Cooking has literally taken Irvin J. Williams, Jr. around the world. While serving in the U.S. Navy from 1990 through 2000, he was a culinary chef on ships stationed in San Diego, a chef at the Naval Hospital in Great Lakes, Ill., the banquet chef at the White House during the President Clinton administration, and the personal chef to the admiral of the 7th Fleet, the largest of the forward-deployed U.S. fleets, with 50 to 60 ships, 350 aircraft and 60,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel. Although he was honorably discharged in 2000, he has continued to navigate the country plying his New Orleans-style cuisine at each stop.
While working with Aramark Foods, the former Persian Gulf War veteran was director of catering at the UNC School of the Arts, catering manager at Wake Forest University, director of concessions at Boise State University in Idaho, and director of public food at the Ernest Morial Convention Center in New Orleans. He was the banquets manager for the former Adams Mark Hotel in Winston-Salem, and held the same title at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel in New Orleans. He also has served as the assistant general manager at the Lone Star Steakhouse and Saloon in Anchorage, Alaska.
“My passion is food,” says the 40-year-old well-traveled chef. Since August, when he returned to the Triad, he has been the executive chef of Greensboro Day School.
Motivated to start catering company
Now, the world-traveler has opened his own catering company, NOLA Catering and Events, inspired by his hometown of New Orleans and the French-style cuisine the city is famous for and that Williams grew up eating. Williams says the experience he has gained over the past twenty-plus years has well-equipped him to handle large and small catering events, including banquets, weddings, and private parties that require a fine-dining experience. For example at Boise State, he was responsible for all aspects of a retail operation with sales exceeding $975,000 annually and concessions sales of an additional $1.2 million. He also managed the day-to-day operations of third-party vendors, including Starbucks, Subway, Java City, Sandwich Zone, Moxie Java, The Grill, Bene Pasta & Pizza, and Zoca Mexican Grill. He was responsible for the management and supervision of the Boise State University campus concessions, including Bronco Football Stadium, Taco Bell Arena and The Morrison Performing Arts Center.
His successful experience at Boise State started Williams thinking he could go into business for himself. “I saw how much money I was making for other businesses,” he says. “On a single Saturday in Boise I was bringing in $150,000.”
At Wake Forest, he oversaw alumni weddings, weekly dinners by the school’s deans and all campus dining events. He also supervised catered meals for sporting events and sports banquets where attendance could reach as many as 1,000, and he catered off-campus staff parties for alumni events. Another of his motivations for starting his own catering company was so that he could provide a fine-dining experience to smaller organizations that do not have the budget of larger organizations.
“I bring the same level of professionalism and attention to detail to NOLA Catering and Events as I did at each of the first-class operations I’ve been privileged to be work at,” Williams says. “No event is too small and no event is too big. The only difference is NOLA Catering and Events will provide the same level of ambiance, sophistication and food preparation to each event without clients paying exorbitant prices. I give clients a five-star experience for an economic price; at the same time I cook from the heart. I love the end result of what I do by making people happy with my food.”
Grew up in 7th Ward
The name of his business is a takeoff of New Orleans, La., where he grew up in the city’s 7th Ward – the same area that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. He brought his mother to live with him in Winston-Salem during the hurricane, and she was relieved upon her return that their house was not damaged though houses just blocks away were destroyed.
His passion for food, he says, can be traced back to his great-grandmother. She emigrated from France to Chicago before settling in New Orleans and, according to Williams was a bona fide French chef. Though there weren’t much work for female chefs in the 1920s and 1930s, she made a living as a seamstress while reserving her world-class French cuisine for everyday family meals.
“The stuff that I saw her do in the kitchen – even when I was just a seven-, eight-year-old boy playing on the kitchen floor with my toys – it was textbook French cooking only a classically trained person could do,” Williams says. “She’s the first person I saw actually de-bone a fish without taking the fish apart. Then she’d dress it with cucumbers and other fresh vegetables. I was blessed with a wealth of cuisine at my finger tips and didn’t even know it.”
He not only appropriated a stylized version of the city’s name for his business, but the New Orleans-style, French-inspired cuisine as well. “Everyone loves New Orleans-style food,” Williams says. “I thought why not bring New Orleans to the Triad?”
Thoughts of becoming a dentist
Though he grew up on fine French cuisine and always had a passion for food, Williams actually joined the Navy with the intent on becoming a dentist. Each Navy Airman, however, had to serve ninety days working in the mess hall. “The guys in the mess hall noticed that I knew what I was doing and they started testing me and it kind of just evolved,” he says.
Evolved is an understatement, considering his mess hall duty would eventually lead to him to cooking for the president of the United States of America. Williams served as the banquet chef at the White House during the last two years of President Clinton’s first term and the first two years of his second term. His staff provided meals to the president, vice president, cabinet officials as well as members of Congress.
Because it was considered “secure duty”, he is barred from discussing much of his four years there. “I can say President Clinton really enjoyed chocolate-chip cookies,” Williams says. “That’s probably the most I feel I’m privileged to say.”
NOLA Catering and Events
Irvin J. Williams, Jr.
(336) 313-6119 (office)
(336) 470-7853 (cell)