In the kitchen with Stephen Williams: Bouquet owner-chef takes cues from farmers, loves barbecue

COVINGTON, Ky. - "In the Kitchen with" is a new column spotlighting chefs from the Greater Cincinnati area. Each week, WCPO contributor Grace Yek, takes you into their kitchens and talks to them about their food. The chefs reveal their inspirations, philosophies, and provide a glimpse of their authentic selves.  

Stephen Williams

A steady diet of SPAM, microwave popcorn, and bologna sandwiches drove Stephen Williams of Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar over the edge and toward the kitchen: It got him to start cooking. 

"My parents had split up and I was living with my dad. After six months of that food, I started cooking," Williams chuckled. "My dad and I made a deal: I would cook and he would do the dishes."

A Louisville native, Williams is the chef and owner of the award-winning Bouquet Restaurant and Wine Bar in Covington. He got to know food and cooking early, helping at his grandmother's restaurant in Hazard, Ky.  

"It was something I grew up with and loved doing," he recalled. 

Yet food and cooking were noticeably absent from his plans when he went to the University of Kentucky to pursue a degree in photography. When a fraternity brother, Paul Weckman, started Otto's in Covington, Williams rolled up his sleeves to help him. 

"I lived in the basement and worked at the restaurant for a few years," Williams said.

Next, he enrolled at the Midwest Culinary Institute (MCI). In 2007, only a few months after graduation, he opened Bouquet in Covington. 

"The food here is fresh, local and simple.  I want this to be a neighborhood place," Williams added.

Food and cooking philosophy: "Keep it simple. You just need your salt, sugar and acid. There's no need to overcomplicate things."

Although Bouquet is now known for its use of locally grown ingredients, Williams said it was not a practice he incorporated right away.

"It was something that just developed," he said. "When I first opened, I was just planning on a small menu with wine. But then I started going to farmers markets and met one farmer after another. Now we deal with 35-plus farms a year." 

Today, Williams gets his cue from the farmers. 

"The farmers tell me what they have available, and I'll sit down with the cooks to work out the menu," he said.  "We revolve the menu around the ingredients. We get exactly what we need, and don't worry about things sitting around."

Essential ingredients & tools

Must-haves in the Williams kitchen include:

  • A fish spatula
  • A good wooden spoon
  • Vinegar to pickle and preserve ingredients (his favorite is rice wine vinegar)
  • Kosher salt (Williams prefers the texture and flavor of Morton brand).
  • Deli containers, for "everything," such as mise-en-place, storage, pickling, and as water containers.

Inspirations

"I always go back to Thomas Keller," Williams said. "He uses the freshest and highest quality ingredients in his food, and he is consistent. He pays attention and doesn't cut corners." 

"The more I source locally, the more I've come to appreciate Alice Waters," Williams added. Waters is regarded by many as a pioneer in the local and sustainable food movement.

Williams also has a local culinary inspiration: David Cook, chef and owner of Daveed's NEXT in Loveland.

"I thought Daveed's was the be-all and end-all of restaurants," Williams recalled. "I had a birthday dinner at Daveed's in 2005 and that changed everything." 

Williams regards Cook as the Grant Achatz of Cincinnati.  Achatz is an internationally acclaimed avant garde chef who owns the flagship restaurant, Alinea, in Chicago.

"David was doing stuff nobody else in Cincinnati was doing. He would use what seemed like off-the-wall combinations of traditional French and modern techniques, but it works," Williams remarked. "I still draw inspiration from that.  Sometimes a dish may not make sense on paper, but when you get the flavor and texture together, wow, it works."

Favorite meal to cook at home: BBQ pork

"I love barbeque. Anything barbeque," Williams said. "This is a basic recipe and it's super simple."

Ingredients

3-5 lbs pork butt
2 cup Kosher salt
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
1 tbsp cumin
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp onion powder
2 "hoppy" beers
2 cup Sweet Baby Ray's or your favorite BBQ sauce plus some to taste

Directions

  1. Mix dry ingredients and rub over pork.
  2. Place in Dutch oven.
  3. Pour beer over. 
  4. Cover with foil and bake at 250 ºF for four hours. 
  5. Let cool and pull apart by hand. 
  6. Mix in BBQ sauce to taste.

Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek

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