People stand in line outside Chicken’s Kitchen even before this backstreet Gretna lunch spot opens. They know it’s worth the wait.
If it’s Tuesday, maybe they’re after the stuffed Cornish hen, bronzed and gleaming, with smothered okra, turkey dressing and candied yams. On Thursday, some are angling for the blackened salmon, darkly crusted with spice, with garlic herb linguine, crawfish hush puppies and bread pudding. On Fridays, regulars know the hot sausage patty chimichangas will sell out fast.
The pepper ball anchors a takeout lunch plate with bread pudding, Brussels sprouts, jambalaya and mac and cheese at Chicken’s Kitchen in Gretna. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
Chicken’s Kitchen serves a different menu each weekday from a line of steam tables that looks like a Thanksgiving buffet, all of it packed for takeout. Busy since the day it opened last fall, it might seem like an overnight success.
But proprietor Marlon “Chicken” Williams knows restaurants like his don’t just come out of nowhere. They don’t happen without a community, and that’s one reason he’s built community giveback into this one.
Marlon “Chicken” Williams, right, owner of Chicken’s Kitchen, greets customers waiting in line in Gretna. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
Williams, 32, had no restaurant training when he opened Chicken’s Kitchen. He came up a different way, and that started at home, growing up in the Lower Ninth Ward.
“Everyone in my family can cook, and a lot of us can really eat,” he said.
When Williams was in college, he cooked for himself often, in order to stretch his student finances, re-creating what he knew from home and adding his own touches. He’d post photos of his creations to social media.
Marlon “Chicken” Williams started Chicken’s Kitchen as a home-based business before opening his Gretna restaurant. The numbers tattooed on his arm represent his family’s birthdays. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
That inspired two of his friends to hire him to cater their wedding. In retrospect, William said, it was a life-changing leap of faith.
“I had no direction in life until they hit me up with that,” he said. “It was one of the hardest and most stressful things I’ve done, but it was so gratifying at the end of the day.”
Burnell Thompson, center, and Demitri Powell, back left, preparing lunch at Chicken’s Kitchen in Gretna. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
The experience led him to start his own catering service, a side gig to his full-time job as he and his wife Tia built their family. When he lost his construction job he had to ramp up his own business. By the time the pandemic hit he was also selling plate lunches from his Marrero home. This became the family’s economic lifeline when events dried up.
It was also earning him a following. One day he helped his kids run a lemonade stand and added plate lunches to the menu as another draw. When he saw 70 cars lining his neighborhood street waiting for their orders, he knew it was time to move up.
A full coop
Marlon “Chicken” Williams tears into a Buffalo chicken chimmy – his own style of chimichanga – at Chicken’s Kitchen in Gretna. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
He had the restaurant name ready. As a kid, his family nicknamed him Big Fat Chicken because, in his words, “I was big, I was fat, and I loved chicken.” Eventually he chipped this down to just Chicken. The theme runs deep in the Williams household. His four children, all under the age of 12, are collectively called “da nuggets.” The two family dogs are named Mac and Cheese. The restaurant’s phone number is 504-CHICKEN.
Some regulars now track the day of the week by what Chicken’s Kitchen is serving. Lunch breaks are timed to get an early jump on that line. On a recent Friday morning, Deneen Harris was one of the first people in line. She had driven in from Atlanta to visit family in New Orleans, and she made this her first stop off the highway.
“I’ve just been hearing about it, it looks so good, so I had to,” she said, looking over the day’s array of fried ribs, chicken and catfish.
Tia Williams, right, and Demitri Powell, take lunch orders at Chicken’s Kitchen in Gretna. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
Between Monday’s four-cheese lasagna and red beans and Wednesday’s turkey necks and pork chops, between the Brussels sprouts and the dirty rice, Chicken’s Kitchen embodies homestyle cooking.
But across the weekly offerings there are plenty of flavors that are Chicken’s own.
To make the pepper ball, a Friday special, he takes the beef, shrimp and crab mixture of a Creole stuffed bell pepper, discards the pepper altogether, and fries up the meaty filling into a crisp orb to break apart with your fork, or maybe your hands.
The pepper ball is filled with a meaty mix of beef, shrimp and crab at Chicken’s Kitchen in Gretna. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
The “chimmies” are eggroll-sized chimichangas with different fillings inside fried tortilla shells each day. On Tuesday, the “birriazy” takes on the birria taco craze, with strands of braised beef inside and a spicy, brothy sauce to dunk it in.
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‘Plenty to go around’
Chicken’s Kitchen is a family-run restaurant. Most of the staff are connected through blood, marriage or lifelong friendship. But it’s about more than Williams or even his family.
When he designed the restaurant, Williams built in ways to support other businesses under its roof, particularly other Black-owned businesses.
Marlon “Chicken” Williams, right, hugs customers as they wait in line for lunch at his Gretna restaurant, Chicken’s Kitchen. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
As customers progress through the line inside, they pass an ever-growing collection of poster-sized ads for other local businesses, including plenty of other food businesses. It’s a wall collage of community support.
“It’s all love,” Williams said. “I don’t see them as competitors. There’s plenty to go around, and we can’t feed everybody here.”
Just past the cash register, there’s a small counter where Anointed Confections sets up shop each day, with sweets like wedding cake by the slice, sweet potato pies and ooey gooey bars.
Christian Wells of Anointed Confections is surrounded by her homemade desserts at her counter inside Chicken’s Kitchen in Gretna. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
Christian Wells built the home-based business through her love of baking. Williams invited her to sell her desserts next to his plate lunches back when he was also based at home. When he opened the restaurant, he made a space for her too.
“He’s always been like that,” said Wells, who has known Williams since their school days. “There are so many talented people in this city, and they just need an opportunity. He’s making opportunities.”
Christian Wells of Anointed Confections serves her homemade desserts at Chicken’s Kitchen in Gretna. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
It might seem that Williams has quite enough on his own plate running Chicken’s Kitchen. The restaurant usually sells out of food and often has to turn people away at the end of lunch.
But this is by design. Williams is taking an intentional approach to build sustainability and limits into a business that’s notorious for always demanding more.
The restaurant prepares a certain amount of food for the day and plans to sell out. It cuts waste, always a costly prospect for restaurants, and it reflects a long-haul approach Williams takes to building his business as a family man.
Marlon “Chicken” Williams started his business Chicken’s Kitchen at home and soon opened a restaurant in Gretna. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)
“It’s about knowing what your ceiling is and living with that,” he said. “I see how hard it is, and I’m the boss, I can keep giving in to it. I don’t want the other people here to burn out.”
629 Derbigny St., Gretna, (504) 244-2536
Mon.-Fri.,10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (or until sold out)
(no phone orders)
See chickenskitchencatering.com for catering
This story is part of the Where NOLA Eats series on neighborhood restaurants in New Orleans and the surrounding area. Do you know a restaurant whose story should be told? Let me know at email@example.com.
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