Starting a nonprofit that has provided more than two hundred thousand meals to food-insecure communities while fighting to keep one restaurant afloat and also pushing to open three more might sound a little crazy, let alone during a pandemic. But delivering comfort through food is just what Chris Williams does, even in the hardest of times. “Feeding people is the most basic form of love,” says the executive chef of Lucille’s in Houston, owner of Lucille’s Hospitality Group, and founder of the nonprofit Lucille’s 1913. The chef’s “community first” mantra is passed down from his great-grandmother (and restaurant group’s namesake) Lucille B. Smith. One of the first African American businesswomen in Texas, she was a successful caterer and in the 1940s developed the first commercially sold all-purpose hot roll mix (which she initially sold as a fundraiser for her church). She advocated for better conditions for the poor, and during the Vietnam War mailed more than three hundred fruitcakes to community members serving overseas.
When he’s cooking for others, Williams says, there’s one ingredient that will satisfy almost anyone. And that’s chicken. “It’s used in so many comfort dishes, and I’ve never heard of a person with a chicken allergy.” Few would balk if you showed up at their door with a beautiful roasted chicken, but Williams often likes to make coq au vin, a gratifying French-style stew of chicken and vegetables braised in red wine. “It’s a humble one-pot dish that’s honest and approachable,” he says. “And its rustic presentation tends to conjure up emotions that make you really reflect on community.”