For Chef Marc-Antony Williams, his best recipes stem from the lessons he learned around the kitchen table when he was young.
“I take the way that my mom and my grandmother [Zollie] cooked for me, and I duplicate it,” he says.
Williams remembers Zollie serving generous helpings of Southern food at her North Carolina home. She’d tell him to eat and enjoy to the point where he had to the push the plate away. “She was this way, always serving and hospitable,” he says.
Now Williams is the chef at Zollie’s Kitchen, an Afrocentric eatery tucked inside the Celebrations on Market event space on Market Street in downtown Wilmington.
The catering and event space pivoted to include a full-service restaurant in 2019, serving up Southern staples with a Caribbean and West Indies spin, a style of cooking William learned while living in Florida for about a decade. His menu offers a little taste of everything, from jerk chicken to pulled pork.
“It was very easy for me to combine the two flavors,” he explains.
Williams is not a professionally trained chef, but he honed his skills in restaurant kitchens. He got his start as a server in Rehoboth Beach, where he realized the back of the house was where he’d rather be. He became more and more interested in what the chefs were doing and began asking questions to feed his curiosity.
He quickly transitioned to the kitchen, crediting Delaware’s Chef John Orlando for developing his love for food. After spending some time in First State kitchens, Williams was asked to relocate to Florida, working under Richard Blanke as his sous chef in Orlando.
After a decade, Williams returned to his family in Delaware and helped turn what used to be a nightclub space into Celebrations, and later, Zollie’s. He says the melding of his family recipes with Caribbean fare he enjoyed in Florida allowed him to take inspiration right from the source (with a little research, of course).
“I like to say I got it as its purest form,” he says.
Williams says he felt spoiled during his time in Florida, and when he returned home, he noticed a lot of eateries were being forced to Americanize their dishes. At Zollie’s, he takes flavors from the American South, the Caribbean and the West Indies to create a collection of food cultures.
Dishes get their distinct tastes from curry, Mexican peppers, jerk seasoning and dashes of creole. The most popular dishes on the menu include fish or shrimp and grits, and chicken wings dressed in any of an array of sauces.
Zollie’s is also what has helped Celebrations on Market survive COVID-19. Williams says he’s enjoyed being more of a restaurant than a venue during this time, but they’ve still been able to offer customers entertainment in the form of live music and a front-row seat to televised Pittsburgh Steelers football games on fall Sundays.
He’s also thankful for key employees like manager Suzette Singh, better known as Q, who have stuck with him.
“We’re managing to claw our way through this thing,” he says.
The changes in the industry haven’t swayed Williams to put the skewer down. He says the pandemic has helped bring new patrons to Zollie’s who are looking for a different kind of takeout, and he hopes as time goes on, more people want to take a bite of his Afrocentric dishes.
“I still get happy when I turn the flame on,” he says.
Zollie’s Kitchen; 340 S. Market St., Wilmington; 654-2014