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Chris Williams On Feeding Communities With Dignity

Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.

Chris Williams was born and raised on the south side of Houston. He attended Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, Texas, and soon began traveling around the world, working in restaurants in Lithuania, England, the United States, and elsewhere. In 2012, Williams opened Lucille’s, named after his great-grandmother Lucille B. Smith, a famous chef in her own right. Williams formed the nonprofit Lucille’s 1913 during the pandemic to provide meals to Houstonians in need, including 5,000 holiday meals in December and 3,000 meals on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

When I was 16 or 17, I got my first job as a server over at Chili’s. I made it for two months before they fired me. But I fell in love with the chaos of the restaurant industry, and so I stayed with it. I’ve always worked in restaurants, and I’ve worked every position from busser to server to bartender to dishwasher to prep cook to ultimately chef and now owner.

After working in kitchens in DC, Europe, and Nova Scotia, eventually I moved back to Houston. I came to work with Robert Gatsby, an amazing chef who focuses on Asian-French fusion, and that’s where I met my business partner and chef de cuisine, Khang Hoang. And then I found the space that is now Lucille’s.

I called the number on the building, and the landlord just happens to be from Bedford, England, which is right next to the town that I lived in there. And so we hit it off and he gave me a shot—I didn’t have the money for it, didn’t have a plan, didn’t know what the restaurant was going to be, didn’t know what the name was going to be, or how the fuck we were going to pay for it.

But when I found it, I just walked into my job and I was like, “Hey, I’m gonna give you two months’ notice. I found a place to try to do a restaurant.”

Then we set about the work of figuring out what it’s going to be, and how we’re going to pay for it. Our lease at that time was $4,000 a month. So we started catering. It was a two-man operation, me and Chef Khang. We cooked out of this hole of a house on Hiram Clarke that had spraypaint and bullet holes all over. We rigged up our own kitchen with propane tanks and outdoor burners and the electric stove from my house. The stove would shock you—you had to wear rubber gloves when you were cooking on it. And one and a half ovens. We cooked food for up to 400 people a day out of there. It took us about a year and a half, but that’s how we paid for Lucille’s. So we got it open, and that was eight years ago.

I was going to name the restaurant after Tryst in Washington DC, because I loved that space. It felt European. But my brother was like, “That name is fucking stupid.” And my mom was like, “Yeah, name’s stupid. Why don’t we call it Christopher’s?” And I said, “Well, because I don’t want that kind of pressure, Mom.”

Then my brother recommended that we call it Lucille’s, after our great-grandmother Lucille Bishop Smith, and I was like, that’s it. It’s a story that gives me the approach for the kind of food we do, the style of service, everything. And it just made everything so much easier. We’re still riding on her coattails. When he said that name, it just defined everything that it is right now.

Chris Williams’ great-grandmother Lucille B. Smith. Photo: Courtesy Chris Williams.

I didn’t actually know her full story until after I’d already committed to the name and started researching to color the concept and give people information. Still, I didn’t really feel pressure. She just took all the pressure off me because I was like, “You got a problem, take it up with my dead great-grandmother.” What kind of asshole is gonna complain about her shit?

My great-grandmother Lucille was a chef, a pioneer, a trailblazer. She made the nation’s first instant hot roll mix. That was verified by the Chicago Tribune in 2014. She was the first national food editor in the country—and the first Black food editor in the country, via Sepia magazine, which then turned into Ebony.

Her chili biscuits was her famous recipe—well, that and the hot rolls. They were featured on American Airlines for their first-class passengers, and her client list included Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, the Roosevelts, and so on. She also created and authored all the text for America’s first commercial culinary program through Prairie View University. She ran the kitchen at Camp Waldemar, which was a Texas institution for privileged white children back then. And everybody in my family from Brenham—about an hour west of Houston—used to go to work summers with her at the kitchen. She ran it for 40 years.

She was also one of the first women in the country to file for her business “feme sole”—which is Latin for a woman alone—which allowed her to operate her business on her own terms without needing a consent from her husband. Because back in those days, a woman couldn’t do anything without her husband’s signature. So she had a divorce as far as business is concerned, but they stayed happily married until death did them part. She was just a beast.

Lucille B. Smith (center) at a meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. Photo: Courtesy Chris Williams.

Every family gathering, we always have her hot rolls at the table. But until we decided to name the concept after her and I really started doing the research, and found all these amazing things about what she did, I took her for granted.

I was around five when she passed away. By the time I met her, she was bedridden over at my grandmother’s house in Brenham. And every time we went there, we went straight to her room, and I would feed her and just sit there and talk. I have some pretty good memories with her, but none of them involve cooking. But they all were around food.

