In Crown Heights, Rawlston Williams Preaches a Food Sermon

For the Caribbean chef, “The way you live, the way you carry yourself, the way everyone sees you. It’s your sermon. My message is food.”

One Friday in October, in his jammed-packed restaurant nestled on the corner of Rogers Avenue and Sullivan Place in Crown Heights, Rawlston Williams instructed his staff at the Food Sermon to finish taking customer orders and get ready to go home.

It was around six o’clock in the evening. Many restaurants in the city were just waking up to the demands of Friday night eaters and drinkers released from weekday restraints. But for 38-year-old Williams, chef and owner of the Food Sermon, sunset on Friday signifies rest and preparation for Sabbath during his childhood years on the Island of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Always clad in a black apron and baseball cap, Williams moves about the kitchen in a stoic yet gentle manner. There is an intensity in his gaze as he wipes the corner of the plates before serving. His work-worn hands that garnish with care and precision. Inside the kitchen, he always looks serious — a seemingly different person from the chef who smiles freely when conversing with customers.

Williams grew up with his aunt Gloria Farrell, a strict member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church — a Protestant Christian denomination distinguished by its observance of Saturday and vegetarianism. Forbidden to eat any meat during his childhood, Williams reminisced about the nurturing influence that preparing for and welcoming the Sabbaths has had on his culinary passion.

“On Fridays around this time, in a Caribbean household, it was really just hustle and bustle — you are preparing, you are trying to beat the sunset,” Williams spoke fondly of his tasks during a Sabbath-preparation-centric Friday night. They included making bread, butter, cocoa and tending to the goats.

When his aunt contracted rheumatic fever — a disease that kept her bedridden, Williams became her arms and legs. She would yell out to him: “Get a cup of this, get three cups of that, add sugar, add salt, take the sheep out, take the goats out.”

At the age of five, six and seven years old, Williams was doing everything that Caribbean boys should be doing. “I’m not unique,” he said. But that would not be the case after Williams made the voyage to America.

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After years of soul searching, Rawlston Williams remembered the joy of cooking and set out to become a chef.

On September 29, 1988, after waiting seven years for his parents to complete the immigration papers, Williams was finally reunited with his mother, father and two brothers (who he had never met) in East Flatbush. All of a sudden, the boy who had been left behind on the island and raised as an only child was thrust into a family. Williams admitted to not being able to relate to them: “It was very awkward. It wasn’t a great transition.”

But nothing would have prepared him for what came next. In two years, life as he knew it would never be the same.

“I still remember this day. I’m home, I come from school and my mother comes running over. My Dad was murdered. Yeah, my Dad was murdered, September 24, 1990. I was 12 years old. I was in junior high school.” He paused and looked aloof for a moment, as if he was trying to grasp the truth of the matter every time he repeated the date. “So I met him when I was 10 and he was gone when I was 12.”

Williams speaks fondly of his tasks during a Sabbath-preparation-centric Friday night. When he lived in the Caribbean, they included making bread, butter, cocoa and tending to the goats.

Williams’s father was stabbed in the midst of an alcohol dispute by a friend. He dismissed the tragic incident as having happened “when alcohol is mixed into some kind of argument” and was unwilling to talk too much about it. But the abrupt death of their breadwinner affected the family living basically in poverty in more complicated ways than what was on the surface.

His experience of growing up independent in the Caribbean came into use — he cooked for two younger brothers while his mom went to work as a cleaning lady.

But he also developed a panic and anxiety disorder called agoraphobia — defined by the U.S. National Library of Medicine as obsessive, persistent, intense fear of open places. For a year, Williams did not go to school. He would be in bed when his mom went to work early in the morning and in bed again when she came back from work late at night. The staggering situation worsened until a counselor arranged for Williams to be evaluated and schooled by teachers from the Edward R. Murrow High School. He was able to graduate that way and went on to study theology at Oakwood University, a private, historically black university owned and operated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Huntsville, Alabama.

Religion has always been a big part of Williams’s life, but college for him was a time period characterized by many fears and uncertainties. He dropped out after asking himself what theology really is: “It is something that for me, you look down the road, can I sustain? Can I fulfill all the requirements? Long term not short term. And my answer to that was no. I don’t think I can live up to that.”

Williams moved back to New York City and worked at a storage facility in Manhattan — a job he “totally hated.” He tested his hands in computer information systems to no avail. Looking back on those days, he sighed slightly: “I felt lost, I felt like a loser, I felt like a bum. Up until this restaurant, that’s how I felt.”

