The James Beard Award winner dishes on eating out, honoring roots and upping your burger game. (Hint: There’s a fried egg and bacon involved.)

Erick Williams has been a fixture of the Chicago dining scene for years, and in 2022, he nabbed a James Beard Award for best chef for his work at Virtue. That restaurant is a higher-end dining experience, but eating at home (and serving more to-go food) during the pandemic inspired Williams to open another restaurant, Mustard Seed Kitchen, offering good-quality takeout in the South Loop. It's a spot where even though the food comes in a box, he says, it "feels like a chef's kiss."

Erick Williams
Credit: Marcus Smith

You have been working in Chicago for so many years (and seen a lot of restaurants come and go). Where are your top spots to eat right now?

One of my favorite places is Frontier. Brian Jupiter continues to amaze me with his ability to be creative with whole animals. I also love Monteverde for my pasta needs—and Piccolo Sogno for my patio and Italian needs. And I just had an incredible meal at Esmé a week ago: Jenner Tomaska may be doing the best cooking of his life right now.

Your first solo restaurant concept was Virtue. How would you describe it to someone who hasn't been?

Our menu is inspired by the food that was carried through the Great Migration, so it's similar to things you'd have in the South, but different because thing changed with the migration north. And we also think about Africa—how food would have been if we had arrived in this country differently.

You've made a point to give back a lot to the community.

Things aren't getting easier. Just look at your bills and you know that. Our restaurants have given meals to homeless shelters, first responders, educators. It's not just about feeding people. Receiving food validates the work people are doing.

Good Afternoon Burger
Credit: Kelsey Hansen

When we asked you to share a summer cookout recipe with our readers, you offered up the Good Afternoon Burger—a monster topped with a fried egg, Swiss cheese, avocado, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion and special sauce (phew!). Make the case for towering grilled burgers over trendy smash burgers.

A crispy, greasy-spoon hangover burger is good, but a grilled burger is the meal for when I'm looking to sink my teeth into some meat. When I was a kid growing up, that's how burgers were served. That thing was substantial. That thing was thick. That's nostalgic to me. The Good Afternoon Burger is juicy and legit—a hefty bite for sure!

And the ritual of grilling itself is part of the appeal too, right?

My summer holiday traditions are centered around the grill. I love outdoor cooking because fire does what it wants to do. If it's windy, things cook faster. You have to manage and respond to that fire.

Your burger recipe calls for ground chuck. What say you to someone who considers swapping a leaner grind?

Back to nostalgia, the beef growing up was chuck. Also, if you're going to commit to eating beef, in my humble opinion, then you may as well eat delicious beef. You aren't saving enough calories with lean beef to compensate for the lack of flavor.

Besides embracing fat, what's the secret to a good burger?

The moment you press a thick burger down on the grill to cook it faster, you're squeezing out the juice. At Mustard Seed Kitchen, I'll tell you where we spend our time: seasoning beef, and not squeezing burgers.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.