(Grubstreet) – In February, six weeks before COVID-19 forced the city to shut down, Rawlston Williams moved his Crown Heights Caribbean restaurant, the Food Sermon, to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We spoke to him by phone at the new space, where he’s been doing catering jobs while gearing up to reopen in mid-July.
How did you end up in the new food hall at Building 77?
The Navy Yard approached us with a handwritten note and on Instagram, but I totally ignored them. Then I got an email from the City Council: “Hey, Rawlston, please give us a call. We have an 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 reach you.” I got off the phone, and I called my brother. “Isn’t this crazy? They’re hawking real estate out of the City Council!”
Why were you initially so resistant?
Before I went to culinary school, I studied theology. Having restaurants was never my dream. The Rogers Avenue location was initially a catering kitchen. We started getting a bunch of press and being popular, and people came in expecting to sit. So I adjusted the kitchen—made it smaller, moved the counter back, brought in a couple more chairs so people could sit, which I did not want at all.
What changed your mind?
My brother said, “Just call and see.” We met with them, and as we’re leaving and driving home, I told him, “I think they made a mistake.” This kind of thing doesn’t happen to us. It was a shock — City Council, Navy Yard, 1,200-square-foot kitchen where I could do catering and retail and manufacture my hot sauce as well.
How did the opening go?
It was never, ever a soft opening—from day one, it was busy all the way. We hadn’t even started doing delivery. Building 77 is 16 stories; I had a built-in customer base. I was marveling at the fact that I was making about two and a half times the amount of money just at lunch alone as I was at Rogers.
Why did you change to a fast-casual, counter-service format and close the original Food Sermon?
It was really obvious that we needed to pivot. I needed more volume. I needed to be able to churn things out quicker. On Rogers, it was kind of like going to grandma’s house and getting your food plated and just hanging out. Here, the food quality is the same, and it’s made every day, but we’re not making it to order. You pick your base — brown rice, white rice, or salad — and then you pick your protein, two sides, and a sauce. Almost like a Chipotle vibe. Everything is to go.
How did your old customers react?
Some people would say, “Well, you sold out,” or “You changed,” or what have you. It stung a little bit because we care a lot. But, you know, either I did this this way or the business would have died. More people are responding positively than are not.
You’re still closed, but with your new format and no seating, you could have stayed open for takeout and delivery. Why didn’t you?
When COVID happened, I had to look at my employees and realize that they’re traveling into work every day. We have one employee who has two kids, one has three, one has four. What are we doing by keeping them coming here? That one day, March 16, our register was down to $300. So I was, like, okay, is it worth doing all this with everyone risking probable exposure? We were allowed to stay open, but for me, just because it’s allowed doesn’t mean it’s right. And I didn’t quite understand the whole contactless-delivery thing: How is it contactless? You’re handing it to a gentleman who might take the virus seriously or he might not; he might use gloves or he might not.
Has the pandemic affected you personally?
I lost five people. One was my godfather. He reached out; he knew he was gonna go. The landscape has changed. It felt like the world was ending. Nothing really has that much weight except the way you connect with each other. That’s all you have—almost like you’re making a stew and you get rid of all the excess water and now it’s boiled down to the essence of what it is.
How have you spent your time off during the shutdown?
Well, when I’m not too depressed with all that’s happening, I’ve been working on my book. Phaidon has these cooking bibles — Japan, America, Nordic, the Cuba book, the Mexico book. I’m doing the Caribbean version.
You moved from St. Vincent and the Grenadines to East Flatbush when you were 10 years old.
I came to Brooklyn in September 1987, the height of the crack and AIDS epidemics. My first experience with segregation was in fifth grade, when Haitians were put in different classes. There was a Haitian Creole–speaking class. If you were from Russia, even if you didn’t speak a lick of English, you were put into the mainstream class and you’d figure it out as you went. It didn’t make any sense to me.
And as you got older?
For me, being from the Caribbean, it’s been an educational experience. Growing up, I never really saw race. We more saw class. I never really realized I was a Black man until I came to America. Here, maybe I was experiencing racism, but I never paid attention to it because it wasn’t something I was looking for. My eyes weren’t trained for it. There’s that nursery 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 those things.
But what did the pussycat see? It saw a mouse under the chair because that’s what they look for. It doesn’t matter where the pussycat would be; he would always look for mice, right? As a kid, I remember going through Lord & Taylor and my buddy would say, “Hey, they’re following us.” I’d be like, “Who’s following us?” “The attendants are following us like we’re about to steal something.”
And I never saw it, but he would be so angry. And as time went on, my eyes started getting keen toward it. Or even when someone came into the Rogers location and they were like, “Oh, Black-owned!,” because initially everyone thought that we just worked there. It took me a little while to really get it: Oh, yeah! I am Black, and I do own the place. Now I see the significance of it.
Which is what, exactly?
A lot of what we do has often been overlooked. Even when it comes to having a Caribbean cookbook: In my mind, I’m like, Okay, they love to eat the food, but they don’t like to talk about it. They don’t like to write about it. It never gets a lot of press. Some of the food and the way that it’s done in tradition — it’s not a pretty food. It’s not glamorous. You’re using ends of this or backs of that. We’re using the ingredients that possibly would have been discarded by your slave owner or your occupier or whatever. Now you’ve used that and turned it into something delicious. It’s not our fault that an oxtail or the back of a chicken is not a pretty-looking thing. But it’s tasty, right?
With the recent Black Lives Matter protests, do you envision things changing?
I am somewhat optimistic that we will all recognize that some of the systems that we have set up are really just props or kickstands to make us feel like we’re upright, but when held up to scrutiny, they fail. I’d always felt like protesting is a waste of time. It’s like going down into the basement and punching a punching bag.
It’s a way to vent, you know? I never really saw a real change because I always saw with every protest that the cop or the person that did wrong still got off. As Black people, we always lose. That’s another reason why, even when the Navy Yard was calling us, I kept saying, This kind of stuff doesn’t happen to Black people, so I’m not going to even bother. Why are they calling me just to waste my time? I’m always waiting for someone to pull the rug out and be like, “Haha! Joke’s on you.”
But this time feels different?
Oh, yeah. This is different. It’s undeniable. It doesn’t seem like anyone can control it; you can’t turn the volume down. All the other times, it seemed as though you could come up with a distraction and turn the volume down. Here, you can’t. It’s like we’re at a crescendo of everything: the pandemic, and the killing of Mr. Floyd, and who we have as a leader and the climate that that’s created. It’s an ulcer that’s just going to rupture. People say the system is broken. No. I think it’s operating the way it was set up. It’s not broken. We kind of need to break it.