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October 28, 2020
Leveling the Playing Field Between the Raviolis and the Beef Patties

Photographer Clay Williams and chef Chad Williams ask: Why are Philadelphia diners and restaurant critics so quick to undervalue the work of Black chefs?

If you find yourself searching for the best crispy suckling pig face or coconut-miso-glazed carrots in Philadelphia, talk to Chad Williams. He’s the owner, along with his wife, Hanna, of the eclectic Rittenhouse Square restaurant (slash cocktail lounge and rotating tasting menu spot) Friday Saturday Sunday, which, pre-pandemic, had gained rave reviews and momentum to establish it as one of the city’s best. Before opening in 2016, Chad had worked in some of the world’s top kitchens, including Manresa, Saison, and Eleven Madison Park, then met his future partner at Jose Garces’s Amada. Today, the restaurant is operating at 50 percent capacity, per city guidelines, and serving their famous cocktails to go while they reboot their acclaimed and ambitious tasting menu. 

Clay Williams (who is not related to Chad) is a Brooklyn-based (though Philadelphia-loving) photographer, writer, and cofounder of Black Food Folks, an organization focused on promoting and supporting the fellowship of Black professionals working in the restaurant industry, as well as throughout food service, culinary education, farming, and food media. Clay has been instrumental in organizing nearly 200 interviews and conversations on Instagram Live, focusing on topics including funding and supporting Black-owned businesses, the Black experience of working in fine dining kitchens, and Black representation (and suppression) in food media. We were fortunate to have Chad and Clay link up in late August for our latest TASTE In Conversation, which covered a lot of ground, including Chad’s journey to running his own restaurant, the elevation of Italian food over all other cuisines, and the Philadelphia food world’s “quiet” segregation.  

Clay Williams: Let’s start with you. You’re Chad Williams, you’re from Philly. 

Chad Williams: I’m from Philly. I was brought up with not a ton of culinary focus—it was a family of teachers. I went to Howard University for three years, and I started working. The first restaurant I worked at was a Black-owned restaurant called Rocky’s Cafe, and it was a Caribbean kind of Creole spot, and that was my intro to the scene. I mean, that’s where—and the reason—I fell in love with food, honestly. I still remember it in my head. It was some lamb dish seared medium rare, which was blowing my mind in the first place. And then it was with mango and jerk spices. And it was like, what is this on this plate? This is something very different.

Clay: So it was in college, at Howard, when you started working in restaurants, and that was it for you?

Chad: Yeah, the summer between junior and senior year, I was like, “I think I like this,” you know, “I think this is something I want to do.” I was like, “Let me go at it pretty hard and see if this is what I want to do.” So I worked at two different restaurants, seven days a week, like a young kid can do and not feel it. It was fun, you know, we had a blast. At that point, I was like, this is what I love, this is it. That was kind of when I called my mom. She cried; she tried to get the guy to fire me. And I’ve kinda stuck with it ever since, you know? 

Clay: And then did you do any culinary school stuff?

Chad: I was already in kitchens, so I just knocked around in DC for a while. And then I came back [to Philly] and worked with Jose Garces. I was kind of in that Stephen Starr–Jose Garces orbit. And also, while I was in DC, I worked at Cashion’s. And that was, for the time, pretty avant-garde in a way that it was more like a Chez Panisse, an Alice Waters kind of thing; the goat guy showed up at the back. You got the milk, and you got the goat. The rockfish was from a fisherman who came in with the boots on and smelled like the ocean. And to watch [chef Ann Cashion] in that way, I didn’t know how special it was at the time—like, after I go to the [other] places and everything’s coming in frozen and IQF [individually quick frozen], and the meat’s already broken down—that was a great place to be at as a young cook.  

Clay: How long ago was this? 

Chad: 2002.

Clay: That’s amazing, man. ’Cause, you know, that’s years before people were all talking about farm-to-table, and it became a whole brand and lifestyle or whatever. 

Chad: Yeah. It didn’t have a name. They didn’t call it that, it was, “Here’s our menu, we might run out, sorry.”

Clay: At what point did you decide to open your own restaurant?

