Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2020: Douglass Williams
Douglass Williams is a master of texture, almost at a molecular level. It’s deeply apparent throughout the menu at Mida, Williams’ Italian restaurant on the border of Boston’s affluent South End and Roxbury, an African American neighborhood. Just take a look at the polenta. Williams fries the tender cornmeal bricks until golden and crunchy and crowns them with a dollop of sweet gorgonzola dolce, lemon zest, and a generous drizzle of honey. The outside remains crisp, while the inside, enriched with Parmesan and olive oil, is incredibly creamy.
His obsession with texture stems from his long battle with Crohn’s disease. When he turned 16, he could no longer eat. Williams, a longtime athlete, had to have surgery to remove six inches of his intestinal tract. “I couldn’t eat sugar, I couldn’t eat gluten, I couldn’t eat anything processed at all,” Williams recalls. Still, when it came time to decide what to do after graduation, he enrolled in culinary school. “Cooking filled this void for me for competition,” Williams says. “It was just the most physical thing that I could find outside of sports.” Plus, a career in the restaurant industry only felt natural: his African American father was a chef and his Syrian-Lebanese mother a waitress. There was only one problem: How do you go to cooking school when you can’t eat? Williams would keep a trash can next to his station at all times, and while he couldn’t swallow the food, he could still chew. He would analyze each flavor and each nuance of a food’s texture before spitting it out into the trash can. “It really helped me form my palate.”
After culinary school, Williams spent time healing his body and working in prestigious kitchens along the East Coast, but he fell in love with the precision and technique of making pasta while working at Boston’s Coppa. His first restaurant, Mida, a temple to carbohydrates, is where Williams and his team make nearly 700 portions of pasta each week by hand. He makes mounds of flat, stubby ribbons called maltagliati that await a generous ladle of earthy duck sugo; these sit next to expertly shaped cappellacci, plump with a stuffing of fresh ricotta, which look like tortellini wearing fancy hats. Williams also makes thick, wide tubes of paccheri, which are served in a rich Bolognese with bits of broccoli rabe for a bitter punch. The pasta is garnished with caramelized breadcrumbs that have been tossed with a glug of good olive oil, oregano, and salty Parmigiano-Reggiano. Each bite is a textural roller coaster of chewy, crunchy, and fatty—an expression of care and precision from someone who takes none of food’s great pleasures for granted.
Get the Recipe: Summer Crab Carbonara with Lemons and Capers