Name: Jeffrey J. Bendavid
Occupation: owner of Main Street Cafe
So, where do you get the shirts?
It started when I opened up in Vermont in late ’88. My opening day there, I had everything the linen company brought – tablecovers and the pants and the napkins – and they didn’t bring my chef’s coats. I was living above the restaurant at the time, and I thought, “What can I wear that won’t show stains?”
Well, wait – chef’s coats are white.
Well, yeah, but I didn’t want to ruin a shirt, and I thought I’d wear something. . .so I put this crazy Hawaiian shirt on, and it worked! And over the last ten years, customers have sent me close to 100 shirts; this one came from Mexico. I just got a package about two months ago with ten Hawaiian shirts in it. Now it really is a trademark.
So have you ever considered changing the name of the restaurant to Water Street Cafe, since that’s where you’re located now?
Not even once.
Did you start on Main Street?
Never. When I founded the restaurant in North Bennington, it was at the foot of Main Street, and I thought it was Main Street, but it wasn’t. I was one building off Main Street, but I figured, well, hey. And here, I’m one building off Main Street.
So, when did you get into the restaurant business?
Well, I’m a jazz musician. That’s what I really do. I did it for years. And I joke and I tell people that I learned how to cook because it’s the only way I could get women to visit. I couldn’t ask someone to come up and listen to my drums. No, but actually it evolved. . .I have an older and a younger sister who are both very creative and we always cooked. Then I was playing in a Jazz Club in Saratoga Springs, NY – we were the house band – I met the owner of an Italian Restaurant and we got to talking. I said I cook a little bit, and he wanted to take a night off. . .and it just evolved from there.
Do you ever get famous actors from the Film Festival in the summer?
Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Who do you serve? Do you remember?
Well, it’s interesting. People ask me, “Why don’t you put pictures up on the wall?” because we have had the best of the best. But I think the reason they keep coming back is because we don’t announce that they’re coming, we don’t publicize. I don’t want to be known for the people that eat here. There was one night in Bennington when we had two Oscars, several Grammy winners and Tony winners all in the restaurant in one night together. The next night, we had the Super Bowl MVP.
Sounds like you’re famous throughout the country.
We’ve been in Travel Magazine in Japan and0 Germany. We’ve been in Food and Wine twice, Travel and Leisure a dozen times, Boston Magazine, all the big New York papers, Philadelphia, Florida papers. There’s been some great, great press. I won an award in 1997 from the Culinary Guild from one of the top five Italian restaurants in the country from the year.
Have you ever gotten negative press?
Never a one. It’s been a lot of fun.
Did you ever go to culinary school?
No. Self taught. Everyone in the kitchen is actually self-taught. It’s a gift – you have to pay attention to the details, and you never compromise, and you serve the best quality stuff that you can get. And it’s the consistency. All our dishes happen by experimenting, and seeing what other people are doing, and grabbing ideas. My creativity is spurred by certainly eating other people’s foods and looking at pictures. Because we’ve never been schooled and we don’t know the rules, we don’t really know limits.
Is Italian food the only kind you’ve ever considered cooking in a restaurant?
Yeah, but I think we cross a lot of borders. We cross the border into Spain, we go into France a little bit, some nights we’ll do garlic mashed potatoes with some of our entrees…we do Filet Mignon. Now we’re doing some Asian influenced foods. We can really do anything. . .yeah, we’ve been known for northern Italian and some Mediterranean food, but we are kind of stretching a little bit.
Where do you eat, besides here?
Close to home? I like Mexican food; I like going to the Rattlesnake in Bennington, and the owners are friends of mine. And once in a great while, I have a craving for a cheeseburger.
Burger King or McDonald’s?
I go to a little place in North Bennington.
Oh, no chains for you.
Oh, sure I’ve been there, but I’d rather not. But I love McDonald’s fries.
So how do you see your restaurant in the general scheme of restuarants in Williamstown?
I think if I were to capsulize my experience here so far, it has been incredibly positive. I think our menu is so different from every other restaurant in town that we really haven’t overlapped. I think that there are some great restaurants in Williamstown, and a diverse bunch of menus, which is rare for a community this small – to have so many good restaurants. It’s pretty cool. And I just love it – I love to cook, I love to create…as much as I love playing jazz.
So you still play?
Well, I play at it now…I don’t really have the time…to really…
When did you last play?
That long ago, huh?
Maybe eight years ago…this job is so consuming that, sure, it’s very hard to get away. And most music is played on weekends, and that’s when I am the busiest.
What is the relationship between you and Williams students?
Dan Brenninkmeyer, a senior at Williams, was sitting here one night with a date, and I asked him, “Do you think there would be any interest at Williams if we put a dinner club together?” We talked about it the next week, and we started talking about if we could attract maybe 15 or 20 people. And we were going to make it affordable; if we were to charge a normal customer it would be $100+ per head. But what it’s about is education and goodwill. So he started emailing people and we had to cut it off at 70 people. It only cost them about $25. It’s been a real hit. And the last one will be free for those who have come to three out of the four regular dinners.
So did you end up losing money on it?
Yeah, but it’s about goodwill – it’s about giving back. Because I think that when you lose sight of giving something back to you customers, something is wrong. And if my accountant heard me talking, he’d probably say, “What the heck are you talking about?” But we have been very receptive to working with the College and with their budgets in every department and with special events. And it’s really a win situation for both of us.