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Upstairs, Downstairs: When You Live Above Your Hit Restaurant

Eater logo Eater 7/9/2019 Monica Burton
a woman holding a sign: Libby Willis at MeMe’s Diner. © Provided by Vox Media, Inc. Libby Willis at MeMe’s Diner.

How Libby Willis, a 2019 Eater Young Gun, manages her life at home and her work at MeMe’s Diner.

Hospitality has always made sense to Brooklyn-based chef and restaurateur Libby Willis. “I was probably eight or nine years old the first time I hosted our family Thanksgiving,” the Eater Young Gun recalls. “The whole idea of planning a menu, setting a scene, and seating people to something special, has always been where I feel most satisfied.”

But her family, with years of professional restaurant experience of their own, warned her against working in restaurants, citing the industry’s historic misogyny and the intense stress that came with jobs in the kitchen. Willis heard them, but ended up in food anyway. She discovered she was skilled at both front of house and back of house work while working in restaurants as a college student. Later, she spent years at a bakery, eventually running the pastry program. The job finally took her to New York City. “I made cakes for a Lifetime movie that made me a lot of money,” she says. “I was getting out of a relationship, I was really sick of Ohio, and I had all this cash in my pocket, so I moved to New York.”

In working in restaurants, Willis inevitably witnessed some of the “brutal” behavior her family had described — it’s part of the reason she was drawn to work in bakeries both back in Ohio and at Ovenly in New York. And so when she and Bill Clark, a friend and colleague, decided to open their own restaurant, they made sure it wasn’t anything like the “chauvinistic kitchens” of her parents’ generation. On the contrary, their much loved Brooklyn restaurant MeMe’s Diner is a proudly queer space, where Willis and Clark’s 10 employees are happy to show up to work.

a man sitting at a table with a plate of food: Katie Zanin plates toast and kale in their kitchen while Libby Willis is at the sink © Provided by Vox Media, Inc. Katie Zanin plates toast and kale in their kitchen while Libby Willis is at the sink
Showing up for work is particularly easy for Willis, who lives right above the restaurant with her partner Katie Zanin and their cat, Alice. MeMe’s was up and running before Willis moved in, and she believes it’s entirely possible that her apartment’s previous tenants moved out precisely because of noise from her very popular restaurant. “It was beneficial for my landlord and me to move upstairs,” she says. Now, Willis says she spends most of the time on her Prospect Heights block, not leaving at all some days, as was the case on this Tuesday in March.

a man and a woman posing for a picture: Libby Willis and Katie Zanin sit on their couch with their cat, Alice. © Provided by Vox Media, Inc. Libby Willis and Katie Zanin sit on their couch with their cat, Alice.
10:00 a.m.: Breakfast at home

Most mornings, Zanin will make breakfast, sometimes pulling ingredients from “MeMe’s grocery” downstairs. Today it’s soft boiled eggs, with kale and chile oil, and toast. “Katie was always the cook in her past relationships and I was always the cook in my relationships, and now Katie cooks for me,” says Willis. Zanin was once a line cook, but now works in wine. She met Willis after making herself a regular at MeMe’s.

For Willis, there’s really no downside to living above her restaurant. “This is our sanctuary. It’s easy to be here. I can be home and feel like I’m not at work, but also I can be so close,” she says. “When my family visits, I’ll just be like, ‘Do want to go to the chef’s table upstairs?’”

a person standing in a kitchen: Libby Willis and Bill Clark stand together in the basement prep kitchen at MeMe’s Diner. © Provided by Vox Media, Inc. Libby Willis and Bill Clark stand together in the basement prep kitchen at MeMe’s Diner.
11:00 a.m.: Checking in downstairs

After breakfast, Willis heads downstairs to check in with her prep cook, Ruti, who has started prepping ingredients in the basement kitchen. Ruti, Willis says, is essential to MeMe’s operations. “She loves to do all the fiddly things.”

