Chef Chat, Part 1: Chris Williams of Lucille's, On Opening a Restaurant in His Twenties and One- and Two-Man Kitchens in Europe

Chris Williams Lucille's 5512 La Branch Tel: (713) 568-2505 www.lucilleshouston.com

This is Part 1 of a three-part Chef Chat series. Parts 2 and 3 will run in this same space on Thursday and Friday.

Tucked away in the Museum District on La Branch near the Children's Museum, Lucille's is one of the most charming neighborhood restaurants to open this year. I say "charming" because the minute you walk in, it feels like you've entered someone's home. With a color palette that incorporates various shades of polished woods and a retro, bright cornflower blue Lucille's logo painted on the back wall (a logo that reminded me of the old TV sitcom Laverne & Shirley), the decor is warm and welcoming -- the epitome of how a Southern restaurant should look.

We sat down for a chat with the Lucille's owner and chef, native Houstonian Chris Williams, on a busy afternoon just a month and a half after he opened the restaurant that he named after his great-grandmother.

EOW: How old are you?

CW: Thirty-three.

EOW: And this is your first restaurant?

CW: No, we were part owners of the Fusion Cafe on Times Boulevard in the Rice Village. That was just out of culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, in 2002.

EOW: Just out of culinary school and you were a partner in a restaurant?

CW: Yeah, my brother went about securing that. He got the managerial contract for us, and we went in as partners. We went in blind; we didn't know what we were doing or who we were doing it with. I was just 22, 23.

EOW: So you were young, and arrogant...

CW: And ignorant. (Laughs.) And knew nothing. And so we found out who we were dealing with about eight months into it. Long story short, I moved to Europe and my brother went into accounting.

EOW: Okay. So you did this for eight months? What were you doing there?

CW: I was the chef. And we wanted to change the bar program, set up the new systems, try to get new people into the business. So I was the chef, the busser, the server, the bartender, everything. It was a small place, about 30 to 35 seats.

EOW: So you've been in kitchens all your life, and you have this really wonderful history with your great-grandmother. Tell me how you grew up.

CW: We're from Houston. I didn't even know about the history of my great-grandmother. My father was an amazing cook -- he actually worked with my great-grandmother at Camp Waldemar, and a lot of our patrons come from Camp Waldemar. It's supposed to be a Texas standard. It's a very upper-class, posh girl's summer camp, kind of like an etiquette school.

EOW: When did you find out about your great-grandmother?

CW: I knew my great-grandmother, but she was bedridden and I think she passed when I was five or six. I remember I used to spend all my time with her when I'd visit my grandmother in Brenham. She was living with her daughter, and I'd stay in her room and we'd talk and I'd feed her and whatever. So I came back to Houston from D.C., and I was about to go to Europe, and I went to see my paternal grandmother. And she was like, "Baby, you still wanna be a cook?" and I said, "Yes, ma'am." And so she was like, "Ah, well -- you must get that from your great-grandmother, Lucille." And that's the first time I paid attention to it.

EOW: So your paternal grandmother is the daughter of Lucille?

CW: No. Lucille is on my mother's side. So I went off to Europe and did all that, and came back four or five years later.

EOW: What was in Europe?

CW: My girlfriend at the time. She was out there doing pre-med, and I just went there for vacation after the restaurant debacle. Ran out of money in about three weeks, so I started working. Got a chef position at this gastropub called the Black Sheep off of New Camberwell Road. I started over there and I met the chef and thought he was Asian -- you know, like Indian. So we started talking, and he was like, "Man, what's it like in the kitchens out there?" And I said, "Well, you just gotta know how to speak Spanish." And he was like, "That's interesting, what's the makeup in the kitchens?" And he was like, "I'm Mexican." He was actually a Mexican-English chef, and he was amazing, and I can't remember his name because those years were just about surviving, they were a blur.

EOW: So for people who don't know what a gastropub is, what is it?

CW: There's the traditional pub, and gastropubs were getting more serious about their food. They wanted to have serious menu offerings.

EOW: So did you do Mexican-inspired gastropub?

CW: Absolutely not, there was not a hint of Mexican. It was proper British food; we'd do Sunday roast dinners -- it was real British, real fresh, real local, really good. It was a one-man operation. I'd go in there at 8 in the morning and prep everything myself; I'd wash my own dishes, wash the dishes for the restaurant and produce the food. After that, I moved to Luton -- where Ryanair flies out about 24 miles outside of London -- and met this Irish-born chef, Sean Devlin, who'd just opened up a restaurant called Author's Fine. We got everything sourced local. We changed our menu every single day. And it was a two-man operation. Him working the major proteins, me doing the garde manger and assisting him with whatever he needed and then, of course, washing the dishes.

EOW: So you did a lot of dishwashing.

CW: Yeah. Everything had to look brand-new at the end of the shift. But that's where I really got my style. His thing was all about showcasing his ingredients right up the block. We had a fishmonger from right up the street, we got all our vegetables from right around the corner, everything was just farmed in fresh and that's how we built our menu. And his technique was really simple; it was just showcasing what was already there. Just salt and pepper with great ingredients, and that's it. No trying to change things up, no manipulating flavors too much, just complementing the flavors that were already there. So I worked with him for six months, but Luton wasn't ready for that kind of restaurant -- it was a two-story, 60-seat restaurant. So we closed down and I went back into bartending. I took over the Cork and Bull, became the general manager and the chef.

EOW: So you can throw down a good cocktail.

CW: (Smiles ruefully.) Yeah. Yeah, I can still do that if I need to.

Check back with us tomorrow as we continue our chat with Chris Williams.

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