In New Orleans’ creole and Cajun culture, there’s a word called “lagniappe.” Pronounced “lan-yap,” it’s one of those regional words that can be difficult to translate, but it loosely refers to a “little something extra” you might receive at a restaurant – a generous gesture, a gift from the heart.
“Chef Gary” Williams, a New Orleans native and restaurateur who died on Dec. 5, gave away who-knows-how-much lagniappe after migrating to Memphis more than 10 years ago. And news of his unexpected death rippled from the Bluff City down the Mighty Mississippi to the Crescent City.
“As the world learns of your passing and is mourning the loss of the great chef, friend, Babalawo and church member you were to them, I mourn the loss of my ‘Pops,’” wrote Williams’ daughter-in-law Resha on Williams’ Facebook page.
“You were a light in a dark place, you would change the atmosphere anywhere you were and I will miss you much!” she continued. “I couldn’t have asked for a better father in Love.”
A local memorial in Memphis is set for 10 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 15, at Greater Community Temple COGIC, 5151 Winchester Ave. Afterwards, Williams’ remains will be transported to New Orleans for a second service on Dec. 18 at St. James Methodist Church.
Williams owned two New Orleans-themed restaurants in Memphis, Krewe of DeJaVu on Florida Street and a now-closed Downtown location on Main Street. While his food won over his customers stomachs, his welcoming smile and warm personality won over their hearts.
News of Williams’ death rocketed across social media, sparking tributes both online and offline. The National Black Chefs Association has announced a special tribute to his memory at the organization’s upcoming Chef Awards, set for February in Philadelphia.
Chef Gary’s son, Rondell, has also created a GoFundMe page, which has raised more than $3,400 of a $10,000 goal. And on Dec. 11, loved ones gathered at Growlers, a restaurant on Poplar Ave, to celebrate Williams’ life and to raise money for his final expenses and to continue restaurant operations.
As effusive as friends at Growlers were about his cooking, they praised the chef’s generosity even more. Madeleine Savage, Williams’ attorney, reminisced about how Gary would make sure Memphis’ homeless people had a hot plate.
“He had a heart of gold,” said Madeleine Savage, Williams’ attorney. “He would feed anyone – I mean, he didn’t care who it was. Even if they couldn’t come in the restaurant, he would go out and meet them and talk to them and make sure they had food. He had a passion. He wanted to make sure people were fed.”
Jo Shaner, a realtor with Keller Williams, raved about Williams’ shrimp and crawfish po boy. “And his cabbage was to frickin’ die for! I could make a meal out of that by itself!” she added.
“And then he would come over and say, ‘Tell me something special that happened to you this week.’ It was just so refreshing,” Shaner said.
Mamie Pike said that even though she’s from Memphis, Williams helped her fall in love with her hometown again.
“Chef Gary taught me how to love my city again,” Pike said. “It wasn’t like he was a transplant. He immersed himself in Memphis. He helped me see my community through eyes that had historic reverence, but also fresh eyes that helped me see my community as fresh and new. I will never forget him for that.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say you could taste the love in Williams’ cooking, said Tony Westmoreland, who organized the Growlers gathering.
“He cooked from the heart anyway,” Westmoreland said. “And with a heart that big, you have to put good food out, right?”
To donate to the Chef Gary GoFundMe fundraiser, visit https://bit.ly/2SF85Kc.