It’s only June, but it feels as if we’ve lived many lives since the beginning of 2020. Each time we think we’ve adapted to a new reality, our world is rocked yet again. And as we always have at Life & Thyme, we’ve experienced each of these new headlines and each human story through the lens of the food industry.
This industry is still very much struggling to find its footing during the Covid-19 pandemic, thanks to sweeping closures resulting in massive unemployment across the country. And then came the national (and ultimately global) movement in support of Black Lives Matter that followed the police killing of Mr. George Floyd on May 25.
The results of the movement have been rapid and vast. Floyd became larger than life—an activist’s call to arms, and a symbol for change across every facet of our society that oppresses Black Americans.
Due to an outpouring of support for Black businesses and Black culture, Black-owned restaurants saw lines out the door, take-out orders beyond belief, and for restaurants that were able to open their dining rooms, it almost seemed as if Covid-19 was a distant memory.
In Houston’s Museum District, Chef Chris Williams’ restaurant Lucille’s, known for its refined Southern fare, has struggled to keep up with demand. But this isn’t the first time Lucille’s has been called upon to act as a community hub. The restaurant’s namesake is Williams’ late great grandmother, Lucille Bishop Smith—a historic figure in the food world, who happens to also be considered the first African American businesswoman in Texas.
Bishop Smith pioneered the first commercial hot roll mix to be sold in grocery stores, developed the first college-level Commercial Foods and Technology department at Prairie View A&M College, and published a cookbook in the form of a card file box of recipes titled Lucille’s Treasure Chest of Fine Foods. She cooked for Eleanor Roosevelt, and her famous chili biscuits were offered on American Airlines flights as well as in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House.
Since the Black Lives Matter movement has gained incredible momentum, Williams has found himself holding the torch of his great grandmother’s legacy. On June 8, Lucille’s hosted and cooked for two families that are now woven into the fabric of American history—those of Vice President Joe Biden and George Floyd—where both parties met the day before Floyd’s private funeral.
A week later, I called Williams. I’ve had the chance to connect with the chef through various projects over the last year, and have become acquainted with his ability to contextualize a moment in a specific way. We had a frank discussion, during which we touched on the complex topics of the moment. And Williams shared his feelings with the conversational hallmarks I’ve come to appreciate from him; we can depend on him to provide insight, humor, wit and wisdom. The following is an edited excerpt from our call.
How has business for Lucille’s been during the pandemic?
Depends on where you’re looking. I’m actually shutting down for the next three days to reimagine, or just to come up with new ways because I feel like we’re opening up too soon. I felt that way since [Covid] started. It’s been so busy, and as responsible as I want to be, as considerate as I am, my nature of being a business owner and entrepreneur says, “Always make it work.”
But it hit me. I was like, “This isn’t right, so let’s just do reservations only.” And even with reservations only, everything was spaced out, a lot slower paced, and we still [recently] did 183 covers—for dinner. And that was in only four hours of service.
So you’re noticing an uptick because of Black Lives Matter?
It’s been extreme. When I first started seeing that whole “support Black business” thing, of course the business owner in me was like, “Dope. Let’s go.” But then I saw some people using this shit as a way to work it to where they’ll be the beneficiary. Even if that means they’re presenting their pseudo-wokeness to the world.
And by the way, when the fuck did my restaurant become a Black restaurant? Because I just thought it was a restaurant. When I’m going to a restaurant, I don’t say, “Let’s go to a white restaurant today.”
Through the whole pandemic, we weren’t just sustaining ourselves. We were providing assistance to other people. We fed over three thousand meals to healthcare workers out of our own pocket. And now we’re doing over 2,500 meals a week to assisted living homes and are working with World Central Kitchen.
The work that has been done up to this point. Don’t downplay it because it’s trendy right now to support Black business and use us to promote your own bullshit avatar on Instagram. Everybody’s going Black face because they know the power. The only people that don’t recognize the power of the Black dollar are Black folks—until now.
