Interview with Chef Kwame Williams
387 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042
By Sonia Schnee
In January 2016, I had the privilege of sitting down to interview Kwame Williams, Executive Chef at Vital Dining. Vital is a Jamaican-style vegan-friendly restaurant located at 387 Bloomfield Ave in Montclair, NJ. Kwame and his sisters, Nataki and Kanika, are all co-owners, and they had recently celebrated Vital's 1st year anniversary. Below are excerpts from my interview with Chef Kwame.
K.W.: I’m Kwame Williams, Chef Kwame Williams. On social media I go by ChefKWill. I grew up in South Orange. My family’s from Jamaica. Moved to NJ very early on and been in NJ ever since, so I’m a NJ guy. Recently moved to Montclair when we opened up this restaurant.
being an entrepreneur
I am the Executive Chef of Vital restaurant. I’m co-owner with my sisters. The three of us put this thing together, and we’re looking forward to our 2nd year this summer.
Vital was an idea that was just in the back of my mind for quite some time. My older sister [Nataki] came to me one day and was just like, "let’s open up a restaurant." Every chef I know experiences this, people saying you should open up a restaurant, and it never comes to fruition. But then she called me the next day and was like, "I found the location," and I was like, "So you’re serious?" and she was like, "Yeah!" It was almost like out of one of those shows, where we come and we flip the restaurant over night. We opened up 3 weeks from the date of the phone call, got the LLC, and did all the paperwork, did the menu, and literally made it happen over night. [...] It was great to see something go from an idea that was just festering in my mind for who knows how long, to what you see today.
It’s been a growing process. The restaurant you see today wasn’t the restaurant you saw a year and half ago. The kitchen itself, it’s always growing. There are many dishes on the menu that received small tweaks [...] The whole process is to continue to get better every day. The patrons that've been with us from the start, they’ve seen changes -- the art on the wall, they’ve seen the menu change maybe 5, 6 times now. A lot of the staples stay. Things that weren’t received well are gone, replaced with new things. It’s more of an evolution than anything else.
CHASING THE DREAM
My passion for cooking stems from eating. I was cooking for myself at a young age. If I ate dinner and I was still hungry, I would just go in the kitchen and see what I could put together. My first jobs were in high school, and shortly after high school it’s easiest to get a job in the field. I found myself cooking and working in chain restaurants. I enjoyed seeing people enjoy the food the same way I did. I was speaking to a manager and he suggested culinary school, and I went to culinary school and never looked back.
I came out [of culinary school] and had an externship at The Ryland Inn, still one of the best restaurants in NJ year after year. I went through every high-end fine dining restaurant that I could think of, or go to, in NJ, whether it be The Manor, The Pleasantdale, Rats.
I was doing NY for a while. Was actually at a restaurant called Minton’s in Harlem, working with a bunch of other extraordinary chefs [...] Things were going amazingly in NY. We had just did a James Beard event. We went to the James Beard Awards, and everything was going great […] The sister restaurant next door got Restaurant of the Year from Ebony magazine. Like, why are you going to leave? I had this opportunity to start my own [restaurant] and go out there and bring to life things I was dreaming about from before culinary school.
"I had this opportunity to [...] bring to life things I was dreaming about from before culinary school."
THE VITAL STYLE
When we were trying to finalize the menu, at the time I was strictly vegan and playing with raw food, and I wanted Vital to be strictly vegan [...] My sister fought me and we compromised, and where we came, I’m happy with because it almost works better. [...] Now that we’re open, we find a lot of people that are in different phases and different walks of life, and we can happily say that we cater to all those people [...] You have a group of 5 people and 1 might be pescatarian, 1 might be paleo, 1 might be gluten-free, 1 might be vegan, and 1 person is just like, "I just like good food." All of those people will have multiple opens to choose from on the menu [...] If we add a new vegan dish, we try to add a new meat dish or vice versa.
