Houston Chef Chris Williams debuts at Historic Black Kendleton Ranch

Houston Chef Chris Williams debuts at Historic Black Kendleton Ranch

This past weekend in June, Chef Chris Williams stood in the heat of summer at Bates Allen Park in Kendleton for a ribbon-cutting party. A group of elected officials and community members gathered at a park site. At the time, there were only a few acres of fresh soil, but during this month’s harvest it was filled with tomatoes, okra, cucumbers and peas that will feed the residents of the historic Black Town about an hour southwest of downtown Houston.

“To see that’s where we are right now, I’m close to emotional,” Williams said after the event. “This effect will be profound.”

Williams, who was nominated for a James Beard Award this year, owns and operates Lucille, a Southern-inspired restaurant in the heart of Houston’s Museum District. Williams also heads a non-profit organization, Lucille 1913, which began serving meals to frontline workers during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic but now serves as a resource for forgotten places and people.

The chef and his nonprofit plan to hire, train and pay Kendleton residents to grow food to sell to the community. To start, locals will be able to buy produce at the farmers’ market at least four times a year, but Williams hopes to eventually open a grocery store in the food desert, which is more than ten miles from any source of fresh food. .

“We’re trying to rewrite this novel and put dignity back into hard work because that’s how you really protect yourself and your community,” Williams said.

Kendleton Ranch, Chris Williams
From left: Constable Daryl Smith, Chris Williams, Fort Bend County Judge K.P. George, Mayor Daryl Humphrey, and Commissioner Grady Prestige during a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the farm in Kendleton.David Wright

Kendleton was once thriving agricultural center. It was originally a farm owned by William E. Kendall. In the 1860s, Kendall divided his plantation into small plantations, and gave the land to freed slaves.

James Grant, who grew up in Kendleton, remembers helping raise cattle, rabbits, and chickens at just five years old. He remembers how farming brought society together. Sometimes families slaughter multiple pigs and then divide the meat among them for the winter.

Grant eventually went to Prairie View A&M, earned a degree in animal science, and went back and started raising his livestock. He’s one of the few farmers who stayed, and he says he misses the bonding moments he grew up with.

“When I came, we were living off the land,” said Grant, 56, who was hired for the Kendleton Agriculture Project. “It wasn’t McDonald’s, Burger King.”

Williams was not familiar with Kendleton until Fort Bend County Judge K.P. George’s office arrived in December 2020 about possible collaborations with him and Lucille in 1913.

Williams visited the area and met the mayor of Kendleton, Daryl Humphrey. He learns that the nearest grocery store is HEB in Wharton, about ten miles away, leaving the town of just over three hundred away with constant access to fresh fruits and vegetables. As you know, job opportunities are few in Kendleton, with many residents seeking work elsewhere.

As he began to think about what would benefit the city, he thought again about the original mission behind his nonprofit: fighting food insecurity. After initially serving meals to front-line workers, Lucille’s business expanded in 1913 to deliver meals to the elderly. Williams said his goal is always to cook meals and serve them to people’s taste buds.

“I know you. I know where you come from,” said Williams. “I know what your taste is. I know how you like to eat. [We deliver] Meals and nutrition with dignity.”

Now, on his Kendleton farm, he’s putting the mission into practice, growing fresh vegetables — like tomatoes, okra, cucumbers and peas — that residents love to eat and know how to cook.

across the country, African Americans account for only about 1.4 percent of the 3.4 million agricultural producers, according to the 2017 U.S. Agriculture Census. There are about 35,000 black-operated farms out of the more than 2 million farms across the country. However, Texas has more African American producers than any other country.

“Farming is hard work, but it’s not being respected the way it used to be,” Williams said. “You have to have access to land, you have to have access to education, and you have to have access to financial support because that’s expensive and risky.”

Kendleton Farm, Chris Williams, Jeremy Peach
Beatrice Lee, GSI Environmental; Jeremy Peach and Chris Williams.David Wright

Jeremy Beechs, the director of agriculture for the Kendleton Project, is familiar with the challenges facing black farmers, which he traces all the way to emancipation. He points out that previously enslaved people did not have fair access to jobs, food, or training. He says the farmer’s image is perverted.

“We have to admit we need farmers, but the farmer is not a white Republican man on a tractor,” said Beaches, 30. “All of us. That’s what they brought us here for. It’s part of us.”

Peaches, a Prairie View A&M graduate, hopes to be able to attract the younger generation to farming in Kendleton. He currently spends about two days a week on the farm, monitoring and fertilizing as needed. The nonprofit hopes to employ at least sixteen Kendletons by spring and ultimately aims to employ 10 percent of the city’s population. Peaches is also planning to hold volunteer days to attract more interested people.

“Now, we have a chance to show that the face of cultivation is black,” Peaches said. “It’s cool. We grow in Nikes and J’s. We’re having fun. It shows we’re back.”

Robertine Jefferson, Director From Lucille in 1913, he said that the number of applications from Kendleton residents to work on the farm was staggering. In April, she saw how much a local farm was needed when she attended an event at King-Kennedy Memorial Park in Kendleton. The nonprofit brought in some small grocery boxes filled with cabbage, vegetables, carrots, onions, and sweet potatoes, and residents couldn’t get their hands on the boxes fast enough.

“Over there in Kendleton, the further you go from Sugar Land, Richmond, and Rosenberg, the resources are few when it comes to fresh food,” Jefferson said. “There are a lot of cattle, but if someone wants an apple that is old and fresh, they drive twenty miles more.”

In addition to the land in Kendleton, Fort Bend County gave Lucille in 1913 forty acres throughout the county for the construction of farms. The nonprofit also operates a park in Fifth Ward and one outside its headquarters in the Energy Center in Southwest Houston.

Williams hopes the impact the farm will have on the community. He thinks it’s important to get Kendleton back to his roots.

We built this country. We built it by doing this. We were farm workers. We didn’t get paid. There is a lot of work to be done in terms of rewriting the American novel, especially in terms of the black experience,” Williams said. .”

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