Chef Chat, Part 2: Chris Williams of Lucille's, On Hustling His Way Back to the States, and Southern Cooking vs. Soul Food
Chef Chris Williams of Lucille's
Photos by Mai Pham
EOW: You were in Europe for about four years. What brought you back?
CW: My brother. I was bouncing all around, and when he e-mailed me, I was in Lithuania. So I get this e-mail, and he's saying, "I don't care if you have two boys and live next door, I'm not going to come see them." Basically, he was mad because I hadn't yet met my nieces. So, I was like, "Okay, I'll come home." But I didn't have the money to get home. So I get to Germany and the only flight I could afford was to Canada. So I look on the map to this place Halifax, and I said, "All right, that looks like it's only four hours from D.C., and if I get to Halifax, then I'll find a way to D.C., then I can find a way to get to Houston."
EOW: That is crazy!
CW: So I get to Halifax, I have like 50 euros left in my pocket. Got off the plane straight from Germany, it's been 15 hours without a cigarette, so I run straight up in there, buy a pack of cigarette and a lemonade, and they say, "That's $18." And I was like, "How much is this lemonade?" And they say, "It's $15 for the cigarettes." I have no money, but I say, "Okay, I'll take 'em." I go out, take a cab to the city. I had about $15 left and went to a casino -- that's how I got the money to take the flight from Germany to Halifax -- but I lost the $15 in 15 seconds. So I found a hostel, they let me in and it turned out they were trying to launch a catering program. And I said, "I know how to cook." So I ended up helping them; they had a cafe in front of the hostel, and I ended up staying there for free for a year.
EOW: This was in Halifax?
CW: Halifax, Nova Scotia. I also took over the Halifax Ale House. I was Executive Sous Chef over there, and that's where I met my wife. Six months later, I finally made it down to D.C., opened up Station 9 with Chef Teryl Danley, who was another huge influence, and then my wife came down, and that's when I really started. Cooking is what I've loved to do, but it was always a hustle. It was my passion, but it was my hustle, not my career path.
Chris Williams still works on the line in his kitchen.
EOW: But you did go to culinary school.
CW: I did, but we were mutually unimpressed with each other. I was there, I was in Austin, I went to school every now and then. But the program didn't really do anything for me, just showed me the knife skills; we didn't get along well. That's when I started traveling. I was out at the Dominican Republic, back and forth to D.C. -- going all over the place. And culinary school, from the people I've worked with straight out of culinary school, it's just an introduction. And so I got that. I got knife skills and terms, but I got experience in Europe, which was great.
EOW: How are the kitchens in Europe different from the ones here?
CW: They're smaller. They're two-man operations. Right now I have a three-man line plus a dishwasher. If we were in Europe, it would be a two-man line tops, and I would be the dishwasher. When Sean Devlin comes down here, he's gonna give me shit about this and be like, "Why are you wasting all this money?"
EOW: Describe your style.
CW: As it is right now, it's really based on what I grew up with.
EOW: Which was?
CW: My father's cooking, he was a phenomenal cook -- he worked at Camp Waldermar with my great-grandmother, Lucille. Pork chops is one of his favorite things. I remember one of my favorite dishes was pork chops with black-eyed peas, fresh green onions, corn bread (I never really liked the corn bread, though), fresh tomato with salt and pepper, and the pork chop, and that's it. So when I came up with the pork and beans dish -- I actually came up with it while at Max's Wine Dive one day, as just an idea. And I put it together, tasted it for the servers, and I tasted it, and literally -- like in Lord of the Rings when Frodo puts on the ring and it takes him to the other realm -- it just took me back to being eight years old at my father's table eating that pork chop with the black-eyed peas and all those things. That's really a simple, straightforward application -- it's just cooking the pork with what complements the pork -- a little bit of vinegar, a little bit of sugar just balances it out. Taking all those elements, reducing that down to a sauce. And then for the beans, it's just good, fresh peas. English peas, fava beans, good earthy tones always balance out well with the pork.
Lucille's legacy, like this shot taken from the inside of an original recipe box, is found everywhere in the restaurant.
EOW: So let's get back to the story about your great-grandmother, Lucille.
CW: When I really started getting into this history was when I found this place and I was trying to figure out what the concept was going to be. One of the problems I used to have was my menus had no center, because I was drawing on all of my experiences. I was doing dumplings from Lithuania to shrimp and grits to all types of ridiculous combinations.
EOW: That's interesting because one of the things that I immediately liked about this place, coming in, is that I felt like there was focus. When you come in, there's this Southern history, it's built into the walls. You kind of know what you're getting and the message is very clear -- at least that's what I get out of it. Anyways, I'll let you tell the story.
CW: So when I found this spot, I was trying to figure out what the name was going to be, what I was going to do. I did know that I wanted it to be the neighborhood restaurant. I wanted to call it "Tryst," or something like that; then my brother said, "Why don't we call it Lucille's?" And I was like, "Oh, that's it! That's it!" And the menu started forming in my mind right when he said that. And that's when I started digging into that history. I have two sons, four and three [years old]; we started going to visit Lucille's daughter, my grandmother, and we'd spend days at a time just cooking. I'd be cooking for her, sometimes I'd cook what I'd want to cook, and sometimes I'd cook from Lucille's cookbook. So she's drinking wine and she's telling us stories, and for every story she had documentation to back it up, and so we spent weeks just going back and forth, hanging out with my grandmother.
EOW: And what is the story?
CW: There's so much to the story. Basically, Lucille was an amazing cook and amazing woman. She didn't do it to get rich, she did it because that's what she loved to do and she wanted to serve her community. She did it through her general store, she did it through her hot rolls, her educational program, she took in families.
EOW: What about the logo?
CW: That's from her original cookbook. A lot that you see in this restaurant comes from her original cookbook.
EOW: So you have this legacy from Lucille. For somebody who's coming in here, what can they expect?
CW: Well, I hope they're surprised. The basis of the menu -- the names on the menu are all very simple, like fish fry, pork and beans, shrimp and grits. And when they get it, I hope they're like, "Wow, this isn't what I expected." A lot of people are expecting soul food, but I don't really see it like that.
Many of the fresh ingredients at Lucille's come from the backyard garden.
EOW: There's an element of soul food, for sure. For people expecting that, how would you explain what you're doing here? What does soul food mean to you?
CW: That's a great question. There's certain things you associate with soul food -- there's going to be fried chicken, yams, dressins, collards, oxtails, pigs feet, and I guess there are similarities. But she wasn't just a soul cook, she was a Southern cook, and what makes a Southern cook a Southern cook is she's just using ingredients that are available to her.
EOW: What are the ingredients that differentiate yours from soul?
CW: There's those fresh peas. It's those slight touches and the techniques that go along with it. It's making stocks and layering flavors. It's the stuff I picked up in Europe, or working at Jose Andres's restaurant in D.C. I don't want it to be dumbed down and simplified. It comes from an honest place. I'm not trying to do something that I'm not comfortable with.
EOW: You're just on the cusp of something really amazing. Where do you see yourself in five years?
CW: Hopefully I'll still be right here. This is what I wanna do. I'm doing what I love right here. I'm not trying to open up 15 restaurants. This is it. This is where I'm happy. This is all I need, and I want it to run well. I'd love to have a day off, but I love it.
Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Williams's food.
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