The second in a series of stories in which restaurateurs and chefs reflect on their businesses — and their lives — one year into the pandemic.
For MIDA’s Douglass Williams, 2020 was a watershed year: He was named one of the 10 Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine and a James Beard: Best Chef Northeast semi-finalist.
As one of Boston’s few Black chef-owners in fine dining and a culinary philanthropist, it was also a year — of protest, of loss, of reckoning — that brought his passion and mission into even sharper focus.
He first heard about the pandemic during a Canadian vacation with his family. Things had been going well: His South End business was on solid ground (“we’d had a rough first year, but the next two years, we were beating our numbers,” he says); he was also planning an expansion to Newtonville.
But by March, MIDA had to shut down. Williams was able to obtain loans, but he was worried about his employees.
“Most people in restaurants are not financially secure,” he says. “So my partner, Seth Gerber, and I decided to do a pasta drive. I had flour. I had a pasta machine. We had tons. All the money went to vulnerable employees,” he says.
Meanwhile, through Jose Andres’s World Central Kitchen, his team began delivering meals to frontline health care workers.
“It got us back in the game and brought back people. We didn’t lay anyone off. We were making thousands of lunches for hospital workers every week, and it was sustaining us,” he says.
There was also uncertainty. A long-planned pizzeria in Hub Hall, a food hall adjacent to TD Garden that presumably relied on heavy foot traffic and hungry crowds, was suddenly at a standstill. So was hiring. Ovens and a $10,000 mixer sat unused.
“You can’t have 700 people in one spot,” he says. “But in Newton, they hadn’t stopped construction — they were working the whole time. That kept us going and gave us some hope.”
On the ground floor of a residential complex, the Newton branch of MIDA will be double the size of the Tremont Street original, with two patios. No private events here.
“If you depend on that, you’re screwed,” Williams says. “We’re depending on what we’re good at: cuisine, community, outreach, and hospitality. That will always ring true.”
He says that volunteering was a source of grounding during the turbulence. Williams is on the board of the Steppingstone Foundation, which provides academic, college readiness, and social-emotional programming to kids from marginalized communities.
“It helps kids who need a leg up in their personal lives and also in their family’s socioeconomic lives to get through college and out of college,” he says. He also works with About Fresh, which delivers fresh food on retrofitted school buses to neighborhoods in need, many without easy retail access, throughout Boston.
So, yeah. He’s tired. He’s really busy. In a strange way, though, this year was a respite and a rebirth.
“I’m 36. Just now, I’ve been able to let people manage my managers. It’s the first time I’ve been able to do for others. My was head down, training. This was the first time in my entire career that I could do more. I couldn’t wait. I wanted to use what I could to help. I don’t have dollars, but I do have my hands and my voice,” he says. “I wish I were more balanced, but it’s not about being balanced right now. I can do that when I’m 50.”