A few weeks ago, I had the chance to attend a food pop-up of one of Chicago’s rising chefs, Jeffery Williams. His food was fire!
Chicago chef Jeffery “On Pho ‘Nem” Williams’ food literally tasted like Vietnamese culinary treasures infused with an urban Chicago twist. One of kind.
What drove it home for me was his creation of chicken wontons drizzled with Chicago’s ‘hood classic lemon pepper and mild sauce — absolutely PHOnomenal. (Don’t call me corny either — I’m so serious now!)
But anyway, I wanted to take the time to show support to such a creative soul like Chef Williams because he naturally possesses a passion for world-influenced cooking, all while keeping his connection to his community in the taste of his food. This personal intention of his is what makes him stand out and sets him apart from other local chefs, and in my opinion, will continue to expand his cooking brand throughout Chicago and beyond.
I had a chance to catch up with Chef Williams to learn more about where his passion for cooking started, and what’s on the radar for his next cooking ventures. Needless to say, he was candid — with a bit of cussin’ — as he shared what made him a culinary chief among other local chefs.
Such a fun interview! Enjoy!
Rated-Ransom (RR) :: For those who don’t know, tell them who On Pho Nem is and how you came up with the catchy name.
Chef Williams (OPN) :: On Pho’nem started when I came back from Atlanta one day.. I went down with my guy Karma to help him move.. he asked me had I ever had Pho.. I told him no. So we met up with some of his buddies who happened to be Vietnamese, then we hit a spot called Pho24 where I had My first bowl. The shit was fire! … I came home after that and asked my wife did she want to try some ..I started doing my homework about the 2 main types of pho.. and then I made my spin from there infusing chicago culture with it. Being from Chicago, if you pronounce Pho wrong you will automatically say “4” — so it fit when it popped in my head to make this happen. I always wanted my restuarant to be an Undergound joint.
RR :: Share more about your culinary inspirations and how you started.
OPN :: I started cooking at a really early age. My Grandfather was a chef, and I also learned alot from my mom and Uncle. My mom told me that girls didn’t want a boy who can cook, just messing around with me at a early age, just so I would leave her alone in the kitchen. But I liked girls so shiiit… I was trying to learn everything I could. It was funny at first but then I came to love what it represented and how it made me feel cooking for others. It may sound odd, but I also love the stress that comes with it too.
RR :: What does community mean to you as you expand your culinary brand?
OPN :: To me, Community is all about building — helping each other grow regardless of what they are trying to accomplish. With On Pho’Nem, I’m trying to bridge together 2 different worlds, and at the same time shed light on them through traditional methods of cooking my dishes.
RR :: With the explosive variations of food crazes, what’s one of your secrets to setting yourself apