This year’s list of the 10 Best New Chefs in America from Food & Wine includes a local favorite: Douglass Williams, the pioneering chef-owner behind South End Italian restaurant, MIDA.
The magazine released the 32nd annual roundup publicly on Tuesday morning. But Williams heard about the prestigious award much earlier, in February — only a few weeks before the world was turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. Even today, it feels “pretty darn good,” he said via phone on Monday. “Not just for me singularly, but for the city and the public, too.”
Winners in the same category will be featured in the magazine’s July issue.
The honor fulfills a lifelong dream. Williams remembers thinking about awards like this as a teenager in Atlantic City.
“It’s like not being able to wake up from a dream you actually want to stay in,” he said. “You have to have an incredibly, almost inhuman amount of optimism in your body and on your team to run a restaurant even for three to four years, to say ‘I did that.’ But then to do it during this and to have such a great award, to put this little corner of Mass Ave. and Tremont on the map, is incredible.”
Williams is representing New England and, of course, Boston on the list. As one of the few local Black chef-owners in fine dining, his success is especially significant. Yet he rarely focuses on himself. Rather, he credits the people and neighborhoods — Roxbury and the South End — that make his business a reality.
“It’s a huge region to represent and to make proud," he said. “Shout-out to all the people who trained me and also the people down the street. Those are the people that made me who I am.”
Still, it’s difficult to indulge in the joys of the award while the pandemic rages on, said Williams. “It’s a Catch-22 to talk about it, because it feels self-absorbent,” he explained. “This time is about humility and solidarity. Enjoying the award is the opposite of what you feel like you should be doing.”
MIDA is at the forefront of crisis-era volunteerism, helping provide nearly 3,000 meals a week to health care workers during the pandemic through the nonprofit Off Their Plate. The restaurant’s dine-in operations have been halted since mid-March, but takeout service begins this Thursday.
Williams has worked at acclaimed spots in New York, Paris, Portland, Maine, and Nantucket. Boston has been his home since 2006, and he opened MIDA in 2016. Williams also competed on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” in 2018.
His ongoing endeavors — a new concept at Hub Hall and a project in Newtonville — are “on pause” indefinitely. For the time being, Williams will spend a lot of time with his family and tread forward on what is still a hazy path into a new reality.
“The future is so complicated and uncertain,” he said. “But in a nutshell, it’s about using this award as a catapult to bring attention to this neighborhood and what we are doing here.”