Like many New York chefs, the Food Sermon’s Rawlston Williams had temporarily closed his business during the doldrums of the COVID winter, when his Brooklyn Navy Yard food hall premises were largely devoid of customers. He’d planned to reopen April 12. And then, on April 9, La Soufrière volcano erupted on St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Caribbean country where he was born and raised before migrating to Brooklyn at the age of 10.
La Soufrière continued to erupt and spew plumes of gas over the days that followed, with volcanic ash blanketing agricultural areas and collapsing roofs, and as Williams watched videos of the aftermath and communicated with relatives who’d been evacuated from their homes, he knew he had to do something. “I love St. Vincent,” Williams says. “It’s where I was born, where I spent my childhood, and it’s where my heart lives day and night. Every dish I create, how I prepare it, and who I am as a chef comes from the island.” After contacting the country’s tourism authority and offering his services, Williams began using his island connections to lay the groundwork for a community kitchen where he could help feed the thousands of displaced residents on an island experiencing power outages and immediate needs for drinking water, food, and shelter.
The situation is dire but Williams says he’s feeling energized. “To be honest it’s the only thing that matters to me right now,” he said Tuesday from his home in Canarsie. An island chef he knows has given him free access to a large plot of land with an unoccupied structure he plans to repair and use as a kitchen to help feed the displaced and anyone else in need of nourishment. “By kitchen,” says Williams, “I mean a bunch of grills for cooking whole or half animals and big pots of soups and stews.”
Although World Central Kitchen has responded to the crisis, Williams feels more can be done, especially by those with a personal connection to the island. “It’s different when you see someone who was born there, from your community, show up to help,” he says. “For me, I’m more on the empowerment side. It’s not just about handing out meals.” Through the crisis, the former theology student has found deeper meaning in his own career, and the course his life has taken as immigrant and chef. “Believe it or not, none of what I do made sense until this moment,” he says. Now, things he says he’d never fully understood — why it took seven years for his immigration papers to go through, separating him from his parents in New York but giving him a Vincentian foundation; the unsolicited press he’s received since opening the Food Sermon — make a kind of cosmic sense. “I guess the universe knew this moment was coming,” he says. Williams has established the Food Sermon Foundation and the Feed St. Vincent Initiative, a fundraising campaign intended to pay his way to the island, ship supplies, and begin the work of building and running the community kitchen. Once it’s off the ground, he’ll return to the city to reopen his restaurant, only this time with renewed purpose. “You can’t have a name like the Food Sermon and just cook food,” he says.