Until he reopened for regular business, Rawlston Williams served from his Navy Yard kitchen.
Photo: Malike Sidibe
In February, six weeks before COVID-19 forced the city to close, Rawlston Williams moved his Crown Heights Caribbean restaurant, Sermon Food, to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We talked to him on the telephone in the new room, where he did catering work while preparing to reopen in mid-July.
How did you end up in the new food hall at Building 77?
Navy Yard approached us with handwritten notes and on Instagram, but I completely ignored them. Then I got an email from the City Council: “Hey, Rawlston, please call us. We have the opportunity for you. “I thought they wanted me to cook breakfast or something. I called expecting a catering order, and they were like,” Hey, the Navy Yard has been trying to contact you. “I hung up, and I called my brother.” Isn’t this crazy? real estate outside the City Council! “
Why were you initially so resistant?
Before I went to culinary school, I studied theology. Owning a restaurant is not my dream. The Rogers Avenue location was originally a catering kitchen. We started to earn a lot press and become popular, and people come hoping to sit down. So I adjusted the kitchen – made it smaller, moved the table, brought a few more chairs so people could sit, which I didn’t want at all.
What changes your mind?
My brother said, “Just call and see.” We met with them, and when we left and returned, I told him, “I think they made a mistake.” This kind of thing does not happen to us. That was surprising – the City Council, Navy Yard, a 1,200-square-foot kitchen where I could do catering and retailing and make my hot sauce too.
How is the opening?
It never was a gentle opening – from day one, he was busy all the way. We haven’t even started shipping yet. Building 77 is 16 floors; I have a built-in customer base. I was amazed at the fact that I made about two and a half times the amount of money only at lunch when I was at Rogers.
Why did you change to mediocre format, reverse service and close the original Food Sermon?
It was very clear that we needed to spin. I need more volume. I have to be able to shuffle faster. At Rogers, it feels like going to Grandma’s house and preparing your meal and just hanging out. Here, the quality of the food is the same, and is made every day, but we didn’t order it. You choose the basics – brown rice, white rice, or salad – and then you choose protein, two sides, and sauce. Almost like Chipotle vibration. Everything must go.
How did your old customers react?
Some people will say, “Yes, you’ve sold out,” or “you’ve changed,” or what you have. It stings a little because we care a lot. But, you know, whether I do this this way or the business will die. More people respond positively than not.
You are still closed, but with the new format and without a seat, you can stay open for takeout and delivery. Why not?
When COVID happens, I have to see my employees and realize that they travel to the office every day. We have one employee who has two children, one has three, one has four. What do we do by letting them come here? One day, March 16, our list dropped to $ 300. So I was, like, okay, is it necessary to do all this with everyone who is risking exposure? We are allowed to stay open, but to me, just being permitted doesn’t mean it’s true. And I do not understand fully about contactless matters: How to contactless? You give it to a man who might take the virus seriously or not; he might wear gloves or not.
Does the pandemic affect you personally?
I lost about five people. One of them is my godfather. He reaches out; he knew he would leave. The landscape has changed. It feels like the world is over. Nobody really weighs that much except the way you are connected to each other. That’s all you have – it’s almost like you made soup and you threw away any excess water and now the water is boiled to be the essence of what it is.
How do you spend your time during closing?
Yes, when I was not too stressed by everything that happened, I was working on my book. Phaidon has this cooking Bible – Japanese, American, Nordic, Cuban books, Mexican books. I’m working on the Caribbean version.
You moved from St. Vincent and the Grenadines to East Flatbush when you are 10 years old.
I came to Brooklyn in September 1987, the culmination of the AIDS epidemic. My first experience with segregation was in fifth grade, when Haitians were placed in different classes. There is a Haitian Creole class. If you are from Russia, even if you don’t speak the slightest English, you are put in a public class and you will find out when you continue. That makes no sense to me.
And as you get older?
For me, coming from the Caribbean, this is an educational experience. Growing up, I have never really seen race. We see more class. I never really realized that I was black until I came to America. Here, maybe I experienced racism, but I never noticed because it wasn’t something I was looking for. My eyes are not trained for it. There is a children’s rhyme: “Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been? / I’ve been to London to visit the queen. “In London, you have Buckingham Palace, you have Big Ben, all of that. But what did the cat see? He saw rats under the chair because that’s what they were looking for. It doesn’t matter where the cat is; he will always look for mice, As a child, I remember passing Lord & Taylor and my friend would say, “Hey, they are following us.” I would be like, “Who is following us?” “The officers followed us as if we were going to steal something. “And I have never seen him, but he will be very angry. And as time goes by, my eyes start to be attracted to him. Or even when someone comes to the Rogers location and they are like,” Oh, black! “, Because at first everyone thought that we just worked there, it took a while to actually get it: Oh, yes! I am Black, and I own that place. Now I see the importance of that.
Which one exactly?
Many things we do are often overlooked. Even when having to have a Caribbean cookbook: In my mind I like, OK, they like to eat food, but they don’t like to talk about it. They don’t want to write about that. Never got a lot of press. Some of the food and the way it is done in tradition – This is not pretty food. That’s not glamorous. You use this edge or the back. We use materials that might be removed by your slave owner or your invaders or whatever. Now you have used it and turned it into something delicious. It’s not our fault that the tail of a cow or the back of a chicken is not pretty enough. But it’s delicious, right?
With the recent Black Lives Matter protest, do you imagine things changing?
I am rather optimistic that we will all recognize that some of the systems we have set are really just props or kickstand to make us feel like we are upright, but when they persist to be observed, they fail. I always feel protesting is a waste of time. It’s like going down to the basement and punching a fist bag. This is the way to vent, you know? I have never really seen a real change because I always see with every protest that police or wrongdoers are still coming down. As black people, we always lose. That is another reason why, even when the Navy called us, I kept saying, This kind of thing doesn’t happen to black people, so I won’t bother. Why do they call me just to waste time? I’m always waiting for someone to pull out the rug and be like, “Haha! Kidding about you “
But this time feels different?
Oh, yes. This is different. Can not be denied. It seems like no one can control it; You cannot decrease the volume. At other times, it looks like you can get distractions and turn down the volume. Here, you cannot. It’s like we’re at the top of everything: a pandemic, and Mr. Floyd, and who we have as leaders and created climate. This is an ulcer that will only break. People say the system is broken. Not. I think it operates in a regulated manner. It is not broken. We need to break it.
* This article appears in the June 22, 2020 issue New York Magazine. Subscribe now!
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