Paris, New York, Bangkok, Nantucket, Boston, and now Newton are all locations where Douglass Williams, chef and owner of MIDA in Roxbury, is sharing his expertise of cooking deliciously simple Italian cuisine.
Williams is not only expanding his restaurant, but also his mission of helping others and building communities as he prepares to open a second MIDA location in Newton this June. Williams is one of 10 recipients of the prestigious 2020 Best New Chefs award from Food & Wine Magazine and is being named a James Beard Award semifinalist.
While training in Paris in 2012, Williams said he had a “wake-up call” to settle down with his then-girlfriend, and now-wife, in Boston and open up his own restaurant. Williams opened his first restaurant, located in the South End, in 2016 when he was 32 years old.
“I saw all these young chefs opening their own restaurants and doing all this awesome stuff, and I was like, ‘I should be doing that right now for myself,’ and honestly, I got a little frustrated—I was like, ‘No I’m gonna get back to Boston, I’m gonna find a partner, I’m gonna find some money, I’m gonna find a location, and I’m gonna open a restaurant,’” Williams said.
Williams said he strives to give his restaurants an elevated, yet homey neighborhood feel and that he chose the original location for MIDA on Massachusetts Ave. between the South End and Roxbury for the location’s rich history and culture. Williams said he believes Roxbury has been underserved for many years and deserves more attention.
“It feels like there’s a lot of responsibility to carry on into the future and for people to see [the neighborhood] when they walk by or come out of the restaurant and have a great meal,” Williams said. “When you have an incredible meal, you’re more likely to want to move there and put down the anchor and say, ‘I could rent an apartment here because my favorite restaurant is here.’”
Williams said he believes it should be normal to have a phenomenal restaurant that doubles as a social meeting place that isn’t in some obscure part of the city. Everyone should be able to enjoy fine food and connect with the people around them, he said.
“When you have a town like Roxbury, you have all of the culture built in,” Williams said. “You just have to nourish it, till the soil a bit and make sure you’re bringing all the things from the bottom of the surface to the top.”
Williams said he continues to learn from his customers and is changed by the people he meets every day. Williams said that he feels a responsibility to do something that makes others want to do more, such as fostering improvements in the neighborhood and inspiring people to build more businesses.
“You should come out [of the restaurant] as a better person and someone who sees the world differently—that equals a neighborhood restaurant because that’s what your neighborhood should do for you,” Williams said. “It should be something that is not just this static thing. It should be blooming, blossoming, and evolving.”
Every night at MIDA, the sunset shines through the floor-to-ceiling windows and dots of white light dance across the restaurant from the reflections of the Prudential Center windows, whose top floors are visible from the restaurant’s tables. The moving beams and golden hour glow beautifully illuminate the house-made pasta that arrives at the table, still steaming with the rustic smell of fresh tomatoes and nutty, melted parmesan.
“It just feels ideal, like New York or Paris, the corner of the world in the most cosmopolitan, refreshing, energetic, youthful way without any bit of extra,” Williams said. “Just the right amount of all the things that people who love food like.”
Williams said he wants to create this feeling on a whole new level at the new MIDA location in Newton. Since the Newton location is in a brand new space, Williams said he was able to customize the restaurant more than the original MIDA and create a specific personality and energy.
The new location will have a larger dining room, two outdoor patios, and a larger kitchen to better accommodate his fast-growing customer base, according to Williams. He said the food will be very similar to the original MIDA menu but with some new additions like an expanded antipasta menu, vegetarian lasagna, and a variety of house-made pizzas. Williams will be keeping fan favorites like the gnocchi cacio e pepe, which he said is his favorite dish to cook for its “simplicity and crowd-pleasing ability.”
“It is a winner for everyone and allows this magic to happen that transports people both those who have traveled here from Italy and people who have never had a gnocchi before,” Williams said.
Williams said that a restaurant needs more than just good food to be successful. The customers’ energy in the restaurant is largely dependent on the service and how the staff interacts with them, Williams said. He said the restaurant staff is extremely important and at the end of the day, is what really makes the restaurant.
“A restaurant is a window into a neighborhood and what it wants to be,” Williams said.
As a result, Williams said he wanted to expand to Newton because he saw a need for more restaurants and things to do in the up-and-coming town.
Williams said the Newton demographic is often thought to be older, but he believes that is completely untrue. Williams wants to break down the old stereotypes and misconceptions to expand people’s view of the community and make everyone feel like they belong and can start a life in Newton.
“There’s more to be cultivated: young adults, college students, new families, small business owners,” Williams said. “There’s a whole new demographic of young, diverse people moving [in], and I want to be ahead of the curve. … I want to be a part of the magic of expanding a neighborhood and diversifying the culture and environment.”
