Williams took over the space from the previous owners of the Near South Side restaurant, 49 E. Cermak Road, with their blessing. Many of Chef Luciano’s employees have stayed on for the new venture.
Known for comfort food staples like chicken and pasta, Chef Luciano was among many restaurants struggling to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, with its leaders telling Eater in April 2020 that the statewide shutdown cut its sales in half. Owners David and Rocky Gupta announced the restaurant’s closure in September.
Williams credited the Guptas for offering their help and guidance through a near-seamless transition, as he opened Mustard Seed just a few weeks after its predecessor.
“They worked with us to understand their equipment and their layout and [offered] advice on what they would do differently,” Williams said. “Rocky and his dad worked diligently to make sure we understood the nuances of the space.”
Wanting to make food “approachable and affordable,” the chef kept the menu simple. Perennial favorites like chicken Alfredo ($16.99) and roasted chicken and mashed potatoes ($15.99) are alongside less expensive fare, like chicken gumbo ($7.99) and tomato soup ($5.99). An assortment of burgers, salads and entrees round out the menu.
For desserts, the restaurant teamed up with Brown Sugar Bakery to sell slices of the bakery’s popular caramel cake ($7.99) and other sweet treats.
Unlike Chef Luciano, Mustard Seed Kitchen is takeout-only, which Williams said has worked out well in his quest to reduce its carbon footprint. The restaurant only uses reusable cleaning products. Most of its takeout containers are compostable, with the goal to make all of them compostable in the future.
Williams, a James Beard Award finalist, said he sees food as a gift and a balm in troubled times. Last year’s pandemic shutdown forced the restaurateur to pivot — like so many others — to stay afloat. He found himself serving scores of first responders and health care workers at Virtue, his Hyde Park outpost, and many of them were stretched to the limits, he said.
“The thing that proved throughout the pandemic was that even though people were at home, they were getting tired of cooking. It wasn’t even a ‘cook versus non-cook’ thing. You just get tired of your own flavors, you start getting fatigued,” Williams said. “There was a market there.”
The new space also gives Williams another avenue through which he can give back, making it easier to arrange large meal donations to homeless shelters or people in transitional housing. Raising money to cover workers who volunteer to help while enlisting food vendors to join the cause is something the chef is exploring in the future.
“This is the longest period in my life as a professional chef that I have not been able to navigate my philanthropy in a way that feels great, and part of what I like to do is make meals for people who otherwise wouldn’t have them. We were able to do some of that with the hospitals, which worked out well. But there are people who are in much worse shape,” Williams said. “This gives an immediate mechanism to be able to give back.”
Mustard Seed Kitchen is open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
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