I encountered Houston chef Chris Williams due to his feature in Marcus Samuelsson’s The Rise. During our interview, Williams expressed that he was honored–but surprised–to be included in the book. He is exactly where he belongs, as his place in the culinary world is well earned.
Chef Chris Williams has run Lucille’s, a successful Houston restaurant, for nearly a decade. In addition, he founded the nonprofit organization Lucille’s 1913 during the COVID-19 pandemic to address food insecurity in his hometown. Through 1913, he has served tens of thousands of meals to those in need and created an entire ecosystem around sustainable farming.
When I spoke with Williams in early January, he was quarantining in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was preparing to open his second restaurant, Emile’s Black Point Bistro. “[The restaurant] is a celebration of Nova Scotian ingredients with Lebanese influences,” Williams said. “The great thing is that there are no Black-owned businesses out here, so we’re really going to shake things up.”
Houston chef Chris Williams recently announced his new venture, Lucille’s Hospitality Group. The restaurant group consists of a partnership between Williams and Chef Dawn Burrell, a James Beard Award semifinalist and upcoming Top Chef Portland contestant. The duo will open four new restaurants including Afro-Asian inspired Late August and Rado Cafe, a community cafe.
It’s an exciting time for Williams and I am so happy to see his platform grow. He is a model for using one’s success to advance an entire community. A chef on the rise indeed.
Interview with Chef Chris Williams
Thank you so much for being here. Can you start by telling a little about yourself?
Sure. I’m the chef and owner of Lucille’s Fine Foods, which is in Houston’s Museum District. We just celebrated our eighth anniversary in August. We do Southern cuisine with global influences. We also honor my great-grandmother Lucille, the namesake of the restaurant. She was a chef, pioneer, and trailblazer. We serve two of her original recipes which are over a hundred years old.
I’m also the founder of Lucille’s 1913, which is a nonprofit that I started at the beginning of the pandemic. We started off feeding first responders to the tune of 3,000 people in the first fifteen days. We targeted the graveyard shift specifically, and then that evolved into us targeting our elderly community and impoverished neighborhoods. To date, we’ve donated over 145,000 meals.
We just did 5,000 meals in the Third Ward, a historically Black neighborhood. We were fortunate enough to get some really good partners who were able to donate $100,000 worth of $100 gift cards.
Our latest project was for MLK Day, which was a 2,000 meal drop. We went to three different locations, smaller towns outside of Houston as well as Houston’s Fifth Ward. I was partially brought up there. It is historically Black and full of need.
Chef Williams’ Early Introduction to Food in Houston
It’s absolutely amazing that you are giving back to the community you come from and going outside of the city to places that are often neglected. You said you grew up somewhat in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Can you talk more about your upbringing and how you got into cooking?
I’m from the Southwest side of Houston. My parents are from Brenham, Texas. My best friend growing up was Franco Lee III. His father was the county commissioner and he’s from Fifth Ward. Franco and I would go back and forth between each other’s houses during the summer: you spend a month over at my house, and I’ll spend a month over at your house.
The great thing about growing up between those two places is that Uncle Franco’s is where I learned about boudin, teacakes, and hardcore jazz. It was traditional, what we call soul food.
At my parent’s house, my mom was a terrible cook but she’s getting better. My dad could burn. We’d go out to great restaurants, and two weeks later, my dad would recreate the meal. Exact same plating, flavors, everything.
We had a little more refined, global flavors at our table at my parent’s house. At Uncle Franco’s house I got a balance. And it was all delicious.
You were enjoying all this good food! When did you get in the kitchen and start learning?
I’m the youngest of three. I was always around food. I spent a lot of time at my grandma’s house on my father’s side. She was a great cook. She was one of those cooks that had the jar of bacon fat sitting on the windowsill that she used for every single thing that she’d do. She’d have me working. Snapping peas, pulling leaves from the stems of the collard greens, all the vegetable prep work.
The idea of it was very romantic to me. The slow process of preparing a meal for your family. I remember these beautiful little moments of just sitting in the kitchen and my grandmother talking to me. The light is hitting her and I’m sitting over there pulling these greens for her. She would braise them for eight hours. That’s a lot of greens when you’re feeding six people.