The basement is also the location for what Willis calls “the world’s smallest walk-in.” It was once the beer fridge at her aunt and uncle’s restaurant. Willis and Clark bought that fridge and other equipment — the fryer, the stove, all the whisks, and more — from Willis’s aunt and uncle after their restaurant closed. “It was essentially a restaurant start-up kit,” says Clark.

Clark, meanwhile, is preparing one of the cakes that have become a MeMe’s signature. MeMe’s goes through about a cake and a half on weeknights, and more than that on the weekends.

On this Tuesday, Clark’s making Vietnamese iced coffee cake.

a dining room table: Libby Willis works at a laptop in the dining room at MeMe’s Diner. © Provided by Vox Media, Inc. Libby Willis works at a laptop in the dining room at MeMe’s Diner.
1:00 p.m.: Catching up on emails

Running the restaurant includes a fair amount of time in front of the computer. Willis does most of the ordering for the restaurant online. She’ll also answer emails, pay bills, schedule shifts, catch up on food news, and keep track of the MeMe’s recipes in spreadsheets. “I’m trying really hard to become the kind of organized cook who has a binder full of neatly, precisely managed recipes,” she says. “I’m not quite there, but it’s a goal.”

a person holding a bottle of wine: Libby Willis tastes wine at Meme’s Diner © Provided by Vox Media, Inc. Libby Willis tastes wine at Meme’s Diner
3:00 p.m.: Selecting wines

During weekday afternoons, the MeMe’s team will accept deliveries and let in routine inspectors — they got the all clear from the pest guy on this particular afternoon. “There all these tiny little things that nobody realizes,” she says. “That’s why food costs so much.”

a man and woman preparing food in a kitchen: Bill Clark goes over the menu for the night with Libby Clark who chops vegetables in the kitchen. © Provided by Vox Media, Inc. Bill Clark goes over the menu for the night with Libby Clark who chops vegetables in the kitchen.
Wine distributors are among the more exciting afternoon visitors. On this visit, Clark is on the lookout for some spring reds. Wine falls under his purview, but when he really likes something he’ll call Willis over for a gut check. “If she likes it, I know I can sell it,” he says.

a man cutting food on a table: The chicken cutlet with kumquat and cabbage slaw is a hit with the team. © Provided by Vox Media, Inc.
The chicken cutlet with kumquat and cabbage slaw is a hit with the team.

4:00 p.m.: Getting ready for service

Staff starts arriving around 4 p.m. for weekday dinner service, and Willis moves between the kitchen and basement and reviews the night’s menu with Clark.

MeMe’s recently switched its menu format to include themed specials that rotate out every six weeks. Willis is testing out dishes for the Asian Takeout theme, which took over the menu through mid-May. Everyone gathers around with forks in hand to try the chicken cutlet with kumquat and cabbage slaw and baby bok choy with umami butter and sesame. (A chicken cutlet always features on the MeMe’s menu in some form.)

a tray filled with different types of food on a table: Libby Willis’s station in the Meme’s Kitchen © Provided by Vox Media, Inc. Libby Willis’s station in the Meme’s Kitchen

5:00 p.m.: Service begins

Willis works the line, while Clark manages the front of house. The first customers arrive after 6.p.m. Tuesday evenings tend to be much slower than the restaurant’s bustling weekend brunch services.

At the end of service at 11 p.m. the staff will eat family meal. Some nights Willis will make a curry or fried rice, others she’ll take requests from the menu; the buffalo chicken salad is a favorite. Pasta makes only rare appearances, and there’s never anything frozen.

a person standing in front of a brick building: Libby Willis looks out her apartment window, which is directly above the Meme’s Diner storefront © Provided by Vox Media, Inc. Libby Willis looks out her apartment window, which is directly above the Meme’s Diner storefront
Now that she and Clark have a built a team they trust, Willis doesn’t feel the need to be the one who locks up every night, and so sometimes, she’ll go home early. Though, of course, if anything comes up, home is just a staircase away.

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Monica Burtonis Eater’s associate restaurant editor. Louise Palmbergis a photographer and cinematographer based in New York City.

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