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The Food Sermon

Crown Heights, Brooklyn may be home to more Caribbean restaurants than anywhere outside of the Caribbean itself. But inside a small space on the corner of Sullivan Place and Rogers Avenue is one of the newest. And one of the most unique.

Behind the shiny glass windows of the corner building is a stretch of bar seats, glossy subway tile, and induction burners. And behind those, hovering over a pot of coconut ginger sauce, is Mr. Rawlston Williams, owner and head chef of The Food Sermon.

Wearing crisp chefs whites, he greets us with a bright smile. We’re offered a seat at the bar, and a few menus upon which the words “We believe in you!” are etched, a curious phrase that at once intrigues and disarms. And though he may believe in us, we defer to Mr. Williams for his recommendation. Offering dealer’s choice feels not only honorable, it’s also damn hard to choose between the Braised Oxtail and Lamb Island Bowl.

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“Yes, it creates pleasure and nourishes you, but at the core of it, food is intimate.”

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Mr. Williams has taken a circuitous path to owning his own restaurant. A native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Rawlston Williams was uniquely exposed to cooking at a young age. “When my parents were in the States, I was taught to cook by a family friend that was taking care of me,” he tells us. “I was barely five years old. She had rheumatoid arthritis, so she would shout ingredients to me, ‘Go get flour and two sticks of butter!’ And she would give me instructions and I’d end up baking bread.”

At the age of 10, the young Rawlston immigrated to the United States to join his family in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. But it was a short reunion, as his father passed away only two years later. And though he would help take care of his brothers while their mother worked (a task that often involved lots of cooking) it would be many more years before Mr. Williams would find his calling in the kitchen.

“I studied to be a pastor,” says Rawlston. “But after a while, I had this feeling it wasn’t something that I was going to be able to do long term. I was sort of restless.”

Wherever God may have been calling him, Rawlston would find himself in the same place when the restlessness would hit: sitting outside of the French Culinary Institute — now the International Culinary Center — watching students come and go. He couldn’t afford school at the time, so he would watch YouTube videos and listen to interviews on NPR.

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But he’s come a long way from cooking recipes he learned online. Since graduating from culinary school and learning on the job at a number of kitchens around town, Mr. Williams is proud to call this kitchen — and it’s unique menu — his very own.

“It’s basically how I interpret Caribbean cuisine,” says Rawlston. “We don’t need more of the same.” And it’s anything but. Combining the influences of his upbringing with a haute culinary expertise not often seen with such simple Caribbean dishes, these plates are to be tasted and seen. Whole lamb shanks perched in the middle of perfectly cooked rice, surrounded by chickpeas and coconut ginger sauce tinged with lemongrass. Roti skin that’s light and airy. Stewed chicken that’s tender and steaming. Despite growing up a Seventh-day Adventist vegetarian, it’s clear that Mr. Williams has a knack for cooking meat.

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And as the experience of raving repeat customers can attest (not to mention our own), Mr. Williams has a knack at creating a place that people want to be as well. Though it was originally designed as a catering business with small bites available to those in the neighborhood, “people just kept showing up”, says Rawlston. “After a while, I realized I was running a restaurant,” he says with a laugh. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love customers being in here. Engaging them. It’s a privilege to cook for someone. Someone is taking something I’ve made with my hands and trusts me to put it in their body. Yes, it creates pleasure and nourishes you, but at the core of it, food is intimate.”

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After our own intimate moment with the remaining broth in our bowls, there’s no doubt why Mr. William’s debut project has found such favor with guests and critics alike. So only one question remains: what’s with the name?

“The name is simple…I studied theology, and I’m not preaching the Word. But we all have a message. Our message is our sermon. And mine happens to be food.”