Chef Mama, caterer of Renaissance World Tour, founder and CEO of Exquisite Catering, a full-service catering business of International Cuisine on the South Side of Chicago, talks the meaning of her success, making a difference in her community as a chef and culinary artist, sustainability, her big break in backstage and tour catering, and the impact of Renaissance World Tour on her life and business.
You never know how you're making a difference in people's lives. – Tiffany "Chef Mama" Williams
I've had the pleasure of knowing Tiffany Williams (aka "Chef Mama") since 2015-16. I recall our conversations about her starting a catering business. I've been blessed to experience her consistent first-rate hospitality and service on many occasions when she worked for the Greenline service bar at Polsky Exchange North at the University of Chicago, where we met. I remember saying to myself as the GM of the 24-hour restaurant, Clarke's, working 12 to16-hour grueling shifts, "If I can just get to Tiffany at Greenline, right across the street, things will be alright." She always left me feeling more confident and ready to meet the challenge of the next situation, with a smile, greeting, conversation, cup of coffee, scone, smoothie, or breakfast/lunch sandwich.
TC: When did you begin seeing yourself making a difference or impact in hospitality or culinary arts?
TW: 17 and pregnant at the time, I thought of becoming a meteorologist, but I couldn’t go away to school in Florida as I had planned. I had the opportunity to go, but I had a baby on the way. So, I to stayed in Chicago, and ended up taking a culinary arts class at Gallery 37, one of many arts classes. One chef in particular stood out, a former pastry chef at Illinois Institute of Art Chicago, Chef Wagner; he told me that I was good at cake design. “What are you going to do after high school?” he asked. That was a turning point for me. I didn’t know what I was going to do, things changing quickly! He said, “You should check out culinary school.” So, I did. I’ve been in it ever since. I don't think we realize how powerful it is when someone believes in and encourages us to tap into our gifts and purpose in life. Because someone like Chef Wagner reminded me that I was good at something... "cake design!" mind you, I don't take for granted the power of words, and moments to encourage others, particularly our youth and teenagers.
I go about my day reminding myself, 'You never know how you're making an impact in people's lives.' I'm grateful for Gallery 37 and their amazing arts program. Exquisite Catering is really about investing in and extending opportunities, especially to those who've never really seen themselves in spaces outside of the South Side of Chicago. Partnering with programs like After School Matters changes people's lives. The culinary arts can be a vehicle for those looking to expand and enrich not only their lives personally but also the livelihood of their families and communities, as it's done for me, my family, and the community. In addition to offering full-service catering, we'll be entering the local film set, movie, and backstage catering. Our not-for-profit division does a lot of work, volunteering, and partnering with the community--without thought--through my mentors and other organizations.
TC: Before RWT, how did you get booked for backstage and tour catering opportunities?
TW: I started getting these opportunities when the NFL draft came to Chicago in 2015 and 2016, around the time when you and I actually met. When I was at Greenline coffee, I got an invitation to work the NFL draft. While working the event, the owner of the company Goddess Rocks Catering, Debbie Sharp, asked if I would be interested in working some other gigs. She really liked the way I worked, so she invited me to cater Formation. I was like, “Hmmm…I don’t have anything to do! Of course, I’d love to do it!” On the way back from the Minneapolis and Chicago shows, I was offered and accepted an executive chef position with her company in 2016, catering everything from the Coldplay show, Snoop Dogg, Chance the Rapper’s “Magnificent Coloring Day” festival at Chicago White Sox stadium (formerly Comiskey Park, aka ‘South Siders’) U.S. Cellular Field, which featured guests, including Skrillex, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Young Thug, Tyler, the Creator, Lil Uzi Vert. This was one of my favorite shows because it was on the southside of Chicago at Comiskey Park. It gave me a sense of pride, even though no one knew what I was doing or why I was there. I was like, “This is how you 'big rep' your city, right here!” I was also the head chef for Lollapalooza music festival, which was unbelievable. I think I died like three times during those performances. It was the most challenging but rewarding thing I’ve done as a chef.
TC: Did you have any preconceived notions as a chef before the European leg of RWT, especially since you're no stranger to backstage and tour catering, having been the head chef of Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago, feeding up to 3,000 people a day from 2016-17, for two-and-a-half weeks straight?
TW: Not really! I went into it with an open mind, having been a chef on Justin Bieber’s Purpose World Tour back in 2016. One thing I discovered was a big 'No, no!' was not to pack too many heels! I told myself, after standing on my feet all day, to pack comfortable shoes and other self-care items because the work is hard on your body. So, going into RWT, I knew that I wanted to take better care of myself, staying confident and prepared at all times. There’s a reason I got the opportunity, so there’s no reason to doubt myself or to think I didn't belong.
TC: You allude to taking care of ourselves as we care for others, allowing space and time to recover from pouring into and, in your case, quite literally nourishing others. How else did you sustain yourself during RWT?
TW: I make it a priority to start each morning in the word of God and prayer. God is a part of my life; I’ve been blessed as a chef to serve and bless others, and it is my belief that the Holy Spirit guides me in everything that I do. It’s been incredible growing and aligning myself with the wisdom and love of God as I’m going through this journey. Seeing things outside of myself has brought me great joy. You would laugh, but I had an entire suitcase of self-care items. On Justin Bieber's Justice World Tour, I took a lot of shoes. RWT was a different--I probably took three pairs of shoes and a massager for my feet, back and shoulders. A tidbit of advice for those looking to enter into the space of event and tour catering, it's not for the weak or faint at heart. It's demanding! You’ll beat your body up doing this, so self-care is very important. After the shows, I looked forward to getting back to my hotel room to take a bath. The spa-soaking tubs in European hotels were lagniappe. I must have one here at home; the experience was so soothing, especially at the end of a long day. To say the least, after the shows, I was ready for my selfcare, with bath salts ready to go!