Chad: That’s always a chef’s dream, you know, to have your own place—and you start with ideas, you try to find business partners, it doesn’t work out, you start again and you kind of sputter. And this place in Philly came up that basically every restaurateur and chef had passed on, because the restaurant had been here for 40 years—one of the oldest in Philly—and it was just decrepit inside. The owner was out of his mind, like, impossible to negotiate with. And I had nothing but time, like, this was kinda my last shot, you know; I was getting older. It took, I think, almost a year in negotiation. We probably went through three months where we didn’t talk, then we’d talk again; we’d offend them in some way, who knows how; he wouldn’t talk to us again—and we just kinda stuck at it and were able to get it open.

It’s a very segregated city, and it’s gotten worse over the last 20 years, in a very kind of quiet way.

Clay: Even before I was involved in the food world and photography and all the stuff I do, I’ve been keeping an eye on how things have developed in the city. And it’s, you know, it’s weird, right? Like, Philly is almost 50 percent Black, but you would never know it to see the restaurants. 

Chad: It’s a very segregated city, and it’s gotten worse over the last 20 years, in a very kind of quiet way. We were talking about doing some ribs pop-up—Philly used to have five Black-owned rib joints, like famous rib joints. I don’t know the actual count, but it’s now down to one. How many soul food joints were there before? Four or five that you could pick from—now, maybe there’s one operating at full tilt. Same with the Caribbean food. It’s tough. And when you go into the neighborhoods—you start talking about those neighborhood diners that everybody loves all up in North Philly, up in the twenties—you see all these closed diners, like they were neighborhood diners that used to feed the folks who lived there. They either transition to another culture before they shut down, or they just shut down, which is wild, but it’s very much a segregated city in terms of business.

Clay: Why do you think that is? Is it the investors? Is it media coverage? Is it something else?

Chad: I would say all of the above. It’s kind of what the anatomy of racism is. It kind of hits you everywhere. The diners expect a certain type of cuisine from Black chefs and, you know, certain pricing with that cuisine. Maybe it’s more visible with, say, Thai food or Mexican food, like it’s supposed to be cheap. Mexican food is not cheap. It’s three ounces of meat and corn. Like, a taco is not cheap. If you do the math on it, and you kind of look at it in terms of the algorithm that builds the food, this should not be cheap. Thai food with seafood in it should not be cheap, but it’s thought of in that way. Same thing, I think, with soul food—like, you want short ribs, you want all the poultry, you want duck. Duck was big, you know, for people in the South—you don’t see that anymore. You know, with seafood, now you can only get catfish, or tilapia. How did it go from us having a connection to these fishing communities to, now, this is all we eat? I think a lot of it is price point, and then economically, we are just not doing good. We can’t support our own folks, which is a big part of it. 

Clay: It’s interesting, because I see all sorts of levels of other foods. I mean, you can’t throw a rock in Philly without hitting an Italian place—of all sorts and all different kinds. So, if you look at Italian, just as an example, cause there’s so much of it in Philly, what is the thing that lets Italian food become elevated, if you want to call it that?

Chad: They have a tradition of fine-dining restaurants in Italy. Like, you have different levels when you’re there. At some point, you started to see a pop here—Mario Batali did Del Posto, Vetri here in Philly. [They] said, “All right, are you going to pay 150 bucks for a tasting menu? 200 bucks?” And people said, “Okay.” And I think once it hits that higher market, now you want to charge $18 for cacio e pepe.

And I think David Chang sort of throws a lot of good-natured jabs at Italian food. ’Cause he’s coming from a standpoint of “we made noodles.” He’s like, “We made this shit. Now I gotta charge half because, what—tell me why?”

It’s kind of what the anatomy of racism is. It kind of hits you everywhere. The diners expect a certain type of cuisine from Black chefs and, you know, certain pricing with that cuisine.

Clay: Right.

Chad: I don’t know which part of the library of racism that fits into, but, you know, I can’t charge the same price for the same quality and food and techniques that [they] get for no reason, but in America, we view this culture as worth less. 

Clay: I mean, the idea that people have is that somehow things are gonna get better, right? That somehow, we’re at some sort of reckoning point, and that everything’s going to change, and that there’s a path now, allegedly, for things to improve, in that regard and others, right? Do you see that happening? Do you believe that? And if so, what’s the path like? What do you think?

