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Queen of Cuisine

With six popular restaurants and a seventh on the way, Chef Michelle Williams reigns over a culinary empire.


And she's managed to do it in a business that's "the diciest game in town," says Charlie Diradour, a property owner in the Fan. As landlord of the building at Strawberry and Main, which will hold Williams' next project, as well as the buildings that house Buddy's, Commercial Taphouse & Grill, half of Joe's Inn and others, he's familiar with a business that can force people to sell their kitchen equipment before it's had a chance to get greasy. Restaurants quickly become memories, but Williams has succeeded through hard work, instinct and, perhaps more importantly, an ability to adapt and change.

Williams is always doing something — talking on at least one phone, writing, navigating the ant farm of her four venues in the Slip (more on this later). And if she can't do something productive, she fidgets. Williams is an emblem of the constant movement that extends from the seasonal menu changes to her progressive reworking of two of Richmond's most hallowed institutions: Where We Eat and Where We Drink.

It's a recent Wednesday afternoon, and D-Day approaches for updated menus of three of her restaurants, two in the Slip and Michelle's in Hanover. The month-old Cha-Cha's is getting a realignment, Europa's tapas menu is undergoing a more substantial reworking, while at Michelle's in the Hanover Tavern, bugs (figurative, not literal) are being worked out of the Southern cuisine.

Williams sits in a booth at an oddly shaped table in Europa. She's a small, curvy woman, who despite sleeping five hours a night looks remarkably put-together, from indestructibly styled blonde hair, to a daily rotation of cowboy boots, to very bright eyes that never seem to blink. She scrutinizes the Cha-Cha's menu, marked with X's, O's and arrows, a football coach's playbook of culinary strategies. The Burritos are rushing the Tacos, wedging the Nachos lower on the page. Prices are sacked, new menu items drafted. The stats of black beans are weighed against refried. Williams makes some notes and hands them off to a chef. One of her managers comes in, asks where there might be some cold medicine. She looks at him, hardly pausing before sending him off. At The Hard Shell. Next door. Downstairs.

"I feel like I have to have my finger into everything every day; otherwise it's going to slip out of my control to metamorphose into something else," she says during a lull. She comes right out and admits it: She's a control freak, like her primary front-of-the-house partner in most of her ventures, Jared Golden. Williams lists off the range of things in her awareness, under their control: what time the lights are turned down, the radio volume, how the phone is answered, counting them off on fingers adorned with chunky Italian silver.

Yet she gives her executive chefs enough freedom to decide when to roll out a new menu, even if they come crashing together on the same day. Like one of today's changes, she says: "It was more important to get tomato gazpacho off the menu."

The executive chefs are given more leverage because Williams trusts them.

"The cool thing about Michelle is, she's very lenient," says Robert White, 27, an executive chef at Michelle's. "She gives you the basic groundwork on what she wants ... from there she gives a lot of creative free reign."

That doesn't mean Williams is shy about sharing her thoughts. "There's no filter between her head and her mouth," White says. "No tiptoeing around."

Williams says that by laying out her vision to her employees, "it gives them less opportunity to fail."

"She's not one of these detached owners," Diradour says of Williams' leadership style. "She wants to work it and make it successful." So she makes the game plan clear to everyone, from dishwasher to line cook to hostess to executive chef. It makes a difference, Diradour says: "If you can't communicate, you're done."

ON CREATION: Here's how Williams invents an enchilada, she says: "I can kind of close my eyes and go, 'What's gonna taste good together?'" She captures ideas on vacations, checking out tapas bars in New York City or Charlottesville to make sure her restaurants are "staying in the grand scheme of things." But most of her research is done through cookbooks or the Internet. For new menus, she sits at a computer with one of her executive chefs and writes them out, ingredients and all, making sure the levels of cumin, for example, don't reach Code Orange. She says she can identify missing ingredients in a dish at a taste, uncovering the missing cilantro, for example. She and her chefs bounce ideas off one another before heading into the kitchen to bring them to life, she says: "You make it work in theory before you make it work in practice."