TC: Would you say RWT has changed your life?
TW: Absolutely! It's changed my life a great deal. I mean, who doesn’t know or hasn’t heard of, seen or listened to Beyoncé. A definite icon! This is my third go-around with her production. A Formation show in Minneapolis and two back in Chicago was my very first backstage catering series of events. I thought, “I can’t turn down Beyoncé!” I must admit, I am a fan! Not quite ‘Beyhive,’ but a fan no doubt! I couldn’t believe the opportunity, so to be here at this level since that first go-around working those shows on the tour makes me feel very blessed. It’s truly changed my life because it’s made me see outside of what I see in my hometown of Chicago. To see things from a different perspective has driven me to desire more from myself, my business, my community! We'll be expanding into backstage catering, which I’m really excited about, and will have some important news to share in 2024.
A key component to my success has been the relationships I've made! The people I’ve met! As I told several people on the tour, especially the dancers and members of the band, "I'm so happy I didn’t know you before the tour because I’ve gotten a chance to see you without the fandom that might have come if I had known who you were before [RWT]." It let me see how they’ve worked hard to get to where they are, which made me appreciate them more. It also reassured me of my own success, that I belonged on the tour as well. I, too, have worked hard and have come a long way to be where I am. They were grateful that my service and our team of chefs were there to support and make their jobs just a little more comforting, relaxed, enjoyable, with a feeling of home. The relationships I’ve made will continue, and I'm super excited about their future, as they are about mine; the doors that may swing open for each of us, as we lend ourselves to greater creativity, openness, and service that honors our craft while paying homage to those who’ve gone before.
TC: Among the 14, not including Beyoncé's personal chefs for her and her inner circle, for whom did you prepare, cook, and present your international cuisine?
TW: We prepared food for everybody, from the costume designers, choreographers and staging, the band, the dancers, including "the Dolls," background vocalists, singers, wardrobe, glam, tour management, video and music directors, lighting design, singers, audio-visual, to the locals, 450 to 650 people.
TW: I'm proud of the sustainability component that went into RWT. Food that we prepared was locally sourced, from city-to-city. Whatever country we were in, we were actually purchasing food and products from those communities. It was very exciting to travel around to different cities, states… indeed countries, to know that the food that we were getting and serving had been locally sourced, and that we were a part of a much larger ecosystem of making a difference in the lives of the communities, people, and families that received and welcomed us. Though we didn’t typically cook cuisine prominent to any particular area because most people typically use their off-days or down-time to go out to eat and learn about the cuisine of a particular community, culture, region of the country. In backstage catering, we have runners who work with the production crew, who source products for us, get our advanced menus, and do some of our shopping.
For most of the organizations that I’ve been fortunate to cater, at the end of the day, most of the food left over is donated to local groups, agencies, and homeless shelters, and community organizations that feed the homeless. That’s one of the rewarding things about being on tour; we actually make a difference, sending and giving the food away to people who need it, not discarding it, which is something quite beautiful that I do in my business as well.
TC: Has RWT expanded the vision and mission that you have for your company?
“Yes!” I’ve actually planned on catering another big tour. I’m hoping and praying that this time around it’ll be with my company, Exquisite Catering. Again, I’ve been blessed to be a backstage and tour chef, but I want to see more black and brown people, more black men and women in these spaces especially. Often, I’m still the only black woman, and dare I say, 'black woman from Woodlawn or another similar community here in the U.S.' in this privileged space. Though I’m grateful and blessed to be a part of it, an extension of this blessing is representing and making sure that “the Next” have the opportunity as well. It forces me to work that much harder to ensure that that happens. I want to show that as black and brown people, especially those from underserved and under-resourced communities, that we're equally deserving to be here as well. I want to expose a lot more young people, who don’t know about this side of the industry, that there’s opportunities for them as well. It’s such a life changing side of the industry.
TC: Were you a Beyoncé fan or BeyHive prior to RWT?
TW: I was a chef for the Formation tour back in 2016. Then in 2018, I did some Midwest stops for On the Run II. It was my very first tour! Beyoncé’s a lot of firsts for me: my first backstage catering job, my first tour, OTRII. I went to every single show. I didn’t care how tired I was. I found the best spot to stand, singing and rapping to Jay-Z's hits. At those shows, I discovered I'm actually a Jay-Z fan. I knew all the verses to the songs. I was like ‘Oh my G-d! I’m a Jay-Z fan.' I didn’t realize that. It was such a great experience. I don’t know if I’m quite Beyhive yet. That’s pretty intense. I don’t think I would be able to cater anything if I was completely Beyhive. I will take honorary Beyhive, though.
TC: As we close, what 'Top 5' songs are on your "Chef Mama's Renaissance" playlist?
TW: You know what's funny, my kids always ask me if I'm tired of Beyoncé's music by now. I can't listen to the songs out of show order, dancing to each one. What's funny, too, is I think I know the dances to all of them.
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