Greg Baxtrom's Brooklyn restaurant Maison Yaki has been made available to black food professionals for a series of two-week pop-ups. The initiative offers them the platform to showcase their culinary skills and food philosophies, and allows them to enrich the local community with a true and representative expression of its food identity.
Third up in The Black Entrepreneur Pop-Up series, Michelle Williams of Good IV the Soul Catering, who will takeover Maison Yaki from 5 to 16 August.
Brooklyn born and raised, Michelle Williams says she can't wait to take over Maison Yaki this month, when she'll finally get the chance to let the world taste her food. Menu highlights include fried chicken, salmon burgers, buttermilk chicken sandwiches, seafood boils, candied yams and a whole lot more. Watch out for the smac n' cheese, she giggles, "we definitely make it better than anywhere else."
Much like Flatbush, the multicultural melting pot in which Williams grew up, she doesn't define her cooking by any one place or influence. "It's not just soul food or southern food," she says. "It's food so good it'll make you want to lick your fingers and dance."
For Williams, cooking is all about embracing diversity. In fact, she struggles to name a signature dish. "My influence came from my upbringing. Seeing a variety of cuisines, from Middle Eastern to Caribbean and Asian, allowed me to incorporate those cultures," she says. Although Williams' grandparents hailed from the south, she represents where she's from, and she's cooking food from almost every culture. She's all about pouring love into her food and doling out happiness on a plate. "My biggest compliment is when someone says 'wow, that tastes like home, like my mother's cooking'," she says.
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Growing up in a single parent household, and cooking for her siblings, Williams nurtured dreams of becoming a child psychologist. But the irresistible scent of freshly-baked bread and culinary delights wafting from the kitchen lab at New York City College of Technology soon tempted her over to hospitality management. Telling her mother she wanted to change her major and going all in was the best thing that ever happened to her. "This is my passion and purpose in life," she says. The rest, as they say, is history.
Fresh out of school with a BA in applied science and hospitality management, Williams launched straight into a demanding hospitality career. At just 23 years old she was supervising four kitchens in Manhattan. But she knew that wasn't enough. She wanted to give back.
She's since taught Culinary Arts to high-school students in what she refers to as very rewarding decade, where she has been able to motivate young people to reach and achieve their dreams and aspirations, and give them the opportunities that she never had growing up. "Those kids are my joy. Waking up every day knowing that I'm going to see them is what drives me and keeps me going."
The recent citywide lockdown gave Williams and her brother the prompt they needed to take her catering business, Good IV the Soul Catering, more seriously.
For two months her home kitchen became the neighbourhood hub of delicious. Serving up a changing menu selection only further highlighted her natural flair for versatility in the kitchen. "My mother tells me I have gifted hands, because literally I can take something and create it," she says. She started off cooking what people wanted, from a Valentines' menu and a popular Chinese dinner, to a taste of Italy menu, and The Father's Day Hungry Man meal. She even had Greg Baxtrom drop by.
To get where she is now is testament to her persistence, an attribute that she feels allowed her to land this opportunity. Cooking in this pop-up series, which she calls her "proudest moment", has finally given her a chance to shine. And one day, she hopes to have a number of her own restaurants.
"It means the world to me, I'm stoked about it. To receive such a prestigious opportunity, it's been a long time coming. I've been working a long time by myself to operate the business, so to finally get some notice... Just having support, gaining knowledge and being able to showcase my gift is something that I will always appreciate."
And if this pop up series is about highlighting black entrepreneurs and re-distributing privilege, nobody embodies the spirit of it better than Brooklyn native, Michelle Williams.