Douglass Williams is many things — including one of Boston’s only black chef-owners — but he just wants to be great
“You look great, come on in.”
This invitation is lettered on the glass door of MIDA, directly below the restaurant’s name. Positivity, acceptance, and welcome are so much a part of chef Douglass Williams’s brand, he’s inscribed them on the entrance of the Italian restaurant he opened in 2016. On a corner of Tremont Street in the South End, it is located on the Roxbury side of Mass. Ave., where the two neighborhoods mingle before going their separate ways. Straddling borders is also part of Williams’s brand.
“That, 200 yards over from the real, established South End, is a gray area,” he says. “It’s tan, it’s my color, it’s a rainbow, it’s all of these things. It’s a bridge.”
This is Williams, at the intersection of many things: The son of a Syrian-Lebanese mother and an African-American father. A father to 16-month-old twins. A convert to Judaism, his wife’s faith. A survivor of Crohn’s disease. An ambitious businessman equally intent on expanding his culinary footprint and giving back to the city he’s made his home since 2006.
He is also one of Boston’s only black male chefs working in fine dining, and perhaps the only chef-owner. (Before MIDA, he worked at Radius and Michelin-starred restaurants in New York and Paris, among others.) This isn’t what he wants to be known for, but it is important.
“I just want to be great,” he says. “I want to be a great businessman and server of hospitality. Eighty percent [of the customers at MIDA] don’t know it’s owned by a black gentleman, and they don’t have to.”
But for those who need to see it, it’s there. The opening image on the restaurant’s website is of Williams’s extended hands, brown skin set against a pink backdrop. He is a frequent presence in the dining room, a wide smile on his face, circulating from table to table to meet his guests, to make a connection. “Every time, people of color call me over,” he says. “This is so important for some people that this is even a thing. The fact that it’s a thing is embarrassing, but it’s special for people, and they want to make sure I’m the one who owns it. They are excited about it.”
In this city, there are just so few people who look like him in his position. “As vibrant as the Boston restaurant scene is, it remains highly segregated,” says lawyer Daniel P. Dain, a managing member of the Restaurant Investment Group, which works with up-and-coming chefs to open restaurants, MIDA among them. “There are not African-Americans who help run these kitchens. African-American neighborhoods in Boston are both under-restauranted and under-licensed.” Williams has a full liquor license, a key asset in terms of profitability.
“It’s great we have one Douglass Williams in the city, but we start to accomplish something if we have multiple Douglass Williamses in many neighborhoods,” Dain says. “Who are the next generation of African-American chefs coming up who are going to open their own restaurants? Douglass is a great role model.”
A journey of joy and pain
Williams, 35, grew up in Atlantic City, a place where money goes in and out like the tide but rarely comes to those who live there. “It’s all poverty,” he says. “The only free thing to do was go to the beach. I walked on the boardwalk, I rode my little bike. Being in the sun and being a beach baby, you couldn’t ask for a better childhood.”
He lived two blocks from the ocean with his mother, who worked for 26 years as a server at a casino. That’s where she met his father, also a chef, from a large Pentecostal family. At home, Williams ate the Lebanese and Syrian dishes his mother prepared for him; with his extended family, it was church and big Sunday dinners and then more church. His father left when Williams was 6, then came back into his life just as Williams was graduating from high school. Today they are close and talk on the phone every day. “I lost all those years, learning to throw a ball and do the right thing, all the father things,” Williams says. “It was very hard for me. But it helped me focus on Mom and do what I needed to do.”
Williams’s mother learned she had breast cancer when he was 10. She had a double mastectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy, and kept on working. “Trying to live for me, that was her religion. There was a lot of pressure in that,” he says. “I was not doing all that well in school. I felt bad asking my mom to help do my homework. She wanted to rest and relax. Any boyfriend she had was a piece of [expletive]. She had me when she was 40. She was not a spring chicken.” She passed away four years ago, at 69.
He was also facing his own health challenges. In his senior year of high school, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, and underwent surgery. He would lie in bed watching international cooking competition the Bocuse d’Or on television, dreaming of one day going to Paris.
He was determined to heal, determined to get off medication. He followed the Crohn’s-friendly specific carbohydrate diet — no grains, no gluten, and low sugars and lactose, among other restrictions — after reading about it in a book called “Breaking the Vicious Cycle,” by Elaine Gottschall. He had wanted to be a teacher, but college didn’t seem like a possibility at the time. He enrolled in culinary school. He couldn’t eat much of the food he was learning to prepare. He would taste it, then spit it out.
