Douglass Williams is known for MIDA, the lauded Italian restaurants located in the South End and now in Newtonville. In January, he was nominated as a semi-finalist in the Best Chef: Northeast category for the prestigious James Beard Awards. (Finalists will be announced in March.) In 2022, he was a James Beard outstanding chef semi-finalist; in 2020, he was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in America.
I caught up with him far from the kitchen, while he was about to go skiing, to talk about his Jewish family (he converted to Judaism when his kids were born) and how it relates to his culinary ethos.
Does Judaism influence your outlook on your cooking?
My mom’s Syrian Lebanese. My dad’s Black—very Pentecostal, church several days a week, choir practice on Saturdays and Wednesday. My mother was not as thrilled about me doing that all the time. She tried to balance me out: “It’s good to do that, but I don’t want you to be completely absorbed by that.” She kept me in balance.
My wife, Debra, is a Jewish woman. [I saw] her being around her family, obviously eating food and learning about the holidays and traditions and striving to stay close, even when it’s not convenient. Imagine being a sidekick, right? I’d be looking, watching someone plan, [seeing the] necessity for that and the importance of making those plans work. That was my introduction into the beginnings of Jewish life—trying to make it work and striving to be together, even if it’s not convenient for you or always the most affordable. They’re from Canada, and then her brother lives in London and her other brother lives in Toronto. We live in Boston. It’s never been easy from a logistical standpoint. There’s always been a lot of planning.
But what I see is the importance in that struggle and the importance—that necessity—to come together and what that means for them. You see recipes aren’t remembered as they thought they were. The specifics of certain ways that their Bubbe did it. It’s not about the food being so good. It’s not about her latkes being the best, or the gravlax, or whatever the main part of the dinner is or what they love to make the most. It’s not about it being good or bad or this or that. It’s that you’re together and eating it.
The constant emphasis on that point is probably of the highest relevance. I compare Black culture and Jewish culture together a lot because of, obviously, the oppression in a lot of ways, whether recent or in the distant past, in the scope of 500 years and thousands of years. The desire, necessity and the urge and the longing to be together and the importance of just sitting around a table, no matter how big or small, is the point.
How does Jewishness affect your approach to hospitality overall?
Thank goodness, I’ve already had that baked in somewhat from my great-grandmother and my grandmother. Up until a year ago, they were still alive. They just actually passed. My great-grandmother was 101. She was born in 1919; like 2020, this was significant, with influenza and the ending of World War I, right? There was a renaissance that my great-grandmother was coming up in. And I got to hear this. Sharecropping was kind of a dilution slavery. She would give stories; she would tell us about it. She was very cognizant and awake and alive. I got to live that and feel that and breathe that and know that and taste it, also. I think there’s a lot of that in Jewish culture as well, that you get to taste that sort of … it’s not a pain or a struggle, but it’s just an importance.
When that gets translated to you in an emotional way or a food way, or all the ways … I think it automatically evolves into appreciation, and appreciation when you have your family around turns into love and welcomeness and acceptance. If a friend comes along that you didn’t expect, it’s like: “Of course I have enough for one more or two more.” Honestly, it’s that baseline level of generosity. This is what MIDA means. Debra was the one who found the word I was looking for—two words—“He gives me.”
I wondered: How could I put this into a proposal or business plan? An investment guy sees generosity, and it’s like, “This first-time restaurant guy is trying to give it away. He’s trying to give bread out the back or something!” I had to figure out a way that this would make business sense. How do you write the whole story on how to train and build up a restaurant and a culture around the generosity piece? I feel like the culture part was the easy part, in my opinion. When a guest walks in the door, it’s how you greet them. It’s how you say goodbye. It’s how you price the food. It’s how you pour the wine. It just has to be warm.
It’s applying what I think of when walking into your bubbe’s house, right? All you’re looking for is consistency. You want the same food you had last year, and the year before, and the year before that, when you were a little girl and when I was a little boy. You just want to relive that warmth. I think that no matter who walks through that door, Jewish, Black or otherwise, generosity transcends all that.
What’s your favorite thing that you’re making right now? What do you love?
I’m just excited to talk to people and make people smile. The whole point of people coming in is to really get them to laugh and/or cry. With every speech that I do and with every talk that I’ve been trying to do more of, I try to get the emotions running. I’m trying to make up for two years of lost emotions for everybody. I think the food almost is somewhat secondary and kind of a follow-up to what we’re actually trying to do, and what we’re trying to provide and give and serve.
But food-wise? When people do sit down? Honestly, I think the lasagna has taken on a life of its own. People are still in comfort mode in a way. We’re doing tasting menus, and we’re still being adventurous in all the ways. But lasagna seems to be that really strange thing that we didn’t actually come up with ‘til COVID. It’s been our breakout hit.