Chef Cherisha (Cookie) Williams fills her days with food. She caters formal dinners for couples, hosts events for small groups, teaches monthly cooking classes at North Carolina A&T State University, and teaches family and consumer science and apparel classes at North Forsyth High School.
Her busy, food-focused life is a far cry from her 20-year corporate career.
In 2017, Williams’ corporate management position was eliminated, she faced health issues, and her marriage was not working.
“If I had to tell anybody anything, I would say, ‘If you’re faced with a challenge in life, don’t let the challenge control you,’” she said. “Just take the challenge on, just make the best of it, the best that you can. I had a choice. I chose to find a little bit of light. It took me to Second Harvest Food Bank’s Triad Community Kitchen (now Providence Culinary Training), and I was able to flourish from there.”
Williams had always enjoyed the creativity of food and, as a child, she would “try anything once. My grandmother called me her ‘culture child.’ Eating in a restaurant, I am tasting and breaking down the flavor profile, figuring out how this can be executed.”
She enrolled in the Culinary Class 57 of the Providence Culinary Training, a program of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC.
Since its inception in 2006, more than 845 students have graduated from the program. Students assist in preparing some 18,000 meals for children and seniors each week as part of the curriculum, and Providence Catering, a non-profit catering enterprise and the second largest catering business in Forsyth County, provides revenue to support the culinary program.
“The program was my happy place, my bright place,” Williams said. “Everybody has a place they have to go in life. That’s where I started the journey. That was a really pivotal point for me. It was my therapy. As far as my class, we all bonded. It was almost like we gravitated to each other. I still keep in contact with at least three classmates. We still consider ourselves family. Different walks of life brought us there, and we supported each other. We were in this together.”
Classmates created the hashtag “57forlife.” Williams appreciated her chef instructors, who provided a variety of hands-on experiences, and interned at Forsyth Country Club and a local restaurant.
“It wasn’t some ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ chef shouting at you,” she said. “For me, it’s community and family. That’s what Providence represented for me. I will never be able to forget what ‘57’ meant to me. It’s a launching pad. You can do what you want to do with it. It’s art. You make it what you want to make it.”
After graduating from the program, Williams started her own business, Flavor 57 Personal Chef Services and Catering LLC, with a menu full of “Southern comfort” dishes.
She prepares her food at the Enterprise Center, which has a commercial kitchen, then transports the meals to her business space where she serves small, formal dinners and caters events.
Business was well underway when COVID hit, she said. In fact, her business picked up because as a private chef, she hosted events that enabled families to get out of their homes in a safe place. She built relationships with customers, who hired her to cook in their homes during COVID.
Other connections blossomed. After high school, Williams had enrolled at N.C. A&T State University and graduated from High Point University. Her membership in Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first intercollegiate historically African American sorority, reinforced her desire to give back to her community. She said, “Wherever I can give back, in any type of way, that is what makes my heart smile, and I’m living out of a purpose.”
Williams has returned to A&T as a chef, and through A&T’s association with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, she teaches a healthy habits cooking class for the community. She recently completed a video demonstrating how to take traditional meals that families enjoy and make them healthier.
Meanwhile, her oldest son graduated from high school in 2018, and her youngest will graduate in 2023, and Williams, recognizing the pending “empty nest syndrome,” prepared for her next phase.
“I found myself not having a lot to do during the day,” she said, since most of her major catering events occurred on weekends. She began substitute teaching at North Forsyth High school, and the school offered her a full-time position in its family and consumer science program. North Forsyth also recognized the opportunity to use Williams’ experience in the apparel industry to benefit the students.
“I love these kids,” Williams said. “It was a perfect fit. The kids are enjoying the classes. I feel like it is a benefit for them to see someone in real life being able to speak to them, to let them know, ‘this is what you can do in real life.’”
Williams seeks to continually grow and impact her community. Through her teaching, she’s seen, “What was so clear to me, these babies don’t know how to do anything,” she said with a laugh, recalling that students thought washing dishes simply meant putting them in a dishwasher.
“I feel like along the way in society, we’ve lost sight of trades and skills and design and automotive,” she said. “I’m looking at my next phase. I do want to have a nonprofit to teach those life skills. If I could teach one person and make a difference in one person’s life, it will just make me happy.”
As her business plans grow, she is looking for space to not only hold formal dinners but also community events.
“Community has become so important to me,” Williams said, and she credits Providence with where she is today.
“I had a choice to throw in the towel and give up. I turned that into a positive: ‘Now, what can I do?’ Obviously, there’s a next phase.”
What began as “a downward spiral turned into this beautiful situation where I’m able to use all my gifts. I love food; I love kids; I love being creative. I’m so glad I’m here. I’m passionate about what I do. I reach the kids.”
For more information about Chef Williams and Flavor57, go to flavor57. com or email [email protected].
Food brings us together. Find out how you can get involved and support programs like Second Harvest’s Providence Culinary Training this holiday season. Visit SecondHarvestNWNC.org.
Changing lives, one recipe at a time.SecondHarvestNWNC.org | ProvidenceWS.org