Sixteen years ago and a few doors up from Europa, Williams was a cocktail waitress at The Tobacco Company who followed her sense of smell.

"I was kind of nosy — always in the kitchen, always asking the chef questions," she recalls. He finally told her: "You ask enough questions. Why don't you go to school for it?"

So she did. With an associate's degree in sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University, she enrolled in a two-year culinary program at J. Sargeant Reynolds. Under the instruction of David Barish, the glories of French cooking were revealed to the girl from Mechanicsville. "It's the basis for all cooking," she says, appearing excited about the idea years later. "It's how we developed everything that came after."

In 1991, she began a 6,000-hour apprenticeship at The Butlery (now Azzurro) in the River Road Shopping Center. Part of her training was in ice sculpture, which came into play doing freelance work for weddings at country clubs. She also pulled from her sculpture background, creating frozen swans and ice vases filled with flowers. But her heart had moved on. "Food became my art," she says.

Today, though, she realizes she never left art completely behind.

"Restaurants are all artistic expression," she declares in Europa, tapping French-manicured nails on the tabletop. Under the table's clear coating is an arrangement of jagged tile set by Williams when Europa was being built. She laid it nights, piece by piece, after closing The Hard Shell's kitchen. There's other artistry at work here too. Diners may notice Europa has few right angles: Everything curves, bends, shoots out in all directions. The swoop of the bar, the irregularity of the tables, the poise of the chairs — they all answer to Williams' design instincts, the organic pulse of sculpting from life, which rarely conforms to right angles.

During her time at The Butlery, Williams met Chef John "Robbie" Robertson. They fell in love and eventually became engaged. That's when Bob Talcott (now the resident wine expert at Can Can) hired them away to help him open a restaurant.

Talcott wanted to introduce a fusion of Latin, Caribbean and French cuisine to Richmond, and took Williams and Robertson to Miami to sample the food, the style, the spices. Their return presented Williams with her first test of translation, as they had to create a menu relying heavily on memory, choose china and paint colors and select décor for what opened as Island Grill in the fall of 1992.

"It was their first real executive gig," Talcott says. Robertson was executive chef, Williams was sous-chef. Talcott recalls their excitement at running a kitchen. "It was a lot of fun because it was extremely collaborative," he says.

Their pairing worked. "Robbie was a master at combining spices, meaning heat and flavor — and adapting them to recipes," he says, and together the two chefs developed "inspiration, execution, design."

It didn't take long for Williams, barely out of her teens, to want to open her own restaurant. In 1993, Williams and Robertson began planning a restaurant of their own, bringing aboard two managers from Awful Arthur's, Jared Golden and Ted Wallof. For a location, they looked to downtown, Williams says. "We wanted to cater to the businessman, the weekly traveler," she says.

Talcott says it was good business acumen on Williams' part: "I think she has, rather more than shaping restaurant culture, she's responded to a need."

That keen sense of marketing has been a hallmark of Williams. "She finds a niche," says Chef Dale Reitzer, owner of Acacia. "She finds a market for the concept that she picks." On top of that, he adds, Williams finds good locations.

The Hard Shell began to take shape in their minds.

Before it became a reality, though, in October 1993, Robertson was killed in an automobile accident.

ON ADAPTATION: Here's how Williams gets to her office from Europa's dining room: She walks through the kitchen, past the dishwasher, through a door, down a flight of stairs, around a corner, through a food-prep area, past an incongruous private bathroom, takes a right, squeezes through a roughly 3- by 4-foot hole in the wall (cut so the air-conditioning unit would fit), past dry storage, up stairs, around a corner and into her office, a converted apartment on the other side of the building. From there, she walks out a door and down the cobblestone alley to visit The Hard Shell, Cha-Cha's or Lucky Lounge. The compound of restaurants has grown like an ant farm, the row of industrial warehouses forced through an evolution of plumbing, electricity, décor, color and music. Buildings, like people, can also adapt to sudden changes.

