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Chef Erick Williams ‘coaches’ Hyde Park’s Virtue Restaurant like a team

Erick Williams sees himself as more of a coach than a chef when he’s at his Hyde Park restaurant.

“My philosophy is that I haven’t had anyone work for me in 10 years, and that’s why I embrace the whole concept of a team and coaching,” said Williams, executive chef and owner of Virtue Restaurant, 1462 E. 53rd St.

“You have a few stars on the [cooking] line, and you have to mold the team around those stars and prepare the team for when those stars are absent or graduate.”

Fried green tomatoes with shrimp and remoulade sauce at Virtue restaurant. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Fried green tomatoes with shrimp and remoulade sauce at Virtue restaurant. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Like a coach, Williams — one of Chicago’s most prominent African-American chefs in fine dining — is always encouraging his staff to take it up a notch. He’s relentlessly demanding but will go out of his way to help if he senses that someone is struggling.

“[My kitchen] is kind and it’s a protective safe space, but it’s a challenging space. We don’t back away from pushing people to be better today than they were yesterday, and that goes for me too,” he said.

Williams, the former executive chef of the now closed MK Restaurant in River North, is a current partner of County BBQ in University Village. A notable presence in the industry, he’s given back throughout the years by helping those in need, especially local kids. Focused on opportunities and not obstacles, Williams found a way to open Virtue in November within a remarkable 104 days.

The basketball aficionado, who describes himself as “faith-based, super intense and really passionate,” said the restaurant name embodies characteristics he holds dear such as hospitality and excellence.

“[The name] speaks to the value base that I not only believe in but [what] I’ve been privy to, been exposed to throughout my life and afforded the opportunity to share with people,” Williams said.

Virtue restaurant in Hyde Park. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Virtue restaurant in Hyde Park. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The restaurant “represents this kind of wholesome environment, where [customers are] taken care of, where they are recognized as individuals, needs are met, appetites are satiated.”

Williams’ menu is inspired by “all food produced in the South — not just limited to soul food, but food that I would say was cooked in the field and in the home, and all the cultures that become part of, in my opinion, true American cooking.”

There are also tributes to Williams’ family and fondest childhood memories: The head cheese pays homage to his mother’s love of souse that he would buy at the corner store as a child. Fried green tomatoes with shrimp, baby bell peppers and remoulade have been a best seller. Another surprising hit for many diners are the cornmeal-crusted gizzards with dirty rice and gravy — cooked tender with technical precision.

Chicken gizzards served on dirty rice with gravy at Virtue restaurant. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Williams was born in Lawndale and spent his teenage years in Austin. He learned his way around the kitchen at an early age when he would come home from school and call his grandmother when he walked through the door.

“My grandmother would give me assignments to prep for my mom when she got home to make dinner … so [it was easier] when she got home from work,” Williams said.

Williams didn’t initially aspire to be a chef and worked in restaurant kitchens as “a means to an end” early in his career. But he changed his mind after Michael Kornick, of MK Restaurant fame, hired him in 1996. “[Kornick] was so passionate about cooking, it became infectious. And I was forever changed. The bug bit me,” Williams said.

Pastry Chef Rebecca Pendola’s coconut cream pie with crust made from toasted oats, almonds and coconut oil, vegan coconut custard, whipped coconut cream, and candied almonds. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Williams said he finds his ascent both “awkward and humbling.”

“It raises the standard every day when you know people are watching you with an expectation,” he said.

That expectation is what motivates Williams and his team to bring their A-game to the culinary court.