To visit the Food Sermon — a fine idea for anyone who craves a full ordnance load of scotch bonnet peppers massaged into chicken thighs — is to instantly understand how COVID-19 is complicating things even for takeout spots.
Building 77 on Flushing Avenue, home to the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s roomy food hall — as well as 16 floors of light manufacturing, design, and photography businesses — was sparsely populated on a chilly Friday afternoon in December. A handful of patrons queued up for lox at Russ & Daughters. A worker at Sabor, a Colombian-Dominican pop-up, was cleaning metal steam trays for a 3 p.m. closure. And I was the only customer at the Food Sermon, which appeared to have enough Caribbean fare ready for an office Christmas party that was cancelled at the last minute.
A staffer transferred a large fistful of collards into my brown takeout box, added a layer of rice, then piled on the poultry. Minutes later, I crouched down on the sidewalk, opened my carton, and inhaled the herbal aromas of good jerk: thyme, garlic, and culantro. The chopped thighs exhibited a wonderfully pungent tang, delivering a rush that recalled black pepper and allspice. Then came the heat, subtle at first but then building to a level that could melt hard-packed snow. The meat came enrobed in a tangy mustard-based sauce that was orange enough to be considered bioluminescent.
I called chef Rawlston Williams, who was born in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, to learn how he seasoned this spectacular dish (he keeps the spice blend a secret), but the conversation quickly turned to a more serious matter. He said he was considering closing for the month of January. “We’re not making any money,” the longtime Brooklyn resident said, adding that he’s been running the space at a deficit. “If this persists, we cannot survive. It’s not sustainable,” he said. About a week later, he confirmed the temporary closure, citing both economic and “mental health reasons.”
On a recent Tuesday, he didn’t receive a single delivery order.
The Food Sermon, like so many other COVID-19-battered venues, is facing its second pandemic shutdown. Williams first closed his fast casual spot on March 16, the day of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s shutdown order, and just over a month after he relocated the business from Crown Heights. “We were allowed to stay open, but for me, just because it’s allowed doesn’t mean it’s right,” Williams told Grub Street in June. He would not reopen until August.
In the six weeks or so before the pandemic, Williams said he was doing about two-and-a-half to three times the volume of the original sit-down location — on lunch alone. He also said he was in talks with Etsy, whose headquarters is nearby, to cook employee lunches on select days. Now, there’s “no one around, really,” he said, adding that the location — tucked inside of a food hall — doesn’t currently attract a lot of foot traffic.
Thin office lunch crowds are hurting takeout-focused restaurants throughout the city, including in Chelsea Market, Midtown, and elsewhere.
“As a chef or a cook…you want to make everyone happy,” Williams said. “How do you balance that versus laying people off? Or how do you balance that with having to raise prices or remove things from the menu or all of the above? It’s pretty tough...as I’m talking to you I feel myself getting emotional.”
For now, his sous-chef still arrives at 6:30 a.m. to start making top-notch Caribbean fare, including dishes like curry chicken, oxtails, and that spicy chicken, which Williams previously called jerk.
“For me, I cannot continue to call it jerk chicken with a good conscience,” he said, noting that “as a chef, when something is not something, it plays on your mind.” He doesn’t lightly smoke the meat over aromatic pimento wood, like at the old Glady’s, or grill it over gas, like at Peppa’s. Instead, Williams roasts the bird in an oven then sears it on a flattop, which he likens to the Chipotle method of fast-casual poultry cooking. Still, the aggressive jerk seasonings are spot on; if anything they come through more loudly and clearly than at other venues. Eating Williams’s chicken is like consuming jerk focused through an electron microscope; his recipe seems to highlight the individual molecules of flavor.
Food Sermon’s oxtails convey no less nuance. Williams braises the beef carefully, resulting in meat that’s more firm and supple than floppy or stewed. He serves it on the bone. The meat doesn’t so much fall apart after one bite as it bounces with sturdy collagens. It boasts a whisper of beefiness and a wallop of warming spices, with strong notes of clove. A burnt caramel sauce drips down to the rice and beans below. It is a majestic dish.
So you know where this is going. I’m rating the spicy chicken bowls ($11.94) and oxtail bowls ($13.78) at the Food Sermon a BUY. I should also state that Williams sounded more upbeat, albeit realistic, toward the end of our hour-long phone conversation. “In the end, we’ll be fine,” he said. “It’s just a tough period right now...just to get back to square one. It’s not even progress...it’s just so we can get to the starting line.”
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).