Wil­liams

The Commercial Appeal - - Busi­ness -

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.”

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