CHEF, INTERRUPTED: Rawlston Williams Grows His Congregation

New York magazine|June 22-July 5, 2020

CHEF, INTERRUPTED: Rawlston Williams Grows His Congregation
The Food Sermon chef has a new location, a book deal, and a built-in clientele.
ROBIN RAISFELD AND ROB PATRONITE

IN FEBRUARY, six weeks before covid-19 forced the city to shut down, Rawlston Williams transplanted his Crown Heights Caribbean restaurant, the Food Sermon, to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We spoke to him by phone at the new space, where he’s been doing catering jobs while gearing up to reopen in mid-July.

How did you end up in the new food hall at Building 77? The Navy Yard approached us with a handwritten note and on Instagram, but I totally ignored them. Then I got an email from the City Council: “Hey, Rawlston, please give us a call. We have an opportunity for you.” I thought they wanted me to cook breakfast or something. I called expecting a catering order, and they were like, “Hey, the Navy Yard has been trying to reach you.” I got off the phone, and I called my brother. “Isn’t this crazy? They’re hawking real estate out of the City Council!”

What changed your mind? My brother said, “Just call and see.” We met with them, and as we’re leaving and driving home, I told him, “I think they made a mistake.” This kind of thing doesn’t happen to us. It was a shock—City Council, Navy Yard, 1,200-square-foot kitchen where I could do catering and retail and manufacture my hot sauce as well.

How did the opening go? I was marveling at the fact that I was making about two and a half times the amount of money just at lunch as I was at the Rogers Avenue location. Building 77 is 16 stories; I had a built-in customer base.

Why did you change to a fast-casual format and close the original Food Sermon? I needed more volume. I needed to be able to churn things out quicker. I was doing plated food at a certain price, but it wasn’t sustainable. Here, the food quality is the same, but we’re not making it to order. You pick your base—brown rice, white rice, or salad—and then you pick your protein, two sides, and a sauce. Almost like a Chipotle vibe. Everything is to go.

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June 22-July 5, 2020