What does this moment mean for Black businesses long term?
I figured out the power of this movement because I was reading this book called Our Black Year [by Maggie Anderson] years ago, about the economical revolutions of dollars within their micro-communities—how many revolutions the Jewish dollar does in its community, Asian communities, Mexican or Hispanic. Black couldn’t even make one revolution. That means we get our paycheck, and if you don’t have a bank account, you go straight to some check cashing spot. That’s your first dollar straight out of your paycheck into a different community that’s not yours. If you live in the hood, you go get your groceries; we don’t own those stores.
That’s why there’s no real power. Everybody else gets a lot of power because they create industry. We’re not self-sustaining, and that’s what this movement’s done. It’s a whole bunch of Black folks coming out and making a point. [The public is] seeking out Black businesses, and I think that’s one thing that will actually stay after this is gone—after everything else has passed. It’s good that it’s forcing accountability for some of these, like the Bon Appetits.
If you want to support some Black folks, don’t just say it. Let’s get some Black folks on the board. The reading and the liking on Instagram and all that—I’m not really moved by that. The world’s just so trendy.
Do you see a better understanding of African American food and history?
I didn’t cook Southern food until I opened this restaurant. I did exclusively French—European shit. I never even tasted a fried green tomato until I made it and put that shit on my menu. I’m in the South, and I’m playing it safe; and being an entrepreneur, I came up with something I knew would play well. But that’s not my experience, and definitely not my culinary background.
[The public doesn’t] see anything wrong with expecting that all Black restaurants will be soul food. And it’s going to mess up the expectations of what can actually be done. They’re going to shine a light more and more on [soul food], but the more light they show on it, the dimmer it’s going to get for other possibilities—for other things that we do. I’m about to open up a Lebanese restaurant, but that doesn’t make sense. You’re supposed to be doing the soul food, right? Let’s talk about the fried chicken.
Let’s talk about Monday, June 8. How did it come to be that the Biden team and the Floyd family dined at your restaurant?
The Biden team emailed me on a Friday saying they wanted to host an event at the restaurant on Monday. They were trying to keep it low-key. Then on Saturday, they went ahead and replied to my banquet coordinator: “We’re trying to have a meeting with the Floyd family, and Vice President Biden is going to be there. He wants to meet the family personally.” I was like, “Yeah, tell them yes and please and thank you. And we’ll do it for free.”
[Biden] wanted to meet with the Floyd family. He didn’t want any press there. Nobody knew he was coming until they saw the Secret Service. They wanted to spend an hour with the Floyd family to express condolences directly, and [Biden wanted to] tell them what he wanted to do with his platform to really affect some change.
This has been such a movement that it has lost the humanity of it. It started out of this disrespect of humanity, but then George Floyd wasn’t human anymore. His family wasn’t real anymore. [It became] just about what’s going to be born out of it. That was extremely sobering and brought me back to the family’s loss.
[Biden was] extremely patient, extremely gracious not only with the [Floyd] family, but with my families—my restaurant family, and my real family. [He] took real time to speak with them all on a very personal level. You couldn’t deny the feeling in the room before and after the meeting.
He gave me this challenge coin.
What is the significance of the challenge coin?
A challenge coin is typically given from the President to people in the military or somebody who has done some incredible act of service for the community. There’s a ritual behind it where you don’t know it’s coming. It looks like a handshake’s coming—which is exactly what happened to me—and then they slide it to you and give you a message.
Vice President Biden took a few pictures with my staff and then we were talking for a few minutes. He was saying, “I’ve read up on your great grandma’s story and it’s really incredible work. I’m sure she would be proud.”
He stops right in front of me and says, “I don’t normally do this. This is meant for wounded war heroes, but I’ve got to tell you, I’m really impressed by the work you’re doing and I believe you deserve this. So here’s from me to you. Take care of it.”
And he dropped this coin in my hand, and I was like, “Holy fuck, man.”
Cover image by David Wright