Virtue’s Erick Williams – Insight through talk and tasting

Chef Erick Williams at work in the kitchen of Virtue. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

By AARON GETTINGER
Staff Writer

“Hello, Mr. Williams?”

“Yes.”

“Hello, this is Aaron Gettinger with the Hyde Park Herald. How are you?”

“I’m good, and yourself?”

I told him I was doing well and congratulated him on Virtue, 53rd Street’s new eatery and the most anticipated restaurant opening in Chicago in some time. I asked him how much time we had.

“I can’t give you an exact number, but let’s go,” he said, curtly.

OK, I thought to myself, it’s going to be that kind of a telephone interview. I wasn’t surprised by Erick Williams’ candor — one line from Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vittel’s review had stuck with me.

“Check-in is smooth and the greeting warm, and there’s a separate bar/lounge area if there’s a wait. The dining room runs smoothly, and the kitchen, visible from every table, appears to do so as well. Timing, presentation — everything is as it should be,” Vettel wrote. “It occurs to me that Williams might be a tough boss.”

I had been assigned to write about Erick Williams the man.

He’s from Lawndale, where he started cooking 30 years ago, and has risen in his career from a salad cook to a partner in restaurants.

“I started cooking for myself as a young kid through the tutelage of my grandmother,” he said.

I saw in my mind a Rockwellian image of a matronly woman in an apron making something in a stockpot with a small boy standing on a footstool. As it turns out, she taught Williams over the phone; she was from Mississippi but lived in another house in Chicago and would instruct remotely.

“She gave me the confidence to cook,” Williams said. “I can’t remember a time I’ve been shy around the stove, and it’s one of the biggest things that we have to impart now, when we train cooks.”

He spoke of the misguidance around cooking.

“Because people don’t listen or follow recipes — people tend to put the cart before the horse, which makes it extremely difficult to teach someone how to do something when they don’t recognize how important standard is,” he said.

“I’m eternally grateful that she gave me that fortitude and that resolve to understand the standard practice first of what the technique is before you move in to elevate any particular experience,” Williams said. “Because it applies in not just cooking but every aspect of my life.”

I started another rambling question.

“I’m just going to be very candid, instead of being curt, and then I’m going to depend on you as a journalist to not add but to help structure the conversation,” Williams replied. “And this is your first time interviewing me, so this is the way I interview: When you read things like a Trib article, by the time you’ve read what you’ve read, Phil Vettel’s taken the time to really edit and think about what the core of the message is versus giving a lot of quotes of what I’m saying verbatim.

“And that makes it helpful for both of us, because I don’t write for a living, and he doesn’t cook for a living. But he has an appreciation for what I do, as I believe you probably do, and that’s why you’re in the building. So now that we got that out of the way …“

Williams said listening and taking direction are critical skills to deliver a standard product through a repetitive process. A standard product requires a standardized process, and Williams’ career depends on quality as the standard. Virtue free-measures seasonings for chicken, he said, and consistency requires accuracy time and time again. That way, the “variables” don’t show.

I shifted the conversation to the status of Southern cuisine expressed through fine dining writ large. I asked how Virtue is different.

“The biggest difference is there’s a very, very small amount of African Americans with a fine dining background who are doing what I’m doing,” he said. He described a pyramid of sorts based on Southern chefs, then chefs with a background in fine Southern dining and a small number of black chefs who run Southern restaurants like Virtue.

“Why does soul food feel like it comes from one place and not many, and why does Southern food feel like it’s the culmination of many islands that share some of the same goals instead of one united front?” Williams asks himself regularly. Texas is close to New Orleans, and he says brisket is as Southern as gumbo. Fried alligator is as delicious in Florida as it is in Louisiana.

Williams is from Chicago, not the South, but he is dedicating his professional life to preserving and highlighting the South’s “complex and well-thought-out techniques.”

I asked him why almost all African-American cookery is labeled “Southern” and not just “black.” “Soul food” comes close but doesn’t put race in the center.

Williams differentiated Virtue’s menu from soul food, describing his “layered approach” to Southern food “that hasn’t been done repetitively over a period of time.”

He is opposed to the soul food moniker because of its allusion to cooking with only scraps. Using merely scraps would trap him into using pigs’ ears, feet and intestines while forgoing chops or hams. Virtue is Southern: It has a pork chop on the menu.

“It would be fair to say that there has been a lack of representation in Southern food in our country by African Americans, and we are very focused in presenting ourselves in a way that highlights the beauty of what the food is, far beyond scrap cooking,” he said, adding that black people were the Republic’s biggest labor force for a long time: They cooked all the food, not just scraps, in the field and in the house.

“I plan to cook the food in the house for people who look like me, who don’t look like me, for anybody who wants to show up at Virtue to eat,” he said.

He did say that Southern cuisine has not evolved much over the years. When I asked how Virtue would advance it, he said I would have to follow Virtue along; he repeated that the restaurant would take a “layered approach to highlighting the attributes of what Southern cuisine is.”

I said I only had a few more questions, and I noted how expensive Virtue is.

“That’s not true,” he replied.

He asked me how much I thought it would cost to eat at Virtue, and I said $50. He countered that gem lettuce salad is $10, and the chicken gizzards are $9; the shrimp and grits is $19, and desserts are $8.

“You would be all in on dinner for $35,” the chef said. He admitted that his pork and beef are more expensive but said he uses heirloom meat, and his pork chop and short ribs are still cheap compared with those dishes in other Chicago restaurants.

He said that $35 on a meal where someone is taking care of me is not expensive. He encouraged me to come eat at Virtue and “make an investment in what I do.”

So I did. I made a reservation for one at 10 p.m. on Saturday.

The waiter taking me to my seat almost immediately launched into a little monologue about Williams’ attributes, that he had learned cooking from his grandmother, how he uses her recipe for the greens and is the only one at Virtue who knows how to make them and how he really likes their fried green tomatoes.

“Chef is also very excited about the ‘butcher’s snack,” the name for the charcuterie board with Tennessee country ham, head cheese, turkey rillettes, pickled okra, pepper jelly and grainy mustard.

I ordered that and a salad. Interestingly, Virtue doesn’t serve sweet tea, though the waiter said the bartender could sweeten iced tea for me. I declined and drank water. Dinner came to $30.17, including tip and coat check.

It came out quickly and was effortlessly delicious, though I know that the effortlessness was the result of a finely trained professional kitchen. Country ham is this nation’s grand answer to jamón ibérico or prosciutto. At Virtue, it came out shaved into dainty pink ribbons, packing a saline wallop laced with enough fat for a mineral tang to linger on the palate.

The crackers were pure texture and would have been a fine South Side thin pizza crust. The pickles were just sweet enough to be Southern. The salad was great: its loose buttermilk dressing had a briny zing and understated dill.

The chef was right; you can get a sublime meal at Virtue for $30.17.

As I sat there, Williams came out, said he recognized me for my mustache (even though we had not met in person), shook my hand and told me not to quote him too much in this article.

The waiter brought out fried green tomatoes with shrimp in remoulade I hadn’t ordered. I panicked and texted my editor asking what to do.

“Enjoy them,” came the reply, “If you can be bought for fried green tomatoes, there is no hope for you.”

I do not particularly care for fried green tomatoes, but I appreciate them for their vegetal tartness and sweet cornmeal crust, which nicely complimented the just-cooked shrimps’ sweetness, confirming my earlier appreciation.

Before I left, Williams came out again nursing meat and potatoes from a porcelain bowl with a spoon. I asked him what it was, and he answered, “scraps.”

a.gettinger@hpherald.com