Douglass Williams and the Art of Doing What You Love

The Boston-based chef gathered inspiration from a diverse background, an unexpected illness, and his mom

Last fall, my sister and I sat on the patio at MIDA, Douglass Williams’ Italian restaurant in Boston, blocks away from Frederick Douglass Square Historic District. Though it was typical frigid New England weather, when the server delivered our dishes — piping hot arancini, perfectly crisped polenta, and a sinfully rich carbonara — we forgot our aversion to the chill.

Douglass Williams, a multiracial chef of Syrian, Lebanese, and Black heritage, displays cultural curiosity and ingenuity in the kitchen; he’s also one of Boston’s only Black fine-dining chef-owners. This past year, especially difficult for anyone in the restaurant industry, Williams was named a Food & Wine’s Best New Chef and a James Beard “Best Chef: Northeast” semifinalist: two of many accolades that follow years of exploration and personal discovery. 

Williams was born and raised in Atlantic City. Childhood memories of bright life along the beach, fresh orange juice, and hand-picked produce informed Williams’ youth. His mother, Rosalie D. Ebya, was a Syrian Lebanese home cook, painter, and artist, who introduced Douglass to spices and flavors from her heritage. Williams’ father moved to California when Douglass was a boy but made sure to introduce his son to the flavors and rich heritage of Black American cooking. 

“The first thing I got to see growing up was being in a very mixed space of children,” Williams told me over the phone. “That culture made me who I am. It made me be a young Black man. My mom, obviously, not being of the Black culture, but still of this warmth in the Middle Eastern culture, which I think aligns very much so with the Black culture. I was able to get that warmth from both cultures, and that was very deep to me, and still influences me to this moment.”

His father’s long-distance left him with questions about his Black identity, but it also forced him to reckon with his understanding of his own life and the world quickly. When his mother began bringing Williams into the garden and kitchen, she was nurturing what was to become his passion.

“I got to experience what real cooking was,” said Williams. “I got to see her growing her own tomatoes and growing her own cucumbers and things for lamb stew and green beans and eggplants and all the things that really let you dive into Mediterranean cuisine, and that’s where I really started to connect to not just what I could do in the kitchen, but who I am, and what that means, and why it’s important.”

As Williams began falling in love with food and cooking, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease; he went through surgery to remove six inches of intestines and was forced to become more aware of what he was eating, and how it impacted his body. 

His mom also weighed in. “She said, you know what, I'm not going to stress. We're going to take the medicine as they say, as long as it's not steroids. And we're going to figure this out.”

His mother began making her own ketchup, she developed her own candies using honey, and she began buying nut flour, which had to be specially ordered from Pennsylvania. As Williams managed his new condition, he began to see the deeper significance of food, and the symphony that happens when food comes from love and care.

He says he also began to develop more culinary dexterity. “I had more finesse and more touch. That’s when I started to realize that that’s what cooking was. I imagine it’s the same way you think about music. It’s composing beauty.”

After high school, Williams went to culinary school at The Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College; his mom saved every penny to get him into school, a venture that would ultimately lead to travels to Thailand, to Paris, to New York City. And he got a grant.

“A thousand dollars a year to go out and travel the world? How could I not do that?” he says.

Since Williams’ culinary school was close to home, it allowed him to stay connected to his mother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Yet his mother, who died a couple of years ago, was eager for Williams to focus on new opportunities; through her support, Williams found something he hadn’t fully experienced yet: freedom.

“I remember getting there, and it just gave me this feeling of freedom,” says Williams. “I was around kids my age doing dope stuff. I got to live this freedom that I never lived. It was like, this is what I want to do.”

Williams traveled around the world, studying and working in kitchens in Southeast Asia, in New York, in Paris. He built his culinary palate and fell in love with the freedom of cooking, and the connections it offered to new cultures. He eventually moved to Boston. 

As an experienced cook with an understanding of Middle Eastern, Thai, and other global cuisines, he moved around and adapted to new kitchens and cuisines. His first Boston restaurant job was as a pizza shop manager, opening him up to the wonders of Italian cuisine.

“I loved slinging pies,” he says. “I realized I needed to start being real.”

Early on in Williams’ care, cooking was about his soul, not how the world perceived him. He didn’t believe in the constraints placed on chefs of color, and he didn’t believe that his work should be boxed in because of the world’s understanding of race and identity.

“I never thought of myself as a Black chef,” says Williams. “I was just cooking, I was absolutely cooking my heart out.”

Williams found that being identified as a Black chef often comes with its own set of boxes. Visitors expect him to cook a certain cuisine or offer a certain dining experience. Williams considers himself a chef that cooks various types of food, reflecting his personal background and journey through the world.

“For me, I need to do the whole thing because I need to love it,” says Williams. “I can never take my Blackness off, and I’m happy about that; I love that. But I can take my chef’s coat off. I can be and do different things in my profession.”

His interests led him to Italian cooking. It meant making pasta every single day, and he loved it. He loved the way the flour felt on his fingers. He loved cutting shapes. He loved crafting new sauces. And he, quite simply, loved the food he produced. And it hit him. “I said, let’s do pasta. I love to do it. Let's do it.”

Williams has changed Boston’s South End neighborhood. His style of cooking respects the traditions of Italian cooks while paying homage to his roots and experiences. Diners of all backgrounds gather around bowls of fresh bucatini, lightly roasted carrots, and comforting short rib lasagna. The restaurant and its success have challenged narratives about what it means to be a Black chef and who makes that decision. Williams hopes that young Black cooks and creatives can see that, too.

“I’m a Black man. Everything that I do, everything the way I see myself, I’m a Black person of color,” he says. “I feel blessed and honored: And if I can use that, use who I am to inspire, to motivate… that ultimately is the most important thing.”