There’s something refreshing about a direct answer to a question these days. A simple statement that gets to the root of what you’re asking, that needs no follow-up question, leaves no confusion or wiggle room for ambiguity. And when I asked Billy Klein why he became a chef, I got a succinct, straightforward answer: “I love food. I love people. I love being artistic.”
The executive chef of Café Saint-Ex elaborates: “With cooking, there are no limits, no boundaries.” Growing up, Klein says that family meals were “always a big deal” in his household. Years later, that thread now carries over into his job as a chef where he says he loves bringing people together and that he enjoys making food that’s not “too cerebral—so that people don’t forget who they’re with.” Klein reminds you that yes, a meal is about the food, but it’s also about the experience and the people you share it with.
So unsurprisingly, after chatting with Klein it’s easy to see that he’s the type of down-to-earth person you’d not only want cooking your food, but that you’d also want to share said food with. He’s level-headed—which is not to say that he’s some vanilla shade of boring—you’ll see the flashes of badassery in tattoos peeking out from his shirt sleeves or when he and a few kitchen crew members slam a shot of whiskey before wrapping up a Saturday night shift. But for example, Klein explains that achieving balance in life is important as a chef. “I love what I do and I work my ass off. But you need balance in your life,” he says. “Being a successful chef is a sacrifice. You have to put in the work, the time and the training.” Part of that life balance is knowing that a chef can’t be at a restaurant all the time, obsessing over every detail and watching their kitchen staff like a hawk. Klein emphasizes that part of a chef’s job is teaching and trusting staff to turn out dishes that are as close to the original version from the chef.
Chef Billy Klein of Cafe Saint-Ex
courtesy of bonappetitfoodie
Though life balance and managing the right staff are the challenges, Klein lights up talking about the rewards of being a chef. “When my restaurant is busy, that’s the best compliment in the world,” he says. “When people are willing to wait 30 minutes for a table because they really want to eat here and eat what I make—that’s the biggest reward.”
In the kitchen, Klein describes himself as “intuitive, approachable and experimental.” He enjoys making unconventional, but thought-out food, which is evident in his dishes such as the buffalo wing-style sweetbreads or his Fruity Pebbles-crusted grilled cheese with brie. “I look for inspiration everywhere—restaurants, cookbooks, conversations, coworkers, farms, seasons,” he says. “Even when I go somewhere and I hate a dish, sometimes that can be more inspirational,” Klein says, adding that it’s important to pay attention to dishes and think about how they were done, how they could be better or different.
Oddly enough, Billy explains that when he first started out as a chef he used to think that any dish he didn’t come up with all on his own was a sort of cop out. And then he had a light bulb moment when his wife showed him a quote by Jim Jarmusch that effectively encouraged people to rip ideas from everywhere. “I was limiting myself,” Klein says, adding that he realized it was more beneficial for chefs to collaborate, share and get together to talk about food.
Switching the conversation to the DC scene, I asked Billy to talk about how he’s seen the restaurant industry change over his nearly seven years working at Café Saint-Ex. “Fourteenth street has exploded. When I started here, it was only us, Bar Pilar and Manny & Olga’s,” he laughs. “From my vantage point, it’s been amazing. We’re getting big names coming to DC and the more that come here, the better everybody does,” he explains, adding that more restaurants bring more foot traffic into neighborhoods, as well as more competition that makes chefs and restaurants work harder. “The rest of the country is starting to take DC more seriously,” he says, giving credit to a lot of the homegrown talent that’s been advancing and defining the restaurant scene in the District. “The hardest part will be DC getting its own identity.”
Although Billy will wholeheartedly tell you that DC has been his life, the place where he met his wife, and where he’s worked in one restaurant for the last six and a half years, he’s honest that at first he didn’t like the District (there’s that balance and level-headedness). “DC is fast-paced. People here can be flakey or they have an agenda. A lot of people have a shelf-life here–they’re here for a certain purpose,” the Baltimore-native says. And in my mind, that’s something I’m sure a lot of us who’ve spent more than three seconds around any budding politico on Capitol Hill can relate to. But after moving into the city, acquiring real friends and getting more in touch with the food scene, Klein says DC became home. “Not many people get to live in a city that looks like this,” he says with a smile. “DC has been really good to me.”
Looking ahead to the future, Billy says he’s excited for Café Saint-Ex to be nominated again for Best Neighborhood Gathering Place for this year’s RAMMY Awards–proof of the restaurant’s staying power after being first nominated and winning 7 years ago in 2005. “We’ve worked really hard to get the city to take Café Saint-Ex food seriously,” he says. You don’t have to look much further than the crowded patio on a warm day and a menu that’s creative in smart and often subtle ways to see that Klein and his crew are doing a pretty great job of just that.
Check back at 3 PM for Billy’s recipe for udon carbonara with a light béchamel, fresh pea shoots, pork belly and a soft egg.