Oprah Daily partners with Talenti Gelato on a new series, Cooks for a Cause: Making the World a Better Place One Meal at a Time, to feature chefs who have been part of their business to positively impact their hometowns . Houston’s Christopher Williams is one of those culinary creators who sets the bar high for community service.
Chef Christopher Williams has been in the service industry since his first job throwing ribs and margins of the month at a Texas restaurant chain at age 17. But it wasn’t until a global pandemic darkened the world’s doorstep more than two decades later that he truly learned what it meant to be of service instead of just participating.
By the time Covid-19 began to spread in 2020, Williams had come a long way from his days as a free-fill server. After learning “knife skills and cooking lingo” at culinary school in Austin in 2003, he hopped restaurant gigs in his hometown of Houston and DC, including runs with chefs. restaurants run by the TV competition winner, a “great little” Thai place, a wine bar, a Canadian inn and a Caribbean/Jamaican restaurant, where he “picked up little things to add to [his] culinary toolbox. He also spent three years traveling around the UK and Europe, working whatever hospitality job – bartender, manager, dishwasher, line cook – he could get, after having followed a girl to London without success. Eventually returning to DC, he worked his way up to executive chef position at a famous hotel.
“I had no reason to be in charge of a full F&B program, because I had no culinary perspective, I had never even written a menu. But I interviewed very well at the time Williams, now 43, told Oprah Daily with a laugh.
This wasn’t the only time a “fake it until you make it” strategy would come in handy. Flash-forward to 2012, when Williams, on his way to the children’s museum with his two young sons, came across a 1923 Mission-style house for rent in Houston’s Museum District. Something deep in his gut told him that this was the perfect place to make his dream come true, even though he had never owned his own restaurant.
“Sometimes you just know. It was unlocked, so me and my ducks walked in and immediately started seeing what Lucille was like now,” the 2022 James Beard Award nominee for National Outstanding Restaurateur recalled, referring to his now acclaimed restaurant. criticism. “I had no idea how we were going to do it, but sometimes you have to say, ‘Fuck it. Let’s do it.'”
Williams took his cherished family recipes and every penny he and co-owner and brother Ben Williams could muster to open Lucille’s. Serving what he calls “fine Southern cuisine defined by history,” Lucille’s is named after and inspired by his great-grandmother, Lucille B. Smith. As the first woman to run her own business in the Lone Star State, cookbook author, inventor of America’s First Instant Hot Roll Mix, and the creator of one of the first college-level business food and technology programs in Texas, she was a foodie pioneer. Smith was also active in her church and community, always using her culinary arts to fundraise and care for her, and opening her door to visiting VIPs and civil rights leaders, like Joe Lewis and Martin Luther King. Jr., unwanted in hotels or restaurants in the area.
“Essentially, she gave me the plan. She started her business in the exact same place I started mine – using her mastery of one thing to make things better for her family and better serve her community,” he says. “I learned early on in all of those jobs I mentioned that nothing happens in a restaurant without a community – both who comes in and pays the bills, and who needs to be created to put on the table. the type of food that keeps the first one coming back Kitchens are so dynamic [in terms of] education levels, world outlook and personality types. There are seven different languages in my kitchen. Without this community, there’s nothing, because I can’t do this alone. Especially not now. I forgot too many things.
That’s why when the pandemic hit, it was the first community he pledged to care for. “Our sales dropped 92%, but I had to keep my commitment to my family at work. No one was going to be fired here. Everyone could stay on whoever wanted, who felt safe. With that, I had all the staff, but no business.
It was then that he decided to help the wider community around him. “We saw the needs of first responders, especially those on the night shift, and being doers, we started cooking for them,” says Williams, whose team cooked 3,000 meals in about 20 days. “It felt good to be helpful in times when you felt so helpless.”
The impressive good deed did not go unnoticed. Deep-pocketed benefactors not only helped keep meal delivery afloat, but also motivated Williams to expand her reach and start a nonprofit, Lucille’s 1913. When word spread through Space City As Williams funneled profits from Lucille back into the program, he began to see an increase in diners willing to eat for a good cause, which meant that 1913 could implement even more initiatives.
The group expanded meal distribution to include seniors in several assisted living facilities in underserved areas like Acres Homes, Third Ward, Fifth Ward and Sunnyside, where most of Williams’ father’s family is from. “You know parts of town that are historically black, historically poor food deserts with no grocery stores,” Williams says. “The elderly have been particularly affected by this and have been cut off from their families. It struck a chord because they were the ones who had already changed the world, the ones who led the civil rights movement. They deserved better than what existing meal programs were doing. I wanted to create dignified meals that take into account people’s palates and their historical health issues like diabetes. We tailor menus to each community or group we serve, whether it’s Black, Hispanic or Afghan refugees.
The nonprofit sprang into action when Texas was hit by a winter storm that crippled the power grid in February 2021. They brought food to shelters and a warming center set up in a furniture store. They added the school next door to one of the 1913 kitchens to their daily distribution list and, to date, have distributed over 510,000 meals. They also staged a voter registration drive and let other struggling bars pop up on Lucille’s huge patio when only outdoor dining was allowed in Houston. But it was the launch of several urban farms that really got Williams excited.
“To have real, lasting and impactful change, we need to do more than feed elders and babies. This is why we have moved towards the agricultural component. The farms employ people from the communities we serve at living wages, teach them skills to continue to feed themselves and their neighbors, and restore dignity to this craft. This ensures that there are fresh and affordable foods they know, like okra, collard greens and sweet potatoes, in these food deserts. This reduces shame because mothers can afford to feed their children nutritious foods. Jobs bring ownership and comfort and these make people proud of their neighborhood. They work alongside their neighbors or sell to them, and that strengthens the community. I’m not really a big thinker, I don’t spend a lot of time contemplating the future, but even I can see the positive side effects spreading in all directions.
It was only recently that Williams allowed himself to reflect on what he and 1913 have accomplished over the past two years and accept that his restaurant’s namesake would be proud.
“Of course, it’s so much easier to pick up someone else’s torch than to start your own fire. Lucille gave us the plan. It’s only natural for us to follow his lead when our business is so tied to family history,” says Williams. “It feels good to think that we continued what she started, that she would approve of the difference we are trying to make. I also think she would ask what we are going to do next.