a rotating meal to the police department, fire department and EMS locally on my own dime so we can help out hyper-locally. 

 I have built my own confidence to stand my ground on my belief, on my gut, and the sense that this was serious. When I listen to the nonsense of people joking through the process and making fun, I think that’s a malicious approach. If you don’t learn from this and get better through this and figure out new ways of living, you are a fool and you missed a chance. At the end of the day if we get through, and if this gets back to normal, I wish and hope that in our restaurants we will be better, my staff will be better, the town will be better. My feeling is this town is strong and committed to itself. I wouldn’t trade our customers for the world. 

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To read more of the museums long lens oral histories please visit the Westport In Focus page.