Chad: I think there has been, across the board, a destabilization of the industry with COVID. There’s still the haves and have-nots, but this has been the great equalizer in terms of restaurants. So I think it really did kind of throw us all in the same group, you know, for better or worse. 

In terms of the media, as well, you know, you saw a lot of people get called out on what was going on. You know, the Bon Appétit thing was huge. And I think that was very public, and it kind of showed what we have to deal with in terms of representation. And you know how I feel about Instagram and all that stuff—we were a neighborhood joint, and I was like, “Ah, whatever, I don’t want to deal with it.” As soon as we closed up, I was like, “Yeah, we gotta post twice a day!” There’s no more face to face. There’s no more hospitality, in terms of that one-on-one human connection. It’s now what’s in the media. And, for me, you [start to] see how important it is [to have] that representation. 

But going back to the point of, you know, is there a reckoning there . . . if we now have people following chefs, not regardless of race, but maybe because of it—fuck, like, I’ll take it, you know? 

Clay: So that’s changed the way that you handle those things?

Chad: A hundred percent. Now, you know, we’re competing for the same eyeballs as everybody else. 

But going back to the point of, you know, is there a reckoning there . . . if we now have people following chefs, not regardless of race, but maybe because of it—fuck, like, I’ll take it, you know? 

The media has ignored this group of people since the internet’s been around—we’ve ignored brown people and their food, unless we saw it as cheap food. How do you correct it? Give us the story; let our writers write the story. ’Cause the food is delicious. You love it. The people go eat it, but it needs to stay in the front [of the mind]. You know, this can’t be something that happened in June, and then it’s over, go back to normal. 

Clay: You know, we talk about everyone being in the same boat. But you talk about some of the companies that have bigger investors, that have more funding behind them and stuff like that—as a mom-and-pop shop, do you feel like you have the same opportunity to keep things going? 

Chad: Oh, no. In no way. The chains are the ones that will survive. I don’t know if you remember the movie Demolition Man, but in Demolition Man, in the future, the only restaurant that survived was Taco Bell. I was like, “This is what it’s going to be like.” These mom-and-pop shops that are full of this soul and life and do it as a craft, we don’t have the money, we don’t have a bank account, and we will suffer. It’s very much a life-and-death situation at this point. 

I don’t know which part of the library of racism that fits into, but, you know, I can’t charge the same price for the same quality and food and techniques that [they] get for no reason, but in America, we view this culture as worth less. 

Clay: Have you seen a silver lining from all of this? 

Chad: I think with this, this is a hard reset almost, right? We have very much been stuck in a New American restaurant framework, in terms of style of service, beverage program, food. So, for me, I think we’re just throwing all that out the window, and what we’re doing while we’re closed is really just beginning to grow and say, “What do we want to do?” 

Clay: Do you think there’s a path at all for getting back to a place with better representation of Black restaurants, Black chefs, Black owners?

Chad: A lot of it has to do with the media, you know—like we’ve in the past talked about the list before, right? In [Philadelphia Magazine’s] top 50 restaurants list, I’m the only black chef. Not to say that the people are undeserving, but you could swap out, you know, some of them folks for somebody Black, and I don’t think you’ve messed up the weight of the universe. Sadly, it comes down to [the publication], and I think their hand has been forced a little bit.

Not that I know what somebody’s feeling, but it feels like they’re doing it almost like it’s the right thing, this charitable thing. And maybe that’ll change into what it really is that you need—you need to view these cuisines and these creators and chefs in the same manner. Hopefully it transitions to that—that the beef patty is looked at [with] the same reverence as the ravioli, you know? It’s some flour, some fat in there, some filling—tell me why one is more important than the other. It’s not. But when they cover it, it needs to be not just some surface-level, “Oh, look at this island cuisine,” you know, like, “Tell me how your mom made it” bullshit. But, like, “Here’s this dough. Here’s why it’s amazing.” The same way they discuss the pesto, you need to discuss the jerk sauce. It’s gotta be the same.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat.

Matt Rodbard

Matt Rodbard is the editor in chief of TASTE and author of Koreatown: A Cookbook, a New York Times best-seller, and Food IQ: 100 Questions, Answers, and Recipes to Raise Your Cooking Smarts.