"I'll never be able to work that hard again, to work on my feet cooking in a restaurant again," says Tom Williams. These are terrifying words to come from the mouth of a chef, but Williams seems to be handling the news rather well. Right now the master of Low Country cooking is worried about getting well; he'll worry about life without cooking later.
Fox Diner closed its doors last month. For many customers, it was a shock, but for those who knew 38-year-old owner and chef Tom Williams, it was a tragedy. "They told me I had a congenital heart defect," he says.
Fox began its life on November 9, 1996, when Williams, a former director of catering for a hotel, opened a hole-in-the-wall home-cooking spot on Taft near Allen Parkway. The little-diner-that-could grew slowly into a Zagat-recognized eatery specializing in Low Country cooking. If you were reared in the South you knew what they served; if you were a transplanted Yankee it took only one visit to understand comfort food.
Though Williams had lived and studied in Paris, he wanted to pay homage to the cooking of his youth. "I wanted to save a piece of American history," he says. "I wanted to preserve the Low Country cooking from Georgia and South Carolina that I grew up with." He mixed in a few indigenous Texas ingredients and hit upon a classic that resonated with Houstonians. While everyone else in town was doing gourmet, Texas steak house and fusion, he was doing Grandma's food.
After garnering awards, glowing reviews and loyal customers, Williams moved from the tiny Taft location to a primo spot on South Shepherd in January 2001. "Just in time for the first recession," says Williams. But the customers still came, lured by fried chicken, gravy shooters and fried green tomato salad.
"If you wanted cheese grits and shrimp," says artist Kate Lumley, "there was only one place to go."
Williams was riding high. He had turned his Taft location into a Mexican luncheon spot called Café Zorro, and the new Fox location was doing well. Then came the flood spawned by Tropical Storm Allison last June, which pretty much shut down Zorro. And then, over the holidays, Williams began feeling tired. Exhausted and frighteningly thin, he was hospitalized on February 1 and didn't come home until March 19.
"The first thing the doctors told me was 'You know you're only working four hours a day from now on,' " remembers Williams. Anyone who's read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential or worked the line in a restaurant knows a four-hour day for a chef is impossible. "I would go in at 8 a.m. and leave about 11 p.m. or midnight," says Williams. "My partner was my 76-year-old dad, so I said, 'I just can't run a restaurant like that.' "
Customers were devastated. "I don't know where I'll get my fried chicken now," says Jamie Brewster of the InTown Chamber of Commerce. "If we didn't eat there once a week, it was every other week."
But Fox Diner comforted with more than just its food. "The people made you feel comfortable," says Lumley. "You could go in shorts or all dressed up."
Lumley used to be the food sales rep for Fox, but when Williams saw some of her paintings, he asked her to show them at the Taft location. Later, he invited her to paint the 70-foot fresh produce mural in the new location. The next thing she knew, people were calling to offer her commissions because they had seen her work at Fox Diner. Today Lumley is a full-time artist, about to launch her own line of children's wear and known most infamously as the creator of the Utter-Cow-Struction fiberglass bovine that was cow-napped from the Cow Parade.
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"Tom helped launch my career," says Lumley. "While he was launching his own dream, he was always helping others; he was a dream maker."
In the cutthroat world of Houston restaurants, Williams is one person about whom everyone has something good to say. Whether he was helping a Mexican crew member bring his family to Texas, aiding filmmakers or would-be artists, or just filling the stomachs of those longing for Southern comfort in a world of nuevo-fusion, he created in Fox Diner a place to relax, a place to eat, a place to dream.
"I will miss it," says Williams. "I'm hoping to go back to hotel work, as a director of catering."
"We haven't heard the last of Tom Williams," says Lumley.