By: Courtney Dabney
By: Malcolm Mayhew
If you know chef Jen Williams — and chances are you do if you’ve ever eaten at a pop-up diner or at any of the top restaurants in the Fort Worth-Dallas area — you know she very well could be the Rosie the Riveter of Fort Worth’s culinary scene. Since moving from Chicago to Fort Worth, she has immersed herself in not much else but work — spending equal amounts of time working in restaurants, hosting pop-up events and running a catering business.
Over the course of her seven-year career here, she has cooked in some of North Texas’ top kitchens, from the much-missed Magnolia Cheese Company to critically-acclaimed Lucia in Dallas to, most recently, Piattello Italian Kitchen. These days, though, she has made a name for herself as the city’s unofficial queen of pop-up events — and as one of the few chefs in North Texas to ever cook for a president. Clarification: a president of the United States of America.
Q: Dressing up as Rosie the Riveter for this photo shoot was your idea. How much do you relate to her?
A: A hundred percent. I remember the first time I saw that famous poster of her. I was in AP history and I just immediately related to her I-can-do-it attitude. That attitude has stayed with me and continued to encompass my spirit, especially working in restaurants when I was sometimes one of the only females.
Q: You’ve cooked for Obama. Twice. How does that happen?
A: The first time was in 2011 when he was still in office, and I was still living in Chicago. I was working in a restaurant called mk, and it was a place he used to frequent. He was there for a Democratic charity event. We all had to pass this insane security check — I think there were seven security checks. There were countersnipers everywhere — I didn’t even know what a countersniper was.
The second time I cooked for him, a few months ago, it was with a lot of the same crew from mk. We were helping the mk chef open a new restaurant when we got the call that Obama wanted to throw a birthday party there, even though we weren’t technically open to the public yet.
Q: What’d you make him?
A: It was so funny. We were all standing around in the kitchen, just waiting for his ticket to come back to see what Obama wanted to eat. He wanted a New York strip cooked medium well! Medium well? We were all disappointed – you know, you don’t get a steak cooked medium well!
But he was so gracious and respectful. He came back to the kitchen and talked to all of us, shook all of our hands, asked us our names. He totally redeemed himself, too, because he had a whiskey before dinner and an espresso after dinner. He’s a really cool guy.
Q: Your parents must have been so proud of you.
A: I think if it had been a more conservative president, they would have been more excited — but that’s my family! But the office of the presidency is an honorable position to hold, and they hold that very sacred. My mom’s side of the family ended up in Fort Worth because my grandfather was in the Air Force and became a general at Carswell. On my dad’s side of the family, my grandfather was in World War II, and my dad was in Vietnam. My cousin flies helicopters for the Army. Even though I may not always agree with my family’s political beliefs, I, and everyone else in my family, have long had respect for the people who fight for our country.
Q: You were doing pop-up restaurants in Fort Worth long before they became a thing. What drew you to them?
A: I first became aware of them when I was in Chicago and saw how much fun they could be. When I got to Fort Worth, I did them here and there, like at Friday on the Green, before pop-ups even had a name. When I decided to move forward with my own career and not worry about trying to work in restaurants anymore, I thought pop-ups would be perfect for me. I’m a quick thinker, I’m organized, I enjoyed getting out of the kitchen and I love cooking in front of people.
Q: What’s Fort Worth’s restaurant scene not quite nailing?
A: We need to better support mom-and-pop, chef-driven restaurants but also be pickier with those restaurants. We need to make sure our standards continue to rise. I’ve heard chefs say that Fort Worth is a meat and potatoes town, and I guess I just don’t accept that. I was taught by chefs to elevate and enlighten people with food, not dumb it down to meet someone else’s standards.
Q: And what are we doing right?
A: We have such a strong chef community here. Most of us are very supportive of one another. We eat at each other’s places, whether it’s a restaurant or a pop-up. We jump in and help anywhere we can. There’s a very strong bond here among chefs. I also love all of the development – Magnolia, now what’s happening on South Main. This will hopefully create new opportunities for the next round of young chefs.
By: Courtney Dabney
By: Malcolm Mayhew