Interview with Chez Josephine's Jean-Claude Baker and Steve Olson
Originally printed in January 2012.
There are numerous reasons to venture to our end of 42nd Street, but two of the most compelling are Chez Josephine and the West Bank Café. The restaurants are as much fixtures in this neighborhood as the companies of Theatre Row, with "Chez Jo's" Jean-Claude Baker and the West Bank's Steve Olson, owners as colorful as the establishments themselves. In 2012, former Director of Marketing Eric Winick posed a few questions to the irrepressible restaurateurs.
Eric Winick: When did your restaurant open, and what was your expectation for it?
Jean-Claude Baker: I opened Chez Josephine on October 2, 1986. Not knowing the business, my expectations were to be able to pay the bills each and every week. After 25 years, it is the same song...
Steve Olson: I opened West Bank Cafe on June 29, 1978. I expected the restaurant to be successful, but in the beginning, the street traffic consisted mostly of hookers and drug dealers. The local Hell’s Kitchen gang The Westies were our only customers.
What was 42nd Street like when you started?
JCB: Back then, 42nd Street was exciting and definitely dangerous. Theatre Row was a courageous beginning with great hope, talent and new friends.
Do you have any items that have been on your menu since you opened?
SO: I often hear the restaurant referred to as a “burger joint” in the old days, but the truth is, we’ve always had a burger on the menu as well as contemporary cuisine. The $4 burger is now $14.
JCB: Our Belgian Endives with Roquefort Societe and Roasted Walnuts has been a must on the menu since we opened. It is now $10, was $4.25 then.
Considering what this block was like when you started, do you consider yourself a pioneer or a survivor?
JCB: All of us mad enough to become involved in this section of 42nd Street were definitely pioneers, and had to become survivors; there was no other choice.
SO: Let someone else be the pioneer. I consider myself a survivor.
Okay, dish: what’s your top celebrity-meal story?
JCB: Joan Rivers, a regular, once held a party for 15 friends. A delicious menu, champagne pouring like water, but Joan had a white bread plate in front of her. In it were some 20 white pills, and while her guests enjoyed the multi-course meal, she from time to time would pick up a pill with two fingers, put it in her mouth, and wash it down with champagne. This was her only food during the whole evening. I was puzzled, but never asked her the recipe.
What is your favorite (non-show) PH memory?
JCB: Elizabeth Ashley, while starring in Edward Albee’s Me, Myself & I, chose to be interviewed on Chez Josephine’s terrace. Dear Elizabeth, always concerned about my financial well-being, ordered a full dinner for herself as well as a full dinner (appetizer, filet mignon and dessert) for her beloved pug, Che Guevara.
SO: I was in Las Vegas in September 1983 walking past Caesar’s Palace where there was a huge marquee that said “Bernadette Peters Next Week” and I laughed, because at that very moment, Bernadette Peters and co. were rehearsing Sunday in the Park With George with Stephen Sondheim in my own downstairs theater.
How has Playwrights Horizons figured into your restaurant’s history?
SO: The reason I took the location was because Playwrights Horizons was there and Theatre Row was getting ready to open.
JCB: Playwrights Horizons is the twin soul of Chez Josephine, and I will always credit your loyal subscribers to be a major part of Chez Josephine’s longevity and success.