Apr 1, 2024 - Food and Drink

At Chicken's Kitchen, the food is great, and the community is even better

Marlon "Chicken" Williams smiles and poses for a photo in front of his restaurant while crossing his arms.

Marlon "Chicken" Williams grew up in New Orleans 9th Ward and is a self-taught cook. Photo: Chelsea Brasted/Axios

When Marlon "Chicken" Williams opened up the doors of Chicken's Kitchen at his bright red corner storefront in Gretna for the very first time on Sept. 11, 2020, there was already a line down the block.

Why it matters: That line has never really gone away.

The big picture: Chicken's Kitchen connected the New Orleans metro to a well-known and well-loved trend in southwestern Louisiana: the meat and three.

  • The cafeteria-style approach offers plate lunches with daily protein specials, like fried chicken one day and blackened catfish the next, alongside heaping piles of sides like collard greens, candied yams, sweet corn and cabbage and rice.
  • And since opening, the love for Williams' restaurant has only gotten bigger.

This week, Williams will learn if that love includes a nomination for a James Beard Award for Best Chef: South.

  • His name is already on the Beard list of semifinalists, alongside other New Orleans chefs like Sophina Uong, Melissa Araujo and Arvinder Vilku.
Fried chicken sits atop an open and very full styrofoam clamshell takeout container. Jambalaya is seen beneath the chicken, and hot sauces are set to the side of the container.
Every day has a different special on the menu at Chicken's Kitchen. On Fridays, fried chicken is top of the list. Photo: Chelsea Brasted/Axios

What he's saying: "It's unreal," Williams tells Axios New Orleans.

  • "It almost feels like we popped up out of nowhere. But that's the amazing thing about social media."

Before opening the Gretna restaurant, Williams relied on Instagram to get the word out about his cooking.

  • Long lines of customers eager to snag a plate clogged up his neighborhood during Williams' pandemic-era drive-thrus, which signaled it was time to make the business official.
  • "It was blowing up," Williams says. "We had to get it going."

Yes, but: If a chef can live by social media, he can die by it, too.

  • That became all too clear when his original Instagram page got hacked. Without that marketing avenue, Williams says he lost $11,000 in income in a single month.

State of play: He eventually rebuilt his audience, and now he has well over 300,000 followers across his accounts.

  • Williams often uses social media to boost other local businesses too, especially other restaurants on the West Bank. Many have flyers up on the walls of Chicken's Kitchen, too.
  • "It's about reaching out and connecting with people," he says. "I'm old school, to a degree. I miss when the world was a community."
The red building that houses Chicken's Kitchen is seen on a sunny day. A long line of people curls down one side of the building.
Long lines are common at Chicken's Kitchen. Photo: Chelsea Brasted/Axios

Perhaps that's why Chicken's Kitchen feels the way it does.

  • You can't complain about a long line when you get to chat with neighbors, and there's a plate of heartwarming, stomach-filling, tasty-as-all-get-out soul food on the other end.

What's next: Williams got the keys to another building just a few blocks away from his current restaurant. That space will allow him to shift call-ahead and catering orders out of Chicken's Kitchen.

  • Plus, he's launching new spice blends for online ordering and pick-up at the restaurant.
  • They'll be ready within the next few weeks, he says.
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