After bouncing from job to job, Williams finally remembered the joy of cooking and tinkered with the idea of becoming a chef. He never thought it would happen, but decided to teach himself how to cook anyway.

In the Internet age, self-learning is weaving together a meticulous web of information gathering usable by anyone, and Williams took advantage.

“I Googled chefs, I Googled the best chefs in the world. And these names would pop up. And I would pick the names out and I would plug them in YouTube or NPR radio. Whatever came up about them, I studied it. If they have a book, I’ll get it.”

Studying the best chefs in the world eventually planted in him the idea of attending the French Culinary Institute in New York (FCI). But Williams’s savings were nowhere close to the $30,000 plus tuition fees there.

“So what I would do was that I would drive up to the French Culinary Institute. I’d park my car outside, I’d sit out there and I’d just watch,” Williams remembered. He would watch students go in and out, taking smoke breaks and thinking that would be him someday — he even took six or seven tours of the school.

But the quandary was clear: no money, no school.

What finally fulfilled his wish to attend FCI was a partial scholarship from the school. Williams still had to pay a monthly fee of about $2,400, but he was in the prestigious FCI — a place where bumping into Michelin stars and Iron Chefs could happen on any normal weekday.

Williams softened into a smile as he spoke of the opportunity that took him to where he is today: “I always believe that God gives us little crumbs. When you want to give up, he gives us different crumbs to motivate you, to say hey. So even though I was doing that job I hated, I would run into these chefs.”

Following the crumbs, Williams has achieved his dream. The name of his restaurant speaks to Williams’s message from the past and present: “My message was food. Food sermon, like everyone has a sermon. The way you live, the way you carry yourself, the way everyone sees you. It’s your sermon.”

Today, Williams thinks he is still ministering, but the message is conveyed through his food and business practice. His ever more popular restaurant remains closed from Friday sunset to 2:00 p.m. on Sunday.

The Food Sermon, coincidentally located on an avenue with seven different churches, also has a menu steeped in religious elements. Planned and designed by himself, the menu is called the offerings at the restaurant, which Williams explains as “an offering to (the customers). You don’t have to accept it, but the fact that you accept it, it’s a privilege.”

“My message was food. Food sermon, like everyone has a sermon. The way you live, the way you carry yourself, the way everyone sees you. It’s your sermon.”

The offerings have been well-received both near and far. The island bowls, with choices including whole braised lamb shank, roasted salmon filet, curried tofu and sautéed kale are the Food Sermon’s main offerings. Often served with rice, red beans or chickpeas and topped with his homemade spicy tomato or coconut ginger sauce, these bowls are Williams’s interpretation of traditional Caribbean food. “To me, tradition is a starting point not a destination,” says Williams about his desire to present island food in a different way.

Instead of replicating the same dishes over and over again, Williams also serves traditional Caribbean food such as curry chicken, oxtail and curry goat, playfully named as “the usual suspects” on his menu.

Calvin Holder, a history professor at the City University of New York’s College of Staten Island and longtime resident of Crown Heights, finds Williams an engaging chef and person, but is more fascinated by his approach to running a restaurant.

“He’s not simply driven by market forces but also pays attention to his spiritual needs,” says Holder as he taps into an island bowl.

Jennifer Burnett, an English teacher and eater visiting all the way from London, praises Williams as being “unconventional” and “innovative.” But among admiration and praise of the chef, a Yelp user named Fredrique G. called out the chef’s dislike of criticism and defensive attitude after she had pointed out the traditional Caribbean oxtail as tasting too “sweet and cloying.”

“I don’t care,” says Williams in reference to the negative review on Yelp. In managing the affairs of his restaurant, he prefers to let the food speak for itself; otherwise, Williams chooses to roll with it, just as one of his line cooks, Dominique Manns says: “He’s a pretty laid-back, chilled, free-spirited person. He’s a cool, funny chef. You don’t expect that a lot in this industry. And I really appreciate that.”

Looking for more Caribbean food in Crown Heights? Take our tour.

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Vicky Ge Huang

Vicky Ge Huang is a Master of Science candidate at Columbia Journalism School. She studied English Literature at Colby-Sawyer College and spent a semester abroad in Paris. As a native of Sichuan province in China, Vicky loves all kinds of spicy food — particularly hot pot — and hopes to eat her way through the world someday.