ABOVE: PIPER PERABO AT JACK’S WIFE FREDA.
When we first heard about actress Piper Perabo’s involvement in Jack’s Wife Freda, we assumed it must be the title of her next film. We were wrong. It seems that Perabo is also something of a restaurateur; in 2005 Perabo opened Employees Only, a prohibition era themed bar in the West Village —Jack’s Wife Freda is Perabo’s second restaurant venture, a cozy café in SoHo run by former Keith McNally employees, Maya and Dean Jankelowitz. Freda is not some new leading lady that Piper is taking on, rather Freda is the name of Dean’s grandmother, Jack the name of his grandfather. Perabo took a minute between costume fittings for her show, Covert Affairs, in LA and dinner at JWF in New York, to talk to Interview about pastries, sign language, Coyote Ugly and whether or not she is now banned from Balthazar.
BROWN: Hi Piper. I wanted to ask you about your new restaurant, Jack’s Wife Freda. This is not your first restaurant, is it?
PIPER PERABO: No, I also went in on a place called Employees Only.
BROWN: How did you first decide to go into the restaurant business?
PERABO: I live in New York City, so I eat out a lot, and I used to live near Schiller’s—that [Keith] McNally restaurant—I ate there so much that I knew everyone who worked there. With Employees Only, some of the bartenders wanted to start their own place and then with Jack’s Wife Freda, Dean [Jankelowitz] was the maitre d’ at Schiller’s and his wife, Maya, was the maitre d’ atBalthazar. We all became friends and eventually they wanted to start their own restaurant. We all had lived out in the restaurants downtown for so long, that we were like, “Why don’t we do it together?”
BROWN: Is Keith McNally angry with you for stealing all of his employees?
PERABO: [laughs] I hope not! I know that Dean and Maya went to Keith, to say, “May we have your blessing to go out on our own?” And he said “Yes.” So I don’t think he’s mad…
BROWN: How are you involved in your restaurants—are you a hands on investor, or hands off?
PERABO: Primarily I invest because I’m really a firm believer in letting the artist make their work, if you choose to work with an artist then you give them the go-ahead, but all through the construction—the menus, the tastings, everything—I was constantly sitting in the construction site with them, drinking coffee, one of us is holding one of their babies and we’re talking about colors, the restaurant itself is named after Dean’s grandparents, so we’re all sitting there drinking coffee and talking about our lives.
BROWN: Are you planning on opening a third restaurant, or do you just take these things as they come?
PERABO: Things come up and I go with it. I feel like, what’s so great about living in New York, is that New York is one of those cities where the rebels from the hometowns all over [the US] end up living-the people that you meet are all kind of builders and dreamers like you. I believe in following your instincts with the people that you like and who you like to be with. I grew up in New Jersey; I came to New York a few days after I graduated from college—I packed my books and my coffee pot and I came to New York. I’ve been here ever since.
BROWN: What food item are you most excited about at Jack’s Wife Freda?
PERABO: I don’t even know if it’s on the menu, but one of my favorite things is—in the morning, when you go to get your coffee, I like to have a cappuccino as my first coffee of the day, there’s the little pastry called the “rose,” it’s a little rolled pastry with chocolate in it, and when the guy at the bar makes your cappuccino, he puts the leftover steamed milk on the pastry. It becomes this little soft, French, dreamy [thing], something about it is so comforting and warm and tiny… I love it. If you’re having a big day, you feel really secure after starting with that pastry.
BROWN: That does sound really delicious. The first movie that I saw you in was Coyote Ugly —do people often ask you if you are going to open up a Coyote Ugly bar?
PERABO: [laughs] Nobody has asked me that!
BROWN: Oh, really?
PERABO: There are Coyote Ugly-style bars, and I always thought about going into one of them, but I was worried that someone was going to ask me to start serving them, so I stay away.
BROWN: They probably would.
BROWN: Would you want to venture into nightlife?
PERABO: I really like the idea of restaurant life, especially in New York where everyone has small apartments—that restaurant culture where you sit at a table for a long time and the afternoon goes by and you’re kind of living there. I like that more than nightlife.
BROWN: How did you first befriend Dean and Maya?
PERABO: They’re both really social downtown people, which I think is why they were so successful as maitre d’s; once they’ve seen you twice they never forget you. They both worked at really popular restaurants so you end standing at the hostess stand waiting for a table [for a long time]—so you end up having a cocktail at the hostess stand and hanging out.
BROWN: I always get so embarrassed when restaurant servers recognize me, like I must go there too often and order the same thing.
PERABO: [laughs] It’s different when you walk into a restaurant, and your friend who works there say “Hey, Emma! You have to try the new steak, its soo good!” it reminds you [that you’re in] your neighborhood. One of the great thing about New York is the neighborhood—you go for your walk in the morning and you know your dry cleaning lady, you know the guy in your coffee shop—that’s your neighborhood and I love that.
BROWN: That’s interesting, you don’t often hear of people coming to cities like New York to find a neighborhood community. So I hear you’re about to start a new season of Covert Affairs?
PERABO: I just finished a movie a week ago, called the Red Machine, it’s a…bear hunting movie. We shot in the mountains in British Columbia. I play a deaf photographer—in Covert Affairs I wear high-heeled shoes and all these incredible clothes and I can speak 12 languages, [but] in Red Machine I don’t have a single line, it’s all sign-language. It was such a different thing and really nice to be dirty and wear the same jeans every day.
BROWN: Did you learn sign language?
PERABO: I know about 200 words, but I had teachers—both hearing people, who did sign language translations and people who are deaf.
BROWN: Do you pick up on words when you see people signing in public places?
PERABO: Absolutely, certain signs are really recognizable—the whole cast knew the sign for bear.
BROWN: Was it intimidating to accept a role with no dialogue?
PERABO: I wasn’t intimidating to not have any dialogue, but it was intimidating to play a deaf character. There’s a whole culture in the deaf community and I really wanted to know a lot about that and honor it in the work.
BROWN: And you’ve finished another movie as well, Looper?
PERABO: Oh yes, it’s a sort of Blade Runner futuristic world and I play a burlesque dancehall girl from the future.
BROWN: Were you like, “Well this is familiar” ?
PERABO: [laughs] I was glad to have had some dance background because some of the dances are pretty wild—we do a can-can at one point and thinking about what a can-can would look like in the future was really fun.
JACK’S WIFE FREDA IS LOCATED AT 224 LAFAYETTE ST IN SOHO, NEW YORK.