Houston chef, founder of Lucille's builds holistic vision through food with one-year-old nonprofit – Houston Chronicle

Chef Chris Williams of Lucille’s restaurant in Houston stands in Bates Allen Park, where he will create a 10-acre produce farm for the area in Kendleton on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Top: Chef Chris Williams of Lucille’s restaurant sits in a field in Fort Bend County where he will create a 10-acre produce farm. Above:
Chef Chris Williams of Lucille’s restaurant holds onto a watermelon from a small garden behind The Power Center in Houston on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. Williams started his nonprofit in the middle of the pandemic, when people needed free food more than ever. A year later, the organization has expanded significantly, with a culinary training program and new farm land acquisitions.
An overgrown okra on its stalk in a small garden behind The Power Center in Houston on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Chef Chris Williams of Lucille’s restaurant in Houston sits in Bates Allen Park, where he will create a 10-acre produce farm for the area in Kendleton on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
The one grocery store option in the area is a small market connected to a gas station in Kendleton, photographed on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Chef Chris Williams of Lucille’s restaurant in Houston stands in Bates Allen Park, where he will create a 10-acre produce farm for the area in Kendleton on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Chef Chris Williams of Lucille’s restaurant in Houston stands in Bates Allen Park, where he will create a 10-acre produce farm for the area in Kendleton on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Chef Chris Williams of Lucille’s restaurant in Houston stands in Bates Allen Park, where he will create a 10-acre produce farm for the area in Kendleton on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
A list of items for fermentation as part of a project Chef Chris Williams of Lucille’s restaurant started in Houston on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Eggplant grows in a small garden behind The Power Center in Houston on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Chef Chris Williams takes a bite out of a fresh okra from a garden behind The Power Center in Houston on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. The Lucille’s restaurant chef started a nonprofit in the middle of the pandemic, when people needed free food more than ever. A year later, the organization has expanded significantly, with a culinary training program and new farm land acquisitions.
A small garden for the charter school at The Power Center in Houston on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Dehydrated carrot peels curl up in Houston on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Pickles and other fermentation in the fermenting room in Houston on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Dawn Burrell, left, and Chris Williams check on the progress of some pickled okra in Houston on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Pickles from chefs Chris Williams and Dawn Burrell in Houston on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
The Fermentation Lab tests a collard version of kimchi.
Williams and chef Dawn Burrell pick out some fermented vegetables at the Fermentation Lab.
Chef Dawn Burrell goes over some of the items she was dehydrating to make powders and spices in Houston on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021.
Some of the 700 containers of pasta bolognese with mixed vegetables prepared and handed out by Lucille’s 1913 restaurant during a food drive put on by Bread of Life at Crestmont Park United Methodist Church Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021 in Crosby, TX.
Chef Chris Williams hands out some of the 700 meals Lucille’s 1913 prepared for a food drive put on by Bread of Life at Crestmont Park United Methodist Church.
Charlotte Jefferson with Lucille’s 1913 restaurant puts containers of prepared pasta bolognese with mixed vegetables into a car during a food drive put on by Bread of Life at Crestmont Park United Methodist Church Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021 in Crosby, TX.
Cars line up during a food drive put on by Bread of Life at Crestmont Park United Methodist Church Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021 in Crosby, TX.
On a drizzly afternoon in early August, chef Chris Williams drives by Kendleton Grocery, a small, quaint-looking blue structure at an intersection just off U.S. 59. Inside, it’s a simple convenience store that sometimes sells burgers and fried chicken, but as Williams explains, it’s the only food store that serves the town of Kendleton in Fort Bend County. To buy fresh food, residents have to drive 12 miles to the nearest H-E-B.
Williams has a solution, and it’s just around the corner: land.
Over the course of the pandemic, Williams went from being a chef running his restaurant, Lucille’s, in the Museum District, to spearheading meal deliveries to seniors in need during the lockdown. The effort blossomed into a nonprofit, Lucille’s 1913, that is laying out a holistic vision for making an impact through food.
The organization is celebrating its official one-year anniversary this month. In that time, it has launched many new initiatives, including a culinary training program that equips youths for a better future, a fermentation lab to mitigate its kitchens’ waste and managing more than 30 acres of land to bring accessible, fresh food to underserved communities in Fort Bend County.
