Erick Williams could probably live just about anywhere in the city he wants. The 41-year-old is the highly praised executive chef at MK, a restaurant located in Chicago’s River North neighborhood and once rated by Conde Naste Traveler as one of the hottest restaurants in the world.
He oversees the preparation of three-course lunch specials like salad lyonnaise — a dish comprising netsuke bacon, sherry vinaigrette and a poached egg nestled atop a bed of frisbee lettuce — that go for $48 a person. The wine isn’t included.
Williams has also garnered praise within and outside the culinary world. The Chicago Tribune once desribed him as “refreshingly down-to-earth, as unassuming as his restaurant’s lower-case lettering suggests.”
When he leaves work, Williams drives west in his Chrysler 300, passing “a mix of restored graystones and empty lots where dilapidated homes sat before they were demolished by the city,” according to a March 21 profile of Williams in Crain’s Chicago Business, and parks the car in front of a “two-story, red-brick single family home.”
“This is Lawndale,” the Crain’s profile announces, “one of the city’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. It’s also where he lived until he was [nine].”
Williams shares a home with his expectant wife Tiffany, a charter school principal, and he’s living a life his teenager self somewhat stumbled upon.
Ari Bendersky’s Crain’s report relays a chance encounter that saved the would-be chef’s life. Before then, Williams was a “teenager living in Austin [where] he sold drugs, had brushes with the police and was arrested.”
The year was 1996.
“He was walking down the street when he passed a man sweeping in front of the Hudson Club in River North,” Bendersky writes.
“A voice in his head told him to ask if they were hiring. He kept walking, music pulsing through his headphones. Williams heard that voice two more times before turning around to inquire about work.”
The voice in his head led him into an opportunity with the now-defunct Hudson Club as a worker at salad and appetizer stations. After working briefly at another restaurant, his paths aligned with MK’s owner, Michael Kornick, in 1998.
That was then. Now, Williams and Kornick have launched another establishment, County Barbecue on Taylor Street, and MK’s protege can be seen in Facebook photos hugged up with culinary icons like Alice Waters and the late Charlie Trotter — the latter with whom Williams shares a particular affinity for exposing inner-city youth to fine-dining.
Williams regularly brings dozens of young people from the West and South Sides into his River North kitchen, teaching them knife-handling skills and treating them to meals of “roasted chicken and potatoes, sautéed spinach and Caesar salad.”
And when those meals are over, Williams doesn’t part ways with the youth of his neighborhood. He and them go in the same direction—west.
“I could move anywhere I want, but if everyone who has resources leaves the neighborhood, it wouldn’t have any resources,” Williams told Bendersky. “My wife and I are successful, and I think it’s necessary for people who are successful to be in the environment to help offer a glimmer of hope.”
To read the full Crain’s profile, click here.