Checking in with… Wil Brawley of Billie-Jean

In our new column, Checking in with…, we’re catching up with local food industry employees to find out how they’ve been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.  

If you’ve eaten at Billie-Jean, chances are you were greeted at some point by Wil Brawley. Smiling but serious, usually wearing a dark blazer with sleeves hiked up to the elbow, Brawley more or less runs the nightly show there. His position as operations, service and beverage director – or, in his words, doing “everything but the food” – has been the culmination of four years of service in Zoë Robinson’s restaurant group. Brawley started at Bar Les Freres in 2016 as a server and bartender and also trained at I Fratellini. In May 2017, Robinson asked him to help her open Billie-Jean. Seven months later, the elegant, Asian-inspired fine dining restaurant went live. Now, as all three restaurants have temporarily closed, Brawley is adapting to an amount of free time he hasn’t enjoyed for over a decade. We caught up with him to talk about his new routine, which carryout menus he’s excited about, and the Nintendo 64 games he’s currently playing.  

What’s going on with Billie-Jean at the moment?  
For Zoë, [everything] was pretty quick. When you think about a person who’s a restaurateur, you have to imagine, like, OK, she probably had finances that were diversified in stocks that probably took an enormous hit. And she resolved that the smartest thing for the longevity of the restaurant group was to consolidate as best we could. She fully closed Bar Les Freres and Billie-Jean almost immediately. She’s hyper-cautious, which I respect and understand. The growing sense of doom that’s out there forced her hand in closing I Fratellini as well, following suit with a number of other restaurants in town. We are completely silent, currently, with our fingers crossed that we can emerge on the other side. But even that is an indefinite right now. 

So you’ve been staying at home?  
All of last week, I think every day, I went out for a couple hours and drove for Postmates. Honestly, I’m a creature of productivity. At Billie-Jean, since before day one, I’ve been cranking out 50-plus hours a week, consistently. So for me it’s like, fuck, I cannot just sit here with nothing to do. I can read and play video games and get stoned and cook and all of that, but I have to feel like I’m doing something. I drove Postmates every day last week, but by Friday, I was like, “Even this feels irresponsible.” It’s a super fine line because I want to contribute to the community, helping fight through this for small businesses who are using Postmates, or for the people who have to stay home because they have kids or are legitimately quarantined. My girlfriend Lauren has encouraged me to drop that as a habit, so starting today, I’m not leaving unless I absolutely have to.  

Are you and Lauren quarantined together?  
We are kicking that into effect tomorrow. She works in mortgage refinancing, which has been considered “essential” business. Today is her office’s last day of being in-house, so she and I will be quarantining together starting tomorrow with our three cats and our dog.  

What do you anticipate doing with yourself for the next 30 days? 
I definitely have an agenda a mile long. Being in the service industry, cleaning is an easy thing to want to do. I have a couple projects laid out – reorganize some closets and cabinets and shit like that. I’m actually looking forward to sitting down, reading some books, doing some things that, for the past decade, I’ve been telling myself I don’t have time to do. I went straight from undergrad to graduate school, and then I started bartending. I’ve been a full-time industry employee ever since. Yesterday, I picked up a book I’ve been trying to read literally for a decade, but have never gotten more than 20 pages through. It felt poignant and timely right now: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – a post-apocalyptic tale. Now’s the time to really conquer this Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of grim and doom. 

I love cooking, and I got a bunch of cookbooks for Christmas that I’ve not even begun to broach. I’m most excited about Momofuku by David Chang. I whipped out my Nintendo 64 – I’m going to be a jackass and play James Bond and Mario Party. This is a good time to remind ourselves of simpler times. What better way than to pull out my OG N64 that I bought in 1997 with chore money? 

Are you eating any carryout right now? 
Earlier this week, we picked up some Seoul Taco. Lauren had intended on swinging by The Clover and the Bee today. Mark Hinkle has always been at the forefront of community engagement, and it’s been inspiring to watch how he’s harnessed this whole situation. The Louie carryout menu looks fantastic – I think Lauren and I will plan on grabbing some of that on Friday. I’m not going to shy away from getting myself some lamb ribs or khao soi over at Indo.  

In my mind, though, I have a hard time reconciling if I’m being responsible to the community or irresponsible to my health and to others by wanting to do those kinds of things. I still don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know that I ever will, until I either get sick and know I have to stay home, or the whole thing passes. Every day, I feel differently on if I need to be out there doing something for the community or if my contribution to the community is staying home. 

What have you been cooking in the past week?  
I’ve crushed some really fun meals over the past seven days. I made chicken pot pie, scratch-made type stuff. Made this really fantastic meatloaf. We did a tofu tikka masala. When’s the last time I had time to make three meals in one week? I have no fucking clue.  

Are you watching any TV right now that’s getting you through? Anything you’re stoked about? 
We were a few episodes behind on HBO’s The Outsider. That was a lot of fun to watch. I’ve been watching the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm – Larry David is, like, my super-ego spirit animal. I’ve loved watching that. The whole season is like a narrative study on being spiteful. Lauren had never seen The Walking Dead, so this felt like a timely moment to introduce her to that show. We’ve also been trying to balance the morbid, morose, melancholy content with nostalgic, uplifting [stuff] that reminds us of childhood. Hook has been on in the past week, and The Lord of the Rings. We’re trying to find balance in everything we’re doing, like with the N64 vs. reading The Road.  

What do you miss most about going to work every day?  
The productivity and the routine. My whole heart and soul is in that restaurant. Having people come in night in and night out, I fucking live for that shit, dude. I cannot be any more sincere when I say that. I get my happiness from creating happiness for other people. Making other people happy, that’s the purest form of satisfaction right there. To have that taken away, man, that’s fucking cold-blooded. That has been really tough to cope with. Of course, my girlfriend is my actual whole world, so as long as she and I are happy, then my Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is met. But if I’m trying to reach the peak, if I’m trying to hit the top, then being there, getting to create that experience for people, that’s what I miss the most. And the fucking dumpling soup, you feel me? 

Adam Rothbarth is the staff writer at Sauce Magazine.