I loved those memories. The music that was associated with it. My great-grandmother and I listened to a lot of big band jazz. Those memories have always romanticized cooking for me. As young as eight or nine [years old], I started that prep work. I didn’t know it then, but it made me fall in love with the industry and cooking as a whole.
Pursuing Cooking as a Career
When did you go from prep work to deciding–this is going to be my career?
The only work I’ve done for the most part has been in the restaurant industry. I started at Chili’s as a server. And that’s when I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the chaos of restaurants. I was like 17.
I liked that energy. It was like organized confusion. Everybody’s just running around. You’re dropping plates. You’re yelling at each other. And then you’re having a good time afterward. It just really spoke to me. I only made it in that job for two months before I was fired. I had a blast. [Laughs.]
I didn’t find out that I wanted to be a chef until after culinary school. I went to culinary school because college wasn’t for me. I went to Hampton briefly, TSU, UDC, a bunch of places. I just didn’t love it.
Then I went to culinary school and didn’t love that either. I always tell people that me and culinary school were mutually unimpressed with each other. But I still loved the industry. And so I left and moved to Europe, England specifically.
I started working with this hardcore Irish chef named Sean Devlin. I call him one of my culinary fathers and we are still in touch to this day. It took me about three months to understand what he was saying. I understood kitchen speak, but conversational talk? I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.
This was a two man operation for an 80 seat restaurant. We created the menu every single day based on what the fishmongers and farmers were bringing for us. I did all the appetizers, desserts, and dishes by myself. If [Devlin] got overwhelmed in the kitchen with the entrees, I helped him with that.
That’s when I got addicted to it. It went from being my hustle, to my passion, and ultimately led to being my career.
So you got addicted there, where you were working under all that pressure?
[Laughs.] I like it to hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, then I don’t know what the point of it is.
I want to go back to the point about you and culinary school not getting along. What about culinary school did you not like?
First thing is the second word in it–school. Second, it was a new program that didn’t really have it together. I just don’t dig school. I rather experience stuff. Give it to me once and let me go put it in practice.
I’ve never been a real conformist, so they did not like that either. But I got my knife skills out of there, which allowed me to work all through Europe. All the way from London to Lithuania and get the job done.
Chef Chris Williams’ Departure from Houston
It sounds like you got an amazing education overseas. Where did you work, and what made you come back to the States?
I was everywhere. I lived in France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. I cooked or bartended in all those places. Like I said, it was my hustle. It was my hustle that turned into my passion. It was also my livelihood. That’s how I could make it in all those places.
I had just left Lithuania and I was stuck in Germany. My older brother called and said, “Come home and meet your niece.” I found a flight. The cheapest flight I could find to get to this side of the Atlantic was to Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was like eventually I’ll make it to DC and then I can make it to Houston.
I ended up staying there for a year and a half and meeting the mother of my children. I made it down to DC and found out I had a son on the way. I went from being a line cook, this hired gun going around to different places making $9 an hour, to being the executive chef of this $175 million hotel within four months. We got babies coming. I can’t be this bum living this parapathetic life any more. We got an extra mouth to feed.
That changed the game but I wasn’t prepared for that position. I only lasted about four months. That was in DC. It’s a small town with a big city feel. On the culinary scene, people are watching you. They saw that meteoric rise and fall. People were like, if you want to come work for me we’d love to have you, but you’re going to be peeling potatoes. I was like, well the hell with that. I can’t do that now because there’s a reason why I did this. So I came back to Houston.
I worked with probably one of the best chefs I’ve ever worked with, Robert Gadsby. That’s where I met the chef [de cuisine] over at Lucille’s, Khang Hoang. We’ve been partners for over ten years now. That’s who I built Lucille’s with. It was quite the journey.
Chris Williams Returns to Houston
That’s quite an exciting trajectory. I’m sure your experiences helped you become the owner of such a successful restaurant. Can you talk about being the chef and owner of Lucille’s in Houston? What was it like starting your own thing?
I wasn’t prepared for it. I’d run restaurants on three different continents but I’d never done this. Lucille’s has been open for eight and a half years now. We started the process ten years ago.
Houston is the fourth largest market in the country and has the most restaurants per capita. But when we hit the scene, there were only three mediums for Black restaurateurs to showcase their talents: barbecue, breakfast, and soul food. Houston, as diverse as it is, was–and still is–very segregated as far as the dining scene.