Everything Williams does is to help others and the community around him. He said there’s almost nothing better than the satisfaction he feels from knowing he’s making other people happy with his food.
“It’s not just about being skilled,” Williams said. “It’s about wanting to help others, and once you start adding all these other layers, that’s how you reach that next level, that’s how you get the Pulitzer, the genius grant, and all these things that seem unreal.”
The same spirit of generosity is embodied in the name of the restaurant, MIDA, which is Italian for “he/she gives me” and is symbolic of Williams’ desire to give back to the community.
Williams, who grew up in Atlantic City, N.J., said cooking came naturally to him with a father who was a chef and a mother in the hospitality business who loved to cook.
Even though his mother taught him to cook at a young age, Williams said he first realized his talent for cooking in his high school home economics class. Early during the course, Williams completed his assignment, which was supposed to take the entire class period, in 10 minutes. He said the other students were struggling, so he began to teach them and demonstrate the recipe for the class.
“Once I realized I can do my work, teach others, and enlighten them and make my teacher’s life easier, that was my a-ha moment like, ‘Yeah, this is what I need to do,’” Williams said.
His home economics teacher would let him pass out books; prepare the mise en place, a French culinary phrase that refers to the setup required before cooking, for the next class; and come to the classroom between periods and during homeroom to complete extra projects.
As a self-proclaimed “natural teacher,” Williams said he knew that wherever he ended up after high school, teaching had to be involved. It was non-negotiable, he said. Even back then, Williams said he knew he wasn’t going to go the traditional college route and wanted to pursue something creative, but just wasn’t sure what.
His life then took a turn when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at 16 years old. He was forced to completely change his teenage-boy carb-crushing diet of five bowls of cereal a day and pay strict attention to what he was eating. Even though this was mentally discouraging, he said it helped him immensely in refining his palate.
His doctors also told him to chew every bite 30 to 40 times to break down the food for his stomach, which helped him think about what he was eating on a micro level.
He started to notice the intricate details of restaurant food—the difference between fresh and old eggs, different textures of cheeses, the juiciness of burgers, and when items were forgotten and left in the fryer or freezer for too long.
With his creativity and natural cooking ability, he said culinary school seemed like his best option.
“I told my mother, ‘I just want to do what I love,’” Williams said. “I didn’t really want to just go into a job or go to college and spend all the money to maybe [end up] doing something else. Everyone has the right to change their mind, but I knew what I wanted.”
After watching his mother save up her whole life to give him the opportunity to succeed, Williams said that he felt like he had only one shot.
After graduating high school, Williams attended the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College in Hamilton, N.J. where he was able to travel the world, training in different countries and refining his skills. He said he had never been out of the country before, so traveling for culinary school was like his version of a “college experience” and his first sense of what it was like to have the freedom of living on his own.
Williams trained at many Michelin star restaurants during his time abroad and said his experiences there inspired the energy he hopes to bring to his restaurant MIDA.
“I love the excitement and what that brings at this level of cooking, and I want to make sure I bring that back to MIDA,” Williams said. “I want MIDA to feel European. I want it to feel like you could find anybody there, friends, congressmen, people running for mayor. Everyone comes in here and that’s how a neighborhood restaurant should feel.”
While awards are among Williams accomplishments, they are not the focus of his work. He said he works to help others and positively impact the community, all while creating happy memories for his customers.
“That’s what I’m most happy about doing for others. All those memories live forever for them and that’s the thing that keeps me most happy,” Williams said.
Williams lives in Boston with his wife and twin sons. He said he doesn’t want his sons to go into cooking despite saying that they’re “phenoms” in the kitchen who already cook their own breakfasts at just 2 years old.
“I want them to do more than I’ve done,” Williams said. “I want them to be saving the world and saving lives, but it doesn’t hurt to know how to cook like a badass.”
Williams says that no matter what you pursue you should be “completely obsessed and absorbed with your profession.” He said that having tenacity, fearlessness, and believing in yourself will get you wherever you want to go in life, but you also have to love what you do.
“Beyond everything, beyond training, glamour, magazines, and the restaurant, the only thing that came about was being fearless, like dead-eyed fearless, and doing it with compassion,” said Williams. “I didn’t have any safety net to catch me or degree to fall back on. I knew if I didn’t step on the gas the entire way, I probably wouldn’t make it. You have to just jump out that plane, be competitive, and go in that race that never really seems to end. You have to keep going and keep pushing.”
Featured Image Courtesy of Douglass Williams