Esquire (USA)

more than a place to eat

With Virtue, chef ERICK WILLIAMS has created a sanctuary. And now more chefs are following his lead.


WAY BACK IN 2018, WHEN ERICK WILLIAMS, A CHEF IN CHICAGO, WAS DREAMING OF opening a restaurant called Virtue, he had something of a spiritual prototype in mind: “What inspired me the most was the idea of Dooky Chase’s.” ¶ Williams could tell you that Dooky Chase’s is a restaurant in

New Orleans that opened in 1941, but that would be like describing Prince as a musician from Minneapoli­s. Dooky

Chase’s remains iconic as a strategic hub of the civil-rights movement, a haven for Black diners who had no other elegant options in the era of segregatio­n, a showcase for Creole cooking and Black art, all of it presided over by chef and matriarch Leah Chase, who died last year at the age of 96. ¶ Virtue and Dooky Chase’s don’t have that much in common from the perspectiv­e of cuisine, but Williams always wanted Virtue, located in Barack Obama’s neighborho­od of Hyde Park, to stand tall as a similar celebratio­n of Blackness. “Everybody is invited to come eat at Dooky Chase’s,” Williams said when he and I talked via Zoom in June. “What is the historical context of that place? Segregatio­n was in full effect. So you went there for more than nourishmen­t. You went there for a reset. You went there because you belonged. You went there because the space was inviting to you. You went there because you’d had the worst day of your life, but if you could just get in those doors, someone would understand. You could be heard. You could be recognized. You could be valued. I’m not old enough to know fully what the experience was like to have to live through segregatio­n or Jim Crow laws. But I can hear the pain in my parents’ voices when they talk about it. And in some ways, we’re fighting to protect and preserve what we have now.” ¶ “Support Black-owned businesses” became a rallying cry in June, yes, but throughout the United States we still have far too few examples of Black-owned restaurant­s that, like Dooky Chase’s, stand a chance of staying open and family-run for close to 80 years. Ownership continues to elude even many of the most celebrated Black chefs in America. Representa­tion in cookbooks and panel discussion­s may be nice, but it doesn’t go far enough. ¶ In this respect, Williams and Virtue suggest a fundamenta­l model for progress—the same model of self-reliance proposed over the years by leaders from Booker T. Washington to Malcolm X to Killer Mike, who devoted an episode of his Netflix show, Trigger Warning, to the challenges of trying to get through three days patronizin­g exclusivel­y Black-owned businesses. From the very start, Williams conceived of Virtue as a restaurant that would be owned by people who understood what it meant to Chicago’s South Side. The majority of his investors—about 80 percent—are Black. ¶ Virtue, like Dooky Chase’s, is a restaurant that America can’t afford to lose, and it’s more likely to survive the pandemic—and the decades to follow—with investors who know that in their bones. “African-Americans need to own their space, whether it’s their homes or their restaurant­s,” Williams told me. “Everybody keeps talking about a seat at the table. Someone said to me one time, they said, ‘Oh, this is great, you own your space, so you’re finally going to have a seat at the table.’ I said, ‘I don’t even like the idea of having a seat at the table. I just bought the fucking table.’ ” ¶ And owning the table allows him to create a sanctuary like the one in New Orleans that first inspired him. For Black customers, Virtue offers a refuge from the oppressive whiteness of eating in spaces where they don’t always feel welcome. “They want their kids to witness their dining in a Black chef’s restaurant—and understand that their family has invested in that space,” Williams said. ¶ You can never underestim­ate the virtue in that.

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