Born and raised in Houston, brothers Ben and Chris Williams didn’t witness firsthand what their great-grandmother Lucille B. Smith achieved, but her legacy would ultimately help shape their futures. A pioneering African American culinarian, Smith made a vast contribution to the world of hospitality: a beloved culinary director at the luxury girls’ summer Camp Waldemar from 1928 to 1973, she leveraged her culinary skills into a business enterprise that included penning a cookbook, developing a college course curriculum for Prairie View A&M University and becoming one of the first African American woman in Texas to found her own company. Her famous chile biscuits would be served on American Airlines flights as well at the White House and to illustrious persons such as Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Two generations later, the Williams brothers have taken up Smith’s pioneering baton to forge a hospitality business that is blazing trails as well. In 2012, Ben helped Chris open Lucille’s, a charming Southern restaurant in Houston’s Museum District, of which Chris is still owner and executive chef. While paying homage to his great-grandmother by offering dishes such as her famed biscuits, Chris, a classically trained chef with a degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, also wanted to break the mold of how people in Houston viewed Southern food.
“People equate soul food with Southern cuisine, and that’s not what we’re doing here,” he says. “What makes our food Southern is the ingredients we use,” he explains, adding that he draws from the abundance of local Gulf Coast ingredients and the restaurant’s own backyard organic garden to create his seasonal menus. “Yes, we have fried chicken, but we’ve also got blackened catfish and grits with oxtail broth and onions escabeche,” he says.
Perhaps more important than the cuisine, Lucille’s has helped to dispel stereotypes. “When Lucille’s hit the scene, it switched up the way that people saw black-driven restaurants. We opened up and we got everybody—from politicians to a diverse crowd—in here breaking bread together.”
With Chris making waves in the kitchen, Ben has moved on to a new culinary endeavor: perfecting a proprietary distilling method to create Texas’ first hemp-based vodka. Named Highway Vodka, the handcrafted, handbottled spirit launched earlier this year and is now available at Spec’s Wine, Spirits & Finer Foods, Total Wine & More, and at bars and restaurants throughout Houston, including Anvil Bar & Refuge and B.B. Lemon Montrose.
“Lucille was honest about her work, serious about her craft and passionate about hospitality and giving back to the community,” says Ben. “She created the food space and environment for people to enjoy, and that’s at the heart of everything we strive for, both at Lucille’s and Highway Vodka.”
Photography by: Candace Moore