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Culture Trip talks to the world’s most talented chefs about the cities that inspire them and the sights, smells and sensations that drive their approach to food. From his base in Chicago’s Hyde Park, Erick Williams has earned plaudits across the United States for his sophisticated, sensuous approach to African-American cuisine.
You can read a lot from restaurants rocketing to success in their first years of opening. Some do so because they arrive fully formed, exactly on-trend, burning so brightly for a short amount of time before fizzling away from the foreground. Others are headed by quixotic young chefs striking out on their own after years in the kitchens of the elite, buoyant with promise and potential, but liable to blunders and immaturity. For Erick Williams, executive chef of Virtue in Chicago, he is both and neither: Virtue is his first solo venture, after years by the side of the legendary Michael Kornick at his restaurant, MK, and his food has brought rave reviews – and national attention – to his underloved corner of Hyde Park.
But Williams is the furthest thing from a flash in the pan. Virtue is instead the culmination of over two decades of learning; every detail of the experience, from your greeting at the door to the moment you step out into the cold night air of the Windy City, is designed to leave you feeling warm, welcomed and cared for. A native Chicagoan who climbed up the ranks from dishwasher to executive chef at the aforementioned MK, Williams has used his debut restaurant not just to champion the cuisine of the American South, but to serve as a nurturing hub for young African-Americans who, like him, could stand to benefit from a mentor as modest and studious as himself. Initiatives like this, and many other charity drives across the city, have made Williams one of Chicago’s best-known and most beloved chefs, and earned him a place on the New York Times’ 16 Black Chefs Changing Food in America list in 2019.
Then, there’s his food. Virtue is soul food in the truest sense, and it has drawn plaudits from Eater, Esquire, and the Chicago Tribune’s famously feared food critic, Phil Vettel, for staying true to its Southern roots, whilst also being unafraid to reinvent and reimagine. He even counts the well-regarded former senator from Illinois (and former US President), Barack Obama, as a fan. Staples like blackened catfish and fried green tomatoes are toyed with and perfected by a chef with an impeccable education, and are in the process elevated to the very highest standards they can reach. Where Virtue’s brilliance lies is not in completely deconstructing Southern food, but instead, in executing it with confidence and acuity Virtue demonstrates the innate beauty and deliciousness in soul food that can be savored and appreciated by all. Culture Trip spoke to Williams about home cooking, hot dogs and the irrepressible spirit of Chi-Town that inspires what he puts on a plate.
I’m Erick Williams. I’m a father, I’m a Christian, I’m a chef and I’m an entrepreneur. I cook from my soul – that’s the basis of everything we do at our restaurant, Virtue, in the center of the Windy City.
For me it’s all about East 53rd Street – where Virtue is located. It’s in the heart of Hyde Park, an area with a ton of potential, which we’re only just getting started with. There’s a diverse make-up, an inclusive spirit and only a short distance between us and Lake Shore Drive. It’s where you’ll find a taste of everything that’s special about Chi-Town.
So many – too many to name – at my grandmother’s table. Her peach cobbler continues to be the best I’ve ever had, and even after years and years in the kitchen, I still can’t make chicken and dumplings as well as she does.
My first instinct is to say our bright yellow sweetcorn; it’s sugary and summery, and so good. But you know what I miss most when I’m away from the city? A Chicago-style hot dog. We make them the best – and we never, ever put ketchup on them.
Well, we love our sports teams dearly, our city’s great museums, our incredible and ever-evolving dining scene and our amazing theatres. I think that sums us up quite neatly: we’re creative, competitive, and our communities are warm and supportive.
All of the dishes at Virtue express the character of Chicago in some way or another. The city is fully incorporated into our cuisine here – it’s one and the same, and made with the soul and love that I learned from my grandmother and carried through with me to where we are today. We put Chicago on a plate time after time, and night after night!