A briny and bright future for “The Pickled Chef”
By Naomi Tomky, guest contributor
This article was originally published in March 2022
One stormy day in New Orleans, the power went out in the AirBnB Mahogany Williams was renting, and the oven along with it. “Use the grill,” the host instructed, directing her to a jar of pickled hot dogs for sustenance. It was a final “aha” moment for Williams, cementing the place of pickles in her inherited cuisine.
In New Orleans, beyond those unlikely frankfurters, she saw pickled beef tongue, chicken marinated in dill pickle juice, and that same brine used to make salad dressing. “That’s gold,” she realized. It led to her own business, The Pickled Chef, which launched in 2021 with pickled grapes, beet eggs, sweet peppers and red onions. Williams was awarded a PCC Diverse Entrepreneurs Grant through the nonprofit Ventures to help that business grow (see details below).
Like so much in her career in the restaurant industry, the path from her pickle epiphany to her own business took many more turns. Williams grew up in kitchens—first watching her mother stir gumbo in their Hilltop house in Tacoma, then at her high school job for Ivar’s—but that means she also learned the harsh reality of the restaurant industry at a young age. “At the time, no women had ever worked on the fryer,” she remembers from the fish and chips shop. No one had officially, that is; she did it every night when her coworker went on break.
“I knew cooking was something I was good at, that I enjoyed, something I could advance at,” she says of the early half of her career. But looking back, she now sees that it only seemed that way because she mostly “stayed in her lane,” as she describes it.
Williams worked through and after school at a laundry list of local restaurants, including Pagliacci Pizza and as the morning sous chef at Kingfish Café. She dreamed of working for people like Tom Douglas but found that her fast-food background meant that few places beyond the ones she’d already found would hire her into a full kitchen. She realized another layer of the puzzle soon after, working at a different restaurant where she saw herself lingering at the salad station rather than getting promoted. “You’re a good worker,” she remembers the chef scolding her for trying to elevate her status. “But you’re never going to be a chef, you’re a Black woman.”
She knew cooking had her heart, but she saw the reality: “No matter what I’m always going to be a Black gay woman chef,” says Williams. “I’m happy about that, but that sometimes does lead for me not to get the job that I want.”
Williams left the industry for more than a decade, working in construction and later in sales. “I felt like a zombie,” she remembers. She traveled around the country for work, though, which meant she got to taste a duck dish at Hubert Keller’s Fleur de Lis in Las Vegas, Art Smith’s fried chicken in Chicago and Emeril’s food in Orlando. With each meal, she saw what she truly wanted to do. When her company started to go under in 2016, she seized the opportunity to take a layoff package and headed to culinary school at Seattle Central.
While there, she still needed a job. She vowed to work for a renowned chef, but also only to work for a woman when she returned to the industry that she loved—but which had not loved her back. At Terra Plata, she found that job—and a mentor—with owner-chef Tamara Murphy, whose locally sourced meals have won Seattle raves since the late 1980s. Terra Plata provided the path forward that was hidden at her other jobs. She moved up from salads to run lunch and brunch—and she got to make plenty of pickles, which eventually led to her New Orleans revelation during a stay cooking in that city to gain still more experience. She followed that up with a trip to Europe and had just gotten home and taken her first job running her own kitchen at a hotel a few months before the onset of the pandemic.
The hotel restaurant closed immediately. Williams went from working 62 hours a week and shopping for a condo to living with her parents and having no job. Like so many others at the time, she started gardening and got a dog. But when she looked for her next move, she realized she couldn’t risk a repeat of her earlier years, she couldn’t bear to follow the path she had seen many Black women chefs go down before her, their legacies divorced from their talent. “It was time for me to do something on my own.”
She started out with a ghost kitchen-style restaurant, selling her pickle fried chicken via delivery apps in September 2020. “It was a total failure.” She quickly realized that, while her friends and family clamored to support her, when most people opened an app to search for fried chicken, they got a half-dozen locations of Popeye’s before her shop came up. Still, she got tons of special requests for one of the little side dishes she sent with the meals: pickled grapes. “People hadn’t had them before; they just went crazy for them.”
She started catering, working out of a winery, and making her pickles. As a trained chef, it felt weird to give up the Southern oxtails and okra she loved to cook, but the pickles went gangbusters. “People started buying them 10 jars at a time.” She leaned in and started packaging them—selling them in vending machines at the University of Washington, opening conversations about future sales with grocery stores like PCC and other retailers.
“Wherever it leads me, I am going” she says of life as The Pickled Chef. After much of the first half of her career was shaped by people holding her back, she finally feels like the opposite is happening. “Everything is open on the horizon for me, so I’m extremely excited.”
Naomi Tomky (naomitomky.com), author of “The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook,” writes about food and travel.
PCC Diverse Entrepreneur Grants
PCC has awarded a total of $8,000 in Diverse Entrepreneur Grants to support developing businesses owned by Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), female and LGBTQIA+ entrepreneurs. The grants are awarded in partnership with Seattle-based Ventures, a nonprofit working to empower local entrepreneurs. Some recipients are in the early stages of creating their businesses; others have already started retail sales. Grants support needs from permitting fees to research and development. The most recent grant recipients are:
- Chawntee Duncan, owner of Chawntee’s Market, focused on herbal and natural supplements.
- Mahogany Williams, owner of The Pickled Chef (see related story), Thepickledchefnw.com.
- Keaomee Horne, owner of Lannie, a producer of “free-from” nail polish and remover.
- Angelo Jimenez, owner of VegBur, Inc., producing plant-based mozzarella cheese.
- Elena Nebreda, owner of Kisses From, producing USDA Organic lip balms.
The grants are an extension of the Scaling for Success program held by Ventures and PCC each year. Scaling for Success courses include members of PCC’s merchandising team and focus on all aspects of developing a wholesale business from creating business plans with a focus on wholesaling and inventory management to efficient communication between business owners and potential customers.
“Working with Ventures helps us support members of our community who often don’t have access to traditional business development services or funding,” said Brenna Davis, PCC’s vice president of social and environmental responsibility. “Through training in the Scaling for Success program, funding with our grants and mentorship with our merchandising team, we are creating economic opportunity for diverse small businesses, while providing shoppers with the local, high-quality products they love.”
Products from Ventures entrepreneurs currently available on PCC’s shelves include:
- JT’s Original Louisiana Bar-B-Que Sauce
- Brittles from Lanier’s Fine Candies
- Capuli Club teas
- Skin and self-care products from Deschampsia and OOliva