I knew I had to at least do two of her recipes. I knew they’d be the hot rolls, and my family always told me about these chili biscuits. I never had one. I had no concept of what it was. I was thinking it was like a Sloppy Joe on an actual biscuit, which is silly. I didn’t know what it was and nobody could give me any direction, including her daughter—my grandmother. I was making all this stuff, and I would have her taste test it. She’s not a cook by any stretch of the imagination, and she would just be like, “No, that’s not it.” I spent two years doing this when I was catering—I’d be up there in Brenham talking to her, interviewing her, going through all her files, she had everything.

The chili biscuits at Lucille’s, from a recipe created by the restaurant’s namesake. Photo: Jenn Duncan.

Turns out, it’s just a version of her hot roll mix. When she did that mix, she came up with like 15 different iterations of the dough. And that’s her most famous one. So you just take like a little ball of the mix, bake it off, scoop out the center. Stuff it with this chili—her chili recipe even back then, it was really interesting, it had chocolate, which rounds out the flavors, and just enough spice. That’s one recipe that I haven’t fucked with at all. It’s completely hers and is a real testament to her brilliance. And it’s one of our best sellers now. Anyway, you stuff that chili into the biscuit, top it with cheese, and bake it until it’s melted and warmed through, and you serve that joint up.

When the pandemic came, I was actually in New York, watching my oldest brother’s show on Broadway right before Broadway went dark. It was the last show on Broadway. His show is really impressive—it’s Step Afrika! He’s the founder and director.

We go out to have lunch afterwards. And we can just see everything going dark all around us. My brother asked me, “So what are you gonna do?” He said, “Man, I got one word, two syllables—furlough.” I didn’t even know what that meant, so he explained it to me. And I was like, “Okay, no, I’m not gonna do that, I’m gonna figure out a way to keep everybody on.”

When I came home, I told the team, “My commitment to you is that we’re going to figure out a way to keep everybody on. But you’re not gonna make any more tips, because nobody’s gonna be coming. We’re gonna have to figure out a curbside operation. But my pledge to you is that I’ll keep you guys as close to what your average pay is.” Throughout this thing, I had no idea. It’s a fucking year from when I said that. But that was my commitment. You say shit like that, and then you have to figure out how to make it happen.

At that point, I had 46 people on staff. I made that commitment because my staff, on average, had been there four years at that point. This is my family—my work family. And so, yes, I made that commitment to them. Because I wanted to make sure they were going to be comfortable and safe, and be here when it’s done, because I didn’t want to have to start from scratch whenever this thing ended.

We started with our takeout program. It took everybody to figure out how to do this shit. We laid the groundwork for Houston. You don’t even enter the building. You call, we take your credit card information, we run the card and we scratch out the number, you tell us the make and model of your vehicle, you pull up, we’ll bring the food, and we’ll put it in your trunk.

We were down about 86 percent, but we were still profitable because we changed our menus. We started using cheaper ingredients and put more love and care into it. You just have to work harder when you’re using cheaper ingredients. We did family-style meals and created a great to-go cocktail program. My other brother is the founder of Highway Vodka, so he had tons of these liter bottles, and he also had the technology to make labels. We started doing our own Lucille’s labels, and we had all these different cocktails we were doing. It was really dope.

Lucille’s restaurant in Houston. Photo: Courtesy Chris Williams.

It was about sustainability, not profitability. We were able to keep 99 percent of the people on. We kept everybody who wanted to work—everybody who felt safe and comfortable working.

We invested a lot in our patio for when restaurants would be able to reopen because we didn’t want anybody inside the restaurant. But this is Houston. It’s hot. So we set up this whole Phoenix-style misting system. The patio is closed off, and it actually keeps it insulated. So the temperature is different on that patio—even though it’s still open-air—than it is anywhere else. That made it very comfortable.

I have this big bar that I built out there that we’ve never used. I was looking at it one night, and I was like, now what if we gave that bar to different bar teams around the city? Bartenders in this silly state were told to go back to work prematurely. And then three weeks later, when the assholes woke up, they were like, “Yeah, this is not a good idea,” and they shut them down again. These people in the meantime had gotten off unemployment, so now they’re just fucked.

So I said, what if we gave them our bar, and we’d have different bars around the Greater Houston area come out and take over our cocktail menu. We buy all the booze and all that kind of stuff. We do the menus for them. They sell their shit, we cross-promote. And we’ll give them 100 percent of their sales, minus taxes, merchant services, and bar cost.

My brother who has Highway Vodka became an immediate sponsor, which helped us offset the cost, and a couple other distributors wanted to get on board too. So it took our cost down to nothing. We did this program for 16 weeks with 14 bars, and we put over $42,000 directly in their pockets. And the most beautiful thing about it was that you could just feel the energy. Because those bartenders, they don’t want you to come and give them 50 bucks. That’s insulting. But if they’re selling their shit, if they’re doing their thing that they’re great at, and you want to tip them 50 bucks? That’s cool, it’s still transactional, it’s not a one-sided thing.