"You have a group of five people and one might be pescatarian, one might be paleo, one might be gluten-free, one might be vegan, and one person is just like, 'I just like good food.' All of those people will have multiple opens to choose from on the menu."
A lot of the people say the food is extremely clean. That’s something we take pride in. [...] The food is made fresh, like the chicken is coming in whole, the salmon is coming in whole, and everything is being made to order. Your plantain chips are being fried right then.
I work with Montclair Community Farm. I also work with Montclair CSA. [...] The specials are based around what’s available at the moment, so that’s where we’re more farm-to-table than anything. [...] With our specials we’re as local as possible, as fresh as possible, and then we’re very whimsical with whatever it is at that time, based on what’s available.
MOST POPULAR ITEMS
Stuffed avocado and the kale salad. The salmon burger is definitely a crowd favorite. A recent edition that is outselling everything right now is the jerk chicken wrap. [...] We came up with our own spin on the classic tradition, [...] seasoning it the traditional way, but then rather than grilling it in a pit, we kind of roast it slowly so the chicken comes out the texture of like a pulled pork, and we add that in the wrap with avocado and sweet plantains, and people are really loving it.
RUNNING A SMALL BUSINESS
As a small business, it definitely is an uphill battle. [...] Whether it’s on a State level, or a federal level, or even just a local legislation level, we should always be pushing forward for new legislation, new grants, new tax exemptions, just to promote business in general.
WHAT CAN THE AVERAGE PERSON DO TO SUPPORT SMALL BUSINESSES?
Literally going out to the place -- wherever it is -- and support a small business with your business. There’s no better way. There’s several other things you can do to help promote -- word of mouth, or just whatever your services might be, offering your services -- but there’s nothing like just going to whatever it is and supporting them by participating with whatever it is that they sell.
The perception that I come across most times is, people who have never been to Jersey only associate it with the TV shows that they have seen, or New Yorkers who have only come to NJ for a football game, [...] their only experience with NJ is the turnpike. So typically everyone thinks everyone looks and acts like people from Jersey Shore or NJ stinks because they’ve driven up and down the turnpike. And those are two things that are definitely not factual about NJ at all. [...] There’s nothing that you can do in NY that you can’t do in NJ, plus you don’t have the negative hustle and bustle of the city. And then especially with a town like Montclair, it’s like the city but outside of the city.
In Montclair, specifically, there are tons of things to do. There’s always little art exhibits. There’s art events. There’s musical events. There’s the Wellmont, which is right across the street from Vital, so there’s always someone playing at the Wellmont. You have two local movie theaters, one of which shows a lot of indie movies. There’s an ice skating rink. The Turtle Back Zoo is not too far from here. [...] There’s a lot of festivals. There’s a film festival. There’s a food and wine festival.
There’s a lot of restaurants in Montclair. [...] I frequent The Corner a lot. I frequent MishMish. Pure Pita. Uncle Momo. The list of restaurants in Montclair is pretty long. There’s an Ethiopian place, Mesob. I like the diversity. [...] Whether you’re looking for Thai, or Jamaican -- of course, Vital -- Korean, Japanese, sushi, Ethiopian, Cuban, Portuguese, Brazilian... I mean, the list goes on with different ethnicities and styles of restaurants that are right here in the melting pot of Montclair.
Looking To the Future
10 years down the road, obviously we would like this Montclair location to be [Vital's] home base, and we’d like to see the Vital brand grow. We’ve spoken with people in Whole Foods about getting the hummus into Whole Foods. The hummus is definitely a staple here. We send it out to every table that comes out, almost similar to bread. Every table gets hummus and plantain chips. And really just solidifying this location and moving on to more locations. A lot of people have been trying to get us to come to Brooklyn. There’s talk of us going to other locations within NJ itself. We want to just keep it a family business, grow it as much as possible, and continue to take the steps as they’re presented to us.
About the Writer
Sonia Schnee is the Founder of Jersey Indie. She is a resident of Morris County and freelance video editor who is passionate about showcasing NJ's many talented and creative residents.