After the death of her fiancé, Williams says, she went into a period of reflection, not knowing if she wanted to continue with plans for the restaurant.

But she says Golden, who had been a friend since high school, helped her turn a corner. "It took a lot of convincing on Jared's part to get me back in the saddle," Williams says. It helped that The Hard Shell had been Robertson's goal, too.

Though she had only been in the restaurant business for a few years, she'd made it a part of herself. Perhaps giving that up would have been more painful than moving forward. "I guess I just couldn't see myself doing anything else, really," Williams says. "I wasn't made for a desk job. … I like the constant changes every day."

Williams, Golden and Wallof began building momentum — organizing, creating a business plan and turning to some familiar faces for financial support. Williams' father, Emory, and Golden's father, Ken, became silent partners in the business, helping form the Richmond Restaurant Group. And they were exactly as silent as fathers can be in the affairs of their children.

"The kids I think behind my back refer to me as the not-so-silent partner," says Emory Williams, a banker for 17 years and a financial consultant for 20, who's also seen many restaurants come and go. "Bankers as a rule don't want to get involved with restaurants," he says.

Father Williams says he's been able to pull back as "the kids" mature in the business and hopes his daughter, too, has the chance to, well, relax a bit. "I think she needs to have more time with her personal life," he says. "I don't see Michelle being in a position to hardly contemplate a family with all that's on her plate."

The Hard Shell opened May 22, 1995, to a packed house of friends and family, a seafood restaurant born out of what once was a wholesale grocery. It was a nightmare of conversion, but the partners succeeded in converting an old building in a relatively deserted strip of the Slip and giving it the warmth and hum of a jazz club. And, adds Williams, "It had a great patio."

ON BEST-LAID PLANS: Here's what Williams says about The Hard Shell's opening night: "Chaos. Complete chaos."

The trio of Williams, Golden and Wallof was powered by a mix of overconfidence and the energy of youth. "I don't think any 22-year-old restaurateur really thinks they're not going to make it," Williams says, looking back.

The double-edged sword of working with friends was laid on the table. In the end, it worked. "The key in every business is surrounding yourself with good people. … and you'll go far," Emory Williams says.

Talcott says the three are "trusted allies in the same business."

In the restaurant business, employees taking advantage — from pouring drinks for friends to doctoring the books — is not a threat so much as it's a constant. It's a factor that is counted on, planned for and, ideally, prevented through the selection of managers who have proven themselves. Williams passed on her chef duties to the chosen executives only two years ago, a relatively recent satisfaction.

The kitchen culture she's created seems to have built a reputation, too. It's one reason White, executive chef at Michelle's, says he signed on — "because I wanted to make a name for myself." That's important as the restaurant scene blooms, he says. "At a time like this, there's only a few people you want to work for."

The Hard Shell thrived as the praises of its menu were sung in reviews and on the streets. Richmond's palate can be a bit conservative, so seafood had been a wise choice for the group's first restaurant, if only because "Chesapeake" in the names of the food was a familiar comfort for the finicky.

With Europa they went the other direction, with a menu of obscure Spanish morsels that people were embarrassed to try to pronounce. (One of the recent modifications to Europa's menu is an expanded tapas menu, designed so people can write their choices, like sushi, thus avoiding the nebulous threat of faux pas.) The entrepreneurs experimented with live jazz at The Hard Shell and found it was a popular addition. So the opening of the lounge in Europa's downstairs played off of that, beginning the creation of that most elusive of things in a city: the "scene." It also supported Williams' vision of a "one-stop shop" and a "destination" for people looking to park exactly once.

The following year, Golden, along with Wallof and Williams, branched into Church Hill. They purchased The Hill Café, a corner grill and neighborhood hangout.

The trio redesigned both the interior and the menu, giving it some warmer colors, nice booths and an upscale, if casual, ambience. But they realized they couldn't make it a different place entirely. "We tried to stay true to the neighborhood feel," Williams says, adding that they were "at least the fourth owners" of the restaurant.