Given that I’d already made that switch in my mind—that we’re not going to be profitable—I didn’t see those profits as mine. My staff are very proud. They’re not looking for charity. They don’t want to just get handouts. They want to know that they earned their dough. So we took those profits, and I came with the idea to start helping first responders that work the graveyard shift. Everybody’s giving first responders breakfast and lunch and shit. They’re inundated with that. But what about the people that are doing the nasty work overnight? Let’s start targeting them.

Hospital workers with donated meals from Lucille’s. Photo: Courtesy Chris Williams.

So within like the first 20 days of the shutdown, we donated over 3,000 meals to first responders on the graveyard shift. And all the hospitals are right in my backyard. That led into us feeding the elderly. World Central Kitchen reached out and asked if we could just feed this one community—127 people, in Sunnyside, an impoverished neighborhood on the south side of Houston, which half my father’s family lived in about two years ago. So I take the first meal over there, and when I make the delivery, I see all these people. They look like my family on my dad’s side. There goes Uncle Connie, there goes Aunt Lucille, there goes Willie, and Chad, who just got out of jail. I knew all of them.

After that first day, I went back to my office and wrote out a menu for 30 days that spoke specifically to their life experience, their palates, what they like. Because at first they were getting like, Zoës Kitchen, and they weren’t even eating that shit. Because there is no consideration of them. There was no dignity in it.

So I wrote this menu out. My team sent it over to World Central Kitchen saying, “Hey, I want to feed these people for at least 30 days, and this is what I want to serve them. Can you guys support us?” They said, “We’d like to,” and I think they gave us two weeks. I think they gave us like $10 a meal. And out of that $10, I have to get all my ingredients, I have to get the packaging, I have to get the bags to hold the containers and cutlery, and then transportation.

Chris Williams preparing community meals. Photo: Courtesy Chris Williams.

But I was like, you know, fine, I’ll take what I can get. And actually, give me more communities, because once I started that, I just got addicted. Because you just never really realize how much power there is in a meal that was created with you in mind, delivered by somebody who’s young, because they’re cut off from their families, because of the risk of being exposed, so they cannot see their grandchildren or anything. They’re just out there on their own. Seeing the impact that it had, and the interactions I have with them every day, like, “I saw you on TV, and I told my daughter, that’s my chef.” And I was like, “Aw, that’s so sweet.”

By the end of our program with World Central Kitchen, I was feeding about 300 people a day. And after that, when the cameras went away and the funding ran out, I couldn’t just say, “Hey, guys, sorry, we’re out of money. Nobody’s gonna pay for this anymore. Good luck.” Can’t do that.

So I doubled down and started figuring out a way to do it completely on our own. I took over a new kitchen, and we went to about 1,500 meals a day now. We have a staff of 14, and we deliver to nine communities.

In December 2020, we hit our 100,000 meal benchmark—we’ve donated over 100,000 meals. And on December 23, we did 5,000 meals, and we had the Kinder Foundation supporting us with that, which was everything. For that drop, we targeted the Third Ward. I live in the Third Ward, and there’s a definite need out here.

I’m pretty good at running restaurants, but nonprofits are a different thing. I’m shit at fundraising. But in an attempt to try and figure out the finances, I created the nonprofit, called Lucille’s 1913, hoping that other people get behind it. I got the designation in August, though we still pretty much finance the mission on our own, until very recently, when I hired a director of development.

The approach is to create these satellite kitchens, with gardens behind them, and hire directly from the community that we’re targeting. It’s like this concept of complete communities, where not only are we giving the community fish, we’re also teaching them how to fish. But you got to build your own pole type shit.

We’re building our first garden now, behind the first kitchen. We have our second kitchen coming up, and we’ll start hiring from the Fifth Ward, which is a rough community and was also like my second home growing up. I’ve always wanted to do something out there. And the whole point of that is to also give people the opportunity to get into the restaurant game, which can give you a sustainable career. It’s the gift of the culinary eyes, and then you’re going to have a leg up because now you can do large-scale production, but you’re doing it on a high end. This is serious—we’re doing real food and we’re using fresh produce. They will learn the full cycle of produce, from seed to harvest to preparation to responsible disposal, and have all that shit in their toolkit before they go try to get another job.

My goal is to have seven kitchens by the end of 2021. And at each kitchen, I want them to do a minimum of 500 meals a day. Right now, I’m targeting elderly communities of color, because my goal was to go after—well, not forgotten communities, because you have to be considered to be forgotten. These menus speak to those people that just never get the love or respect or the care they deserve.

And when we go out to East Downtown, which is more of a Latin community, then we’ll speak to that community. We’re not going to be limited to just one type of food because I’m not limited to one type of food.

I’m giving food that I would want my grandmother to eat—that I want to eat. That kind of food. I never have time for pride. I’d never say “pat yourself on the back,” because as soon as you do that, that’s when you get complacent. But I’m proud of the team and the work that we’ve done, and how we’ve positioned ourselves to be the one spot that’s really all about community.