Saturday, April 2, 2016

Passion for cooking and creating memories guides culinary career

When Chris Williams was just tall enough to see over the edge of a grill while growing up in Acadia Parish, Louisiana, he was creating memories by just being around his grandfather and uncles who would cook meat over an open flame sometimes four or five times a week during summer. “It was extremely jovial – a bunch of old black guys telling fish stories of what life was like when they were coming up,” Williams says. From then on, the process of making food has never been merely by the book. “Food has always been fun for me,” he adds. “I don’t cook because I have to, I cook because I want to. Food for me should always evoke an emotion of some type, bring back a memory, make someone feel better or celebrate a joyous occasion. It really should have some effect on you, or at least you would hope so.”

Chris Williams puts the finishing touches on a dessert.

By the time he was 9, Williams was cooking for his sister and little brother while their single mom went to school and worked – and he did that until he left home at age 17. But academically, Williams’ penchant for cooking did not manifest itself until much later in life. After high school, he moved around a lot – Atlanta, Denver, St. Louis, Salt Lake City and Chicago. “You’re young – you’ve got to figure out where you fit in,” he explains about his wanderlust. Somewhere in all of that were two marriages that didn’t take. In the late 80s he visited Utah for a stint with Job Corps that didn’t work. “Somehow I kept finding my way back to Salt Lake City,” he says.

Over the years he worked in restaurants and kept his culinary chops current around a griddle and a grill. By 2013 someone with the SLCC Culinary Arts program persuaded him to enroll. “I found out I liked it,” he says about cooking in a classroom. This past May he donned a cap and gown after earning an Associate of Applied Science in Culinary Arts. “It’s not Harvard or Yale,” he says. “It’s not CIA (Culinary Institute of America) or Le Cordon Bleu (in France), but if you take what is taught to you and you apply it and you use it to expand your horizons, you can do whatever you want to do.” He said SLCC’s Culinary Institute is a “good place” that gave him a good foundation to move forward with a career.

Chris Williams adds his dessert to the class table.

While at SLCC Williams, 42, entered cooking contests, loved cooking for community service projects and involved himself whenever possible in food-related events, networking along the way. He met and became friends with Kevin Storm, executive chef at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis. “In this business it’s all about networking,” Williams said. “You can be the most skilled person, but if you don’t have good relationships it’s still going to be difficult to get a job.” Storm mentored Williams, who was eyeing St. Louis to work at the country club with Storm. By the time he’s 45, he hopes to have become a certified executive chef, maybe spend a year traveling Europe (benefitting from Storm’s vast connections) sampling cuisine from different regions and, at some point, he’d like to run his own kitchen.

“As a numbers guy, I’d bet 99.9 percent that he’ll achieve each one of those goals,” says Bob Burdette, Program Director for SLCC Culinary Arts. “Only because that’s the type of person Chris is.” Burdette describes Williams as smart and dedicated to his craft. “Truly, he wasn’t just learning how to cook so that he could impress the girls,” Burdette laughs. “He was dedicated to the craft of becoming a chef.” SLCC liked him so much that they hired Williams to be a full-time sous chef—he has since moved on.

“I’d like to do upscale comfort food, upscale Cajun,” Williams says. He likes what Emeril Lagasse has done with his restaurants, namely Emeril’s in New Orleans. “He took what came natural to him and made a brand out of it,” Williams adds. “He has created an atmosphere, an experience.” For Williams, it all comes down to making a meal more than just about assuaging a hunger. “Ten or fifteen years from now, it may be a smell or something that strikes your memory,” he says. “I can still to this day remember some of the sights and sounds of when I was a kid, being around family functions and just everything that was going on. I’ll smell something and it will trigger something, and you’ll go, ‘Man, I remember that I was having a good time.’ If I achieve nothing else, that’s what I want. I want people to leave after they’ve had my food and go, ‘You know, that was pretty good.’ That’s really my ultimate goal – to create memories with food.”