The Hill Café has been a good fit in a fickle neighborhood with an unpredictable demographic, proving the restaurateurs can assimilate into an existing community as well as build a new one.

A basic grill menu seems a far cry from the French cuisine Williams was trained in, and it illustrates the group's desire to cover some bases. Chef Reitzer, who recently sold his second restaurant, Six Burner, to focus his energies on his popular Carytown restaurant, Acacia, is more skeptical about moving all over the culinary map. "You get trained in a style and you learn how to cook in that style and that's where your heart is," he says. "They're more into these concepts, these gimmicks."

After adding their third restaurant, The Hill Café, Williams and her partners split the responsibilities: Wallof served as manager of The Hill, with Golden at The Hard Shell and Williams at Europa. The next five years saw a lot of fine-tuning.

ON SIMPLIFICATION: Here's one thing Williams learned in that time: "I used to always kind of challenge the palate … introducing flavors together that people wouldn't expect," she says. And now? "Keep it simple. … Every dish doesn't need 15 ingredients. It just needs five good ones."

When waiters spot people coming through the door, they think quantitatively: three-top, four-top; 15 percent, 20 percent. Those diners, on the other hand, walk in experiencing the world of the senses: How does the restaurant smell, look, sound, taste?

Williams' aptitude for the business is one of balancing these two spheres. At any moment, she's considering variables of music volume, cilantro, architectural cues, payroll, first-aid kits, the red line, beer truck schedules, DJs, ice — always ice — insurance, seat upholstery, trust, aprons, trust, VABC, and trust. She's — let's just say it — a sensualist. But she's also competitive.

By 2004 the Richmond Restaurant Group had become something of a territorial creature, an organism connected by its weird arteries and all the markings of a scene. So when other interests began sniffing around the venues vacated by Rivah Bistro and 1425 (next door to The Hard Shell), the group acted on its right of first refusal with building owner Mark Mehrige, claiming both spots. "We weren't exactly keen on the concept of someone moving in there," Williams says.

Expanding on the ever-popular formula of well-dressed people, music and drinks that packs Europa's downstairs lounge, they created Lucky Lounge, which opened in December 2004. The casino-themed club features a backlit screen and attracts gyration-prone people like moths.

"We were gonna do a Cha-Cha's somewhere," says Williams of the newest eatery, opened little more than a month ago. With tequila labels painted large on the walls, a Jeep embedded in the wall and a bar with — yes! — right angles, the concept seems less distinctly Williams. But the strategic advantages of placing it in the Slip made it the final piece of the ant farm.

They had their mini-empire: The Hard Shell, dealing in seafood; Europa, dealing in tapas and "eclectic" fare; Cha-Cha's, staking a claim in the fresh Mexican market; and Lucky Lounge, dealing, it seems, almost exclusively in alcohol and pretty people.

Beyond the Slip, Williams has spent the last two years consulting with Hanover Tavern on the restaurant possibilities while it underwent a massive renovation. In July, Williams, independent of the Richmond Restaurant Group, opened Michelle's, a white-tablecloth Southern dining room — and another "destination." A good indicator for the control she's developed over her vision was reflected recently when a restaurant reviewer criticized the inefficiency of his server. Williams says the waiter was fired before the review was even published. In 10 years, Williams' reaction time has become very good — and for business, that means damage control. Instinct, it seems, especially in an ant farm, is essential for survival.

ON TOMORROW: Here's what Williams predicts for the future: The restaurant at Strawberry and Main, resurrected from the ashes of Southern Culture, may be called either Café Deluxe, Deluxe, or Cream and Sugar, "because it's got a lounge and it's got a diner." Upstairs will be a fireplace, couches, a bar and a kidney-shaped hole in the floor to peer downstairs (and, she assures, a minimum of right angles). It will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, have storefront glass and a patio. She doubts she will open any more restaurants in Richmond ("Never say never"). But she's considering the possibilities of creating a franchise for The Hard Shell in other cities. Settling into one role seems like the only truly unlikely thing. For Williams, the business is akin to her favorite food: appetizers. "I want to taste everything," she says. S

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