With my background, I wanted to shake all that up. I wanted a restaurant that was for everybody. A lot of the experiences I saw in Europe were these restaurants with big communal dining tables. You sit down and don’t know who is sitting next to you. But you’re having a drink. You’re having some food. And next thing you know you’ve made a friend for the next hour.
Typically, you’re not going to cultivate the relationship because you’ve drank too much and you won’t remember them. But for that moment you’ve got a buddy. And so I wanted to recreate that in Houston.
Houston Responds to Lucille’s
What was the community’s response to Lucille’s?
Houston was excited when I named the restaurant after my great-grandmother. Well at least the press was saying that’s what they were excited about. But they also had their own ideas about what we were supposed to be.
We open up and they just blast us. They came after me. I remember the first review. I was only open three months. The rule of thumb is that you give a restaurant six months to get their shit together before you come after them. They couldn’t wait.
Three months in, I go into the restaurant and my staff is huddled around a laptop. This person, Katherine Shilcutt, wrote this review. I thought I had dated her and like ghosted her four times. That I had done something really bad. Maybe not to her but to her mom. Like something happened. [Laughs.]
I’m reading this review and I’m thinking, is this my restaurant she’s talking about? We had grown and pickled our own vegetables and put the vinegar bottles on the table. She said I had bought that shit from Ross. The granite tables we had, she said they were fake granite. I couldn’t believe it.
I was like, this is an attack. They’re trying to shut me down. Without thinking, I responded immediately: “This is the most unprofessional shit I’ve ever seen in my life.” This turned into a whole thing and polarized the city.
How did you move forward after something like that?
I had to go back into work the next day and look my staff in the eye. I told them, you know everyone is going to expect us to close. We’re not shutting down. We are going to take this as an opportunity to show them exactly who we are, why we are here, and what we do. I will be on that line every single day.
It took six months of that type of commitment. People came and they saw and we wow’d them. We had a real professional reviewer come in, Alison Cook. She gave us a real review, a proper audit. And then I could take a day off.
The biggest thing with Houston is that we kind of changed the game. We showed the viability of Black-owned restaurants. You could do more outside of this limited framing that we have to exist in where you’re either breakfast, soul food or barbecue. You could do something else. You could hire different people. You could serve different people. You could operate on a high level. It’s okay. It can actually be good. We had to break a lot of people out of the preconceived notions they already had.
I remember one day I was serving this sous vide halibut dish. Perfect halibut. Cooked for 45 minutes at 132 degrees. Served over a ginger infused carrot butter with a raw fennel salad. Roasted black garlic chive oil. I’m walking around the restaurant and this lady is like, “This is the best soul food I’ve ever had!”
I was like, “Thank you. I’m just curious, what part of that dish said soul food to you?” She’s like, “Uh.” I see what’s going through her mind: “Did you’re Black ass hands make it? Then it’s soul food.” [Laughs.]
Lucille’s Innovative Menu
How do your travels and heritage influence the menu?
The menu is a celebration of our experiences and what we like to eat. Up to two years ago, me and Chef Khang traveled the world once a year. We’d go consume Michelin stars and bring interpretations of our favorite things back [to Lucille’s].
We never eat in Houston because we don’t want to be inspired by the place that we live. We never want to copy anything that’s from here. We want to be as original as possible.
Khang’s Vietnamese, so you see those influences. Our chargrilled octopus over a curry vinaigrette with roasted peanuts and cilantro and Korean pepper. You’ll see Korean influences with our housemade creamed collard green kimchi that’s served under our double bone-in sous vide pork chop with serrano cheddar grits.
It’s just a great mashup of beautiful flavors from everywhere. We don’t have to be Baptist to sign a great hymn.
Chef Chris William’s Houston Nonprofit
Can you talk more about your nonprofit Lucille’s 1913?
What made me start was the need. I saw that a lot of people were targeting breakfast and lunch [workers]. But who was thinking about the graveyard shift [workers]? We don’t go after the people who are forgotten, because you have to be considered to be forgotten. We go out to the people who aren’t even considered.
My father’s side of the family is from Sunnyside, a historically Black community on the Southside [of Houston]. [An apartment complex there], Anna Dupree [Terrace], had 127 residents, all elderly, all on subsidized living. Many of these units did not even have kitchens. They are isolated from their families because of COVID. Granny’s on her own, but there is no meal plan for granny. So she has to go out to the grocery store which is the worst place for her to be.
