From NY to BJ, Chef Billy’s culinary adventure continues
It’s after lunchtime on a chilly autumn day and William Bolton is enjoying a warm cup of green tea in his restaurant, Chef Too, located near Chaoyang Park. Afternoons are the only quiet times of the day for Bolton, who’s known to many as Chef Billy. By evening, the restaurant will be filled with customers and Bolton will be back in the kitchen, making some of the finest steaks found in Beijing.
“For me, the one thing I always used to miss in Beijing was a really good steak. That’s what I built this restaurant around,” says Bolton, a New York native. “I wanted to make one of those New York-style neighborhood restaurants: simple, consistent and serves a great steak.”
To achieve this goal, the chef designed a wood fire grill and had it custom-made at a manufacturing plant. Since finding quality fresh beef is challenging in China, the restaurant buys beef from Australia. “There’s a huge difference between frozen meat and fresh meat,” says Bolton, “I don’t want frozen meat for a steak; when you cut through it, the juice drains out and it becomes less moist and less tasty. But the fresh meat locks all the juice inside. That’s the main reason why we make a good steak.”
The chef’s passion for cooking, however, is not confined to just steaks or American cuisine. “I make a little bit of everything – a great Tuscan pasta, sushi rolls, and of course, Chinese food. I make the best gulao rou (sweet and sour pork) you’ll ever have!” he says with chuckle.
As a kid, Bolton was always interested in the goings on in the family kitchen and often helped his mother make mashed potatoes. At the age of 13, he started a business during the summer, picking up produce at farms, meat from butchers and then catering barbecue dinners for his customers. In the early 1980s, he attended culinary school and started his career as a chef. After having worked with famous chefs such as Pino Luongo and opening restaurants like Sapore di Mare, Bolton decided he wanted to make a big change.
In 1998, he came to Beijing to work at Gloria Hotel’s sports bar. A year later he moved to a post as head chef at the Big Easy bar and restaurant. In the capital, opportunities just opened up for him one after another. “The amazing thing about China is that there are so many possibilities – anything could happen and everything’s so doable,” says Bolton. “People are open to embracing new ideas and they’re willing to help you do it.”
The China experience also brought Bolton his wife Zoe Sun, who later became his partner both in life and in business. “We opened this restaurant together a year and a half ago. I’m the cook and she’s the manager,” says Bolton. “This place would not function without her.”
With business and family complementing each other, Bolton doesn’t worry too much about keeping a balance between the two. Still, being a chef means working seven days a week and almost always at dinnertime. So Bolton tries to spend time in the mornings with his daughters, 3-year-old Meimei and 5-year-old Dudu, as well as create chances for them to do fun things together.
“I would pull the kids out of school at 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon and go horseback riding, and that makes me unpopular with the teachers,” he laughs. “But I believe the essential thing in early childhood education is not learning math or science, but gaining positive real-life experience. Riding a horse is fun, and it teaches them to be kind and respectful to animals, to be responsible and to maintain balance.”
The whole family also treks out to a farm in Shunyi from time to time. There, the kids help plant and water the vegetables, then harvest them when they’re ripe. He believes that the healthiest experience that a young child could gain is from getting close to nature.
Thanks to their experience growing vegetables, the chef’s girls have a good appetite for healthy food. Dudu and Meimei also dine at Chef Too twice a week after school. When the kids arrive hungry, they first eat prepared vegetables like cucumber and carrot. “If you want your kids to eat healthy, you have to make healthy food to start with,” says Bolton. For example, the chef tempts his girls with fresh homemade ice cream, made from natural sugar, organic milk and vanilla beans.
Bolton has already passed on his explorer’s spirit to his girls; at 5, Dudu already calls herself a little chef and is always ready to experiment with new things in the kitchen. And Bolton allows the kids to help prepare dishes, as long as it’s safe, fun and within their capabilities.
“I won’t give the kids a big knife, but I’d let them play with a small knife that cuts butter or spread jam on the bread,” says Bolton. “I want them to have a perspective of what’s dangerous, but I don’t want them to be afraid of these things.”
Indeed, one has to take risks in life in order to experience its wonders. In Beijing, every day is an adventure, and Bolton goes with the flow to get the best of the experience. “I know what I want, then I go out and do it,” says Bolton.