CULINARY ADVENTURES: Haven Café and Bakery — I and IIMore Info
Although the original Haven Café and Bakery in Lenox opened in June 2008 right before the economy crashed, it became an instant success. Such a success that owner Shelly Williams was able to open a second Haven in Great Barrington in 2013. While the two restaurants share a menu, name, and owner, they are quite different. Kind of like children from the same family, if you know what I mean.
Shelly Williams’ past is filled with restaurant jobs, experiencing everything from cooking to front-of-the-house responsibilities. Her restaurant career began a few months after her son was born when one of her clients asked her to cook for a friend’s party, scheduled for the day after Christmas. The hosts just wanted lasagna. No big deal. But then they changed to beef tenderloin, a totally different cooking experience. “I’d been making beef tenderloin for years, but this was for 50!” Luckily, Williams had three months to practice. A guest at that party hired her to cater for a party of 150. “And all of a sudden, I was in business,” she says. “I love to cook, but I was never trained.”
She started catering from her home, but the business doubled every year so it didn’t take long before she needed a professional kitchen. She bought the building on Franklin Street, and renovated it completely. “We were busy from the day we opened,” she says. The first week they just had coffee, scones, and pastries. The next week they added breakfast. The third week they added lunch. And that’s how it all began.
Haven in Lenox enjoys a steady stream of customers throughout the day, seven days a week. It’s not unusual for them to do 600 “covers” on Sunday. The Great Barrington restaurant has shorter hours, and is closed on Wednesdays.
As any parent knows, children differ from one another. And so it is with the two Havens. Originally Williams used her model from Lenox to operate Great Barrington, but she quickly learned that although they share the same menu, they are very different. “Great Barrington has evolved its own personality.” Perhaps that is because Williams believes that her business is an art. “I don’t follow rules,” she posits with a smile.
Although Williams had no formal education in food preparation, she had been a cookbook collector for years, evidence of which can still be found in the hallway at the Lenox Haven. She makes good use of those cookbooks. When asked to prepare a dish, she’ll sort through them for a few recipes, test them out, and then combine aspects from each to perfect it. She still does that. “It took me six months to create our carrot cake.”
She buys as many ingredients as possible from local sources, taking care to get organic whenever possible. Her eggs come from farms in the greater Berkshire area. In short, in Shelly Williams’ world, ingredients matter. “If you don’t start there, all of the techniques you master won’t make it right. You need to have a 100 percent commitment to your ingredients.”
Recently, she became dissatisfied with her chocolate cake and learned that someone had ordered a different cocoa powder. She could taste the difference. “Cocoa powders are very distinct. They’re harder to distinguish than chocolate with a different chemistry.” I’m in awe of such a refined palate, one that can differentiate the subtlety of the same cake with different cocoas.
Williams says “Never compromise in baking. When you’re cooking, you can taste and make corrections along the way. But not with baking. You can’t taste it as it’s cooking. Baking is art and science at the same time. It’s like music — you have to learn the structure before you can set yourself free to experiment.”
Part of Haven’s business is catering.. “I’ve done weddings for 160 people, and dinner parties for 10,” says Williams. Customers can order the food and have it delivered, or just pick it up. She’ll take orders for appetizers for a party, or cater the whole event. “We’re very flexible about our catering,” she says.
Most of the dishes stay on the menu “forever,” but they always have new ones. “People would get upset if we dropped the curried chicken salad.” For Williams, food is more than just the health benefits. She understands that there is an emotive side to food, that satisfaction you feel when you’re eating something. “And a nice aspect of being the owner is that I get to decide what’s perfect.”
Although there’s always a line to get food in Lenox, customers don’t have to wait for a table. Williams says that some people stay for a long time (particularly the writers who can sit for hours), but most eat and then leave. She is so positive that her customers can always get a table that she has a standing offer to buy them breakfast if they can’t get a table.
At the Great Barrington Haven, the most popular dishes are their omelets. “People love them,” she says. Another longstanding favorite is the turkey sandwich, featuring marinated tomatoes, herbed mayonnaise, and brined turkey with herbes de Provence. “There are layers of flavor in that sandwich.”
As I was interviewing Williams, I faced a large photo of Kim and James Taylor. I asked if they were favorite customers. Her answer is a sweet story. It goes like this. The previous restaurant in that space had on its menu “James Taylor’s favorite omelet.” When Williams took over, she thought that if it was Taylor’s favorite, she’d better put it on the menu. But she called it the Haven Omelet because she did not know Taylor. On opening day, Kim Taylor came in and thanked her for not using his name because the previous owner had done so without permission. The next day Williams was given a framed and signed album cover picture of Taylor. Score one for integrity.