They were getting meals from somebody else, Zoës Kitchen or some place getting paid through World Central Kitchen. I saw the food and I was like, there is no consideration for these people in this. It’s almost dehumanizing.
[The food providers were like], we’re going to get paid ten dollars a plate. We don’t really know these people and don’t really care. But here’s your food. Here’s your protein, starch and veggie. Keep it moving.
These are my people. They changed the world for us. They deserved more respect than that. They deserve a meal that’s crafted in consideration of their life experiences and palatess. So we created thirty days of meals deliberately curated to speak to their palates, life experience, and nutritional needs.
I don’t know these people but I know them. Once you get started you can’t stop. We went from serving 127 meals to 1500 meals a day. It’s all about people bringing you meals and letting you know you matter and you’re considered.
It’s been eight months since you founded Lucille’s 1913. Any updates?
Now we have 18 employees, two kitchens and we are about to open two more in Fort Bend. I’m trying to create these whole communities. We are not only giving fish to these communities, but we are teaching them to fish. The way we are teaching them how to fish is through hiring. I want people to get skin in the game and see value in the work we do. The hope is that this will act as a self-sustaining livelihood for you through the medium of food.
We started to attach gardens to these kitchens. One is located in predominantly Hispanic neighborhood Hiram Clarke, and the other is in the historically Black Fifth Ward. The garden component was born out of the idea that we’re feeding my elders, and I want them to have the best food possible. So let’s grow it.
If we’re growing it, we can hire people and teach them about the full life cycle of food. From seed to harvest to prep to responsible disposal. We have a farm system that is going to develop the wokest workforce in the game. Now you’re learning large scale production from chefs. It’s me and Chef Lawrence, our culinary director, a brilliant brother. Everything is scratch ingredients. Everybody gets paid.
I’m creating this little ecosystem and I’m really pumped about it. I feel like most nonprofit models are about touching the community surface level and moving on. The model I’m building is meant to empower people to discover what they can do on their own. They put the work in and are compensated at a premium.
Kendleton, Texas is where I’m starting. This [community] is 92% Black, and has 397 residents averaging $15,000 a year. [With 1913] you’ll get $15 an hour, [and are thus] making $9,000 more than the average salary.
The stuff from the ten acre farm, after we serve Kendleton, which is fifteen miles away from fresh food, we take the leftovers to Richmond. There they are dealing with homelessness.
[In Richmond] we start prepping meals and putting harvest in production. We hire 15 people from there to train in culinary arts. We take scraps and whole food waste to Rosenberg and put it in the fermentation lab. We will teach them to get seasonality out of saving and holding food. We take the products and compost them, put them back in the earth. This is an ecosystem: the people in need are beneficiaries of their own work.
Everything we did for the first 8 months was funded by Lucille’s profits. We are looking for [more] funding now.
Honoring the Legacy of Lucille B. Smith
You’re serving the elders with this fantastic initiative. Everything you started was inspired by your own elder, your great-grandmother Lucille B. Smith. Can you talk more about how your grandmother’s legacy inspired your own career?
Yes. She was known throughout the country. She created the country’s first hot roll mix which was jacked by Pillsbury to build their empire. That was verified by the Chicago Tribune in 2014. We serve two of her original recipes: chili biscuits and hot rolls. She was one of the first African-American food editors through what became Ebony [magazine]. 1913 is the year she started her business for the exact same need: she worked through the churches to serve her community that was in need.
She authored the first commercial culinary education program in the country through Prairie View [A&M University]. She authored texts, led the class. She was a beast. One of the first women in the country to file fem sole, which is Latin for woman alone. [At the time] a woman couldn’t do anything without her husband signing off on it, but she wanted full control of her own business.
She authored her cookbook in 1941, which is hitting the national stage again. Toni-Tipton Martin’s The Jemima Code brought it back to light. She’s a giant. Those are the shoulders I get to stand on.
What legacy do you hope to leave on the culinary industry?
I would be happy if I could do anything that was even close to what my great-grandmother did. I just want to do good work and not be limited by [race]. I have enough problems with this. I want you to see the work.
Follow Houston Chef Chris Williams @chef_chriswilliams, his restaurant Lucille’s @lucilleshouston, and his new venture Lucille’s Hospitality Group @lucilleshospitality for more updates!