first moved to Memphis in 2004.
“After deciding to leave Las Vegas, he knew he wanted to be in the South, but he didn’t want to return to New Orleans yet,” Rondell Williams said of how his father first came to Memphis.
He opened a small restaurant on Florida Street, serving the Cajun and Creole dishes from his hometown. He eventually opened another restaurant to Main Street in 2013, where he was a neighborhood fixture for years. DejaVu closed, but the Krewe of DejaVu opened earlier this year back on Florida Street.
“People appreciate good food, and they know when they’re eating it,” Mr. Williams said in 2011. “They also understand that food brings people together, in Memphis or in New Orleans.”
The chef had experienced health problems recently. He had two strokes in two years and was hospitalized for diabetes in 2017, The Commercial Appeal reported in April.
Mr. Williams was well liked and respected among the restaurant community.
“He always lit up the room at an event. It was almost like a parade had arrived when he entered the room,” said Michael Patrick, chef and owner of Rizzo’s. “He impressed upon me the importance of helping the more impoverished. I will forever be grateful for the events and causes that he got me involved in.”
Fellow New Orleans native, Kelly English, chef proprietor of Restaurant Iris and Second Line, said Mr. Williams was “one of the best humans I knew.”
“We had an instant camaraderie both being from New Orleans and choosing Memphis as our new home,” English said. “Gary did so much for our culinary community and the city he loved. He would always say yes, then figure out how to make it happen. He really was a good man.”
Patrick Reilly, chef and owner of The Majestic Grille, said Mr. Williams was “a great chef, a great neighbor and a great man.”
“From the day he got here he truly embraced his adopted city, its community and its causes,” Patrick Reilly said. “He was so generous with his time and his talents and always ready to help. He had a great sense of humor and a great big laugh. I’m going to miss him, and I’m going to miss his creole shrimp.”
Reilly’s wife and partner in The Majestic Grille, Deni Reilly, also fondly recalled their friend.
“Gary took a chance on Memphis, and ended up falling in love with this city, especially Downtown,” she said. “He jumped right into everything … from Downtown Dining Week, to helping his fellow restaurateurs, to always being there with a kind word, a smile, some smothered okra or just a great big hug. I could always tell when Gary was at our place, because that great laugh of his would travel all the way through the restaurant. We’ve lost a good soul.”
Mr. Williams was restaurant neighbors with Felicia Willett, chef and owner of Felicia Suzanne’s, for many years.
“Every time I’d see him he’d say, ‘Come in and give me a big hug,’ ” Willett said. “He really was larger than life. He truly filled a room when he entered. He was always the first to show up at my annual Make-A-Wish event, and he always brought more food than we asked and stayed the whole night, mingling with the crowd and helping others.”
Bert Smythe of McEwen’s was also a restaurant neighbor.
“Gary was a good guy with a big heart and completely honest about who he was, even down to his faults,” Smythe said. “Gary was a giver and truly one of the nicest persons I’ve known in this crazy business. He loved what he did.”
Food photographer and cookbook author Justin Fox Burks bonded with Gary over his vegan and vegetarian fare. “Gary was a light — both in the culinary world and as a person. At every interaction with him, you felt like he was one of your best friends. He will be missed.”
On the restaurant’s Instagram page, The Majestic Grille summed up the sentiments of many who knew Mr. Williams, “Enjoy that big pot of gumbo in the sky, Chef.”