Gradually he began to realize there was something else behind his Crohn’s flare-ups: stress. When he calmed himself down, he felt physically better. “I closed my eyes and pretended I was floating in the air and floating in the sky. I didn’t worry about anything. I thought: Maybe I should try doing that all the time.” He had to let go of a lot: his mother’s illness, his father’s departure, the things that were beyond his control. He trained himself to do it. “Months went by, and every time I worried about [something], I’d say I’m not going to worry about it. I’d think about or do something else.”
It worked. His condition began to improve. He was able to eat more. He stopped taking medication. He’s now been in remission for about eight years and can eat whatever he wants. “It’s all because of me being able to realize what’s important,” he says.
Fatherhood helps with perspective, too. In 2008, he met his wife, Debra, on the dance floor at Middlesex. They now have twin sons, Lev and Raffa. The head of advertising at Citizens Bank, she grew up Jewish in Nova Scotia, where her mother was the first woman to be appointed lieutenant governor. Williams had always felt an affinity between black culture and Jewish culture: “There’s a deeper sense of self and family,” he says. After studying Judaism twice a week for two years, Williams converted when the boys were born. If the two sides of his own family had been divided culturally and religiously, he would give his sons a cohesive upbringing.
Seeing the possibility
In the decade before opening MIDA, Williams worked at acclaimed restaurants Radius, Coppa, and Ventuno in Nantucket. He spent time cooking in Thailand. His resume includes stints at Michelin-starred restaurants Corton in New York and Akrame in Paris. It’s the kind of experience that tends to get notice, but until now, Williams has largely flown under the radar.
That has been painful. “It’s kind of like the dad thing. You feel, ‘How come they don’t want me?,’ ” he says.
That MIDA got off to an uneven start didn’t help. “I thought people wanted a constantly changing menu, something new every time they came back. I was trying to keep up with doing that,” he says. Ingredients were hyperseasonal; the menu was reinvented daily. There was no time to work out inconsistencies. It was a challenge to train staff properly. The Globe gave the restaurant a mixed review.
It was the best thing that could have happened, Williams says. Without it, he might have been out of business in another four to five months. Instead, he took it to heart. It helped him understand how the restaurant needed to change. His customers didn’t want novelty, he realized. They wanted quality and consistency. Today MIDA is thriving, with a friendly local scene, all-you-can-eat house-made pasta on Mondays, a bar where strangers soon become fast friends, and a menu where nothing costs more than $26. It feels fueled by a spirit of generosity. (“Mi da” means “he gives me” in Italian.) When there are construction workers outside, Williams brings them biscotti and espresso. He seems to know everyone in the neighborhood: the founder of gift shop Olives & Grace, the guy behind the counter at Billy’s Sub Shop.
“I want it to feel like a real community. It should feel like family. I know it sounds dreamy and not typical, but there’s no limit on what is possible with this neighborhood,” he says. “There are 100 brownstones up for interpretation and curation. Go ahead, make my day. Why can’t it be awesome, why can’t it be diverse? That’s up to people providing exposure,” as he is doing with the little Italian restaurant on the corner.
Momentum is starting to build for Williams. He competed on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” last year. MIDA recently won the title of “Best Pasta” in Boston Magazine’s annual “Best of Boston” awards. New projects are on the horizon: chief among them a concept called APIZZA that will serve New Haven-style and Roman-style pizza beginning this fall, as part of the Hub on Causeway’s upcoming food hall near North Station.
“I’m just going to keep trying,” he says. “I don’t stop. I always push forward. I always want more. Not for ego. My mom, what she put into me, what she sacrificed — my life only exists because she literally worked herself to death to keep me away from bad [stuff]. Now I owe that back, not just to myself but the younger me’s.”
He’s worked with the Shah Family Foundation, getting fresh food into Boston Public Schools. He’s on the board of ambassadors at the Steppingstone Foundation, which helps underserved students achieve academic success. More than food and cooking, he wants to teach kids about entrepreneurship, with its endless possibilities.
If his fifth-grade teacher hadn’t taught the class how to shake hands and introduce themselves, he says, he doesn’t know where he would be. He wants to do something similar for the children of Boston. “I barely made it, not by gunshots, but not having information is just as bad as being around guns,” he says. “Being the one to interject in someone’s life that this is possible, this can happen with your wisdom, upbringing, heart, soul, desire — all these words that speak to young people that never heard them, saying that to them for the first time, it changes them for life. That’s what’s special to me, even more than food, the restaurant, all that. I am the luckiest guy in the world to be able to do that.”
He became a teacher after all.