Williams says Kendleton is the perfect place to start the nonprofit’s most ambitious project yet. Once the site of a plantation, the town was founded by formerly enslaved people who bought land from the previous owner after the Civil War. It became a thriving African American farming and ranching community.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, 82 percent of Kendleton’s 339 residents are Black, but the economic dynamics have changed since the town’s heyday.
“Now the majority of the land is all commercial farming, and it’s not owned by us,” said Williams.
Working with County Commissioner Grady Prestage and Kendleton Mayor Darryl Humphrey Sr., the 1913 team was awarded a land management contract from the Fort Bend County Judge’s office. It will work with the county’s Parks Department and Texas A&M AgriLife to manage a total of 32 acres across four different sites.
From Kendleton Grocery, turning onto a small lane leads to Bates M. Allen Park; it’s a 10-acre plot that the organizations will focus on first. Williams says he wants to hire about 30 people from the community to grow fruits and vegetables here, making it both a training ground to learn farming skills and a direct access point for fresh, at-cost produce for Kendleton residents.
The plot was once a tree farm and is already set up with an irrigation system, but other start-up costs are expensive and time-consuming, such as clearing the land and preparing it for planting. Williams also wants to start a composting program with the waste from the Lucille’s kitchen. He estimates it will take eight months to get the project off the ground; the other three sites will take longer.
The 1913 team already has a gardening project under its belt, on a smaller scale, in southwest Houston. At the Imani School, founded by Williams’ mother, Patricia Hogan Williams, a small portion of a 14-acre backyard plot was planted right after the February freeze.
Before setting off for Kendleton, Williams checked in on the garden, now planted with okra, eggplant, watermelon, papaya, hibiscus, sorrel and more. He bit into a raw piece of okra he had just picked and remarked that butterflies had finally arrived in this concrete-heavy corner of Houston’s outskirts.
At this time, the garden serves mainly as an educational tool for the schoolchildren: a place where they can learn how to weed, plant and maintain a small plot of land, see produce grow and gain a better sense of where their food comes from. When the garden’s expansion is complete, it will be used for 1913 projects.
The Power Center, which houses the school, is also the current headquarters for the Lucille’s 1913 meal delivery program, where it all started.
The first meal drop was in Sunnyside in June 2020, as part of a short-term partnership with chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen to feed elderly residents who were cut off from their families during the pandemic. When Andrés’ organization left Houston a few weeks later, the 1913 team continued the deliveries.
By July, Williams had hired chef Lawrence Walker, who has banquet experience, to efficiently scale up the operation. Lucille’s 1913 received nonprofit status in September 2020. It now delivers more than 600 meals a day to nine apartment complexes in the Houston area and recently partnered with Bread of Life, an organization that has worked on food insecurity and homelessness for 30 years.
Launching a nonprofit wasn’t Williams’ intention at the onset; the initiative came from a need he and the team could fill. But it ended up changing his entire trajectory.
Cooking the 1913 meals took him out of the restaurant for just a few hours a day, giving him the space to see a bigger picture — one that was difficult to gauge during the eight years he spent knee-deep in order tickets, guest interactions, managing staff, washing dishes and fixing toilets.
Williams took a step back from Lucille’s and put chef de cuisine Khang Hoang in charge. Eventually, he realized the restaurant worked better without him being there every day. He recalls dropping by during one service to try to micromanage stations and solve problems — but there were none, everything was running smoothly. His staff sent him outside to sit on the patio and listen to the live band.
The key, Williams says, was hiring the right people who are experienced in each segment of the business and the nonprofit. He created Lucille’s Hospitality Group in February of this year and brought on chef Dawn Burrell, formerly of Kulture, as a partner to open upcoming restaurant Late August and other concepts.
For 1913, the most important newcomer is Robertine “Robbie” Jefferson, who came on as director of development in November. Jefferson has been in nonprofits for nearly 30 years, bringing experience in fundraising and other aspects of the work that Williams knew little about.
Over her career, Jefferson has worked on efforts involving senior citizens, recidivism, affordable housing and education, and was most recently at the Red Cross and Salvation Army. The hands-on nature of the 1913 job piqued her interest: actually seeing the sigh of relief, the nod, the smile on people’s faces after you’ve helped them, even a little.
As 1913 grew out of its infancy and defined itself, the nonprofit needed someone to focus its efforts and steer the ship.
“When we first started, it was another disaster organization,” said Jefferson. “Are we going to be a disaster organization forever, or are we going to really delve into what we think is needed and missing in these communities?”
Williams and his colleagues are constantly coming up with new ideas and initiatives for the nonprofit to work on. Jefferson sees her role as making sure everything ties together, and, of course, finding ways to keep it all funded. Part of this is messaging, she says: letting the public know what the organization is doing and how they can donate. The Kinder Foundation, for one, has since made contributions to 1913 initiatives.
Jefferson is launching a “1913 challenge,” asking donors to give $19.13 a month, and is hoping she can host the nonprofit’s first gala in November, COVID permitting. The crew also launched a catering arm in July, throwing private events for clients as another revenue source for the nonprofit.
As Burrell waits for the opening of Late August, which is delayed, she launched a zero-waste program called the Fermentation Lab out of the kitchen of one of 1913’s meal-drop properties in Fifth Ward. Food waste is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and the team saw an opportunity to turn the mountains of scraps coming out of their kitchens into gold.
Burrell plays around with ferments, pickles and various seasonings from whatever comes her way from the kitchen, such as dehydrating onion skins and grinding them into a powder that provides flavor without sugar or salt.
“It’s a great way to minimize our waste and utilize everything we have,” said Burrell as she moved a huge bucket of fermenting collard kimchi from the fridge to an air- and temperature-controlled room. “You can dehydrate anything and see if it works for what you need.”
The Fermentation Lab condiments can be added to the 1913 meals, and because they’re shelf-stable, they can be distributed during disasters. The products will also be sold at Lucille’s and Railway Heights Market, providing yet another revenue stream to the nonprofit.
Lucille’s 1913 has many ongoing initiatives that have sprouted in different directions. One that touches every corner of the organization is the new culinary training program, which seeks to teach youths from under-resourced neighborhoods various aspects of the business, creating a well-rounded workforce that can grow, prepare, cook and serve food.
If you’re able to cook in a restaurant setting, you’re always in demand, Williams says.
They advertised the program within the communities they deliver to and also partnered with reVision, a Houston group that works with at-risk youth, to recruit trainees who are then brought on as full-time paid staff at Lucille’s 1913.
Amani Godfrey, 19, became part of the inaugural class after graduating from reVision’s soccer program. He came to Houston from Tanzania when he was 5 years old and has lived in various parts of the city, including Alief, southwest Houston and Northside.
Godfrey was green when he started at 1913. “Other than me standing in the kitchen when my mom and my sister were cooking, that’s probably the only experience I ever had,” he said.
The first week, he was taught how to move around a kitchen, how to handle a knife, cut vegetables and protein, and plate the meals in containers. He loved working in the kitchen and even learned a little Spanish from the team, he said.
His favorite moments of the program came when he worked as the delivery driver.
“I saw the people outside and they would say how they appreciate me and my team for what we do,” Godfrey said. “I liked seeing their faces when they’re happy having things brought to them.”
With this experience, he’s gained more awareness of and empathy for the struggles people face, he says. Now a freshman at the University of Houston-Victoria, his new cooking skills have come in handy when preparing meals for himself and his dorm friends — he gives them pointers when they make mistakes in the kitchen.
The ultimate goal of the culinary program is to give the trainees a job somewhere in the company, whether at the nonprofit, Lucille’s, or one of the upcoming concepts.
“I will be back,” said Godfrey.
Even as he juggles several balls in the air, Williams always has his eye on the next thing. Lately, it’s been the developing crisis in Afghanistan and the country’s refugees, some of whom are arriving in Houston. The team is looking to partner with a local Afghan restaurant for another meal distribution initiative and is in talks with Houston Welcomes Refugees and YMCA International to hire a half-dozen Afghans to help out.
With this effort, Williams says he hopes to provide his new Afghan neighbors with “a taste of home.”
[email protected]
Emma Balter is an entertainment reporter for the Houston Chronicle.
She writes mainly about food and drink, but loves to follow a good feature story wherever it takes her. Before joining the Chronicle in March 2020, Balter worked for Wine Spectator magazine for six years as a writer, editor and tasting coordinator. She has also contributed to Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, Eater, PureWow, Chowhound and VinePair, among others.
Balter grew up in Paris, France, where she got an early taste for good food and wine. She studied English Literature at Newcastle University in the U.K. and was the lifestyle editor of the student newspaper. She lives in Montrose with her cat, Chenin.
Follow her on Twitter at @EmmaBalter
Amid mixed messages on masks and vaccines, Texans are dying at nearly twice the rate of California residents.
By Cayla Harris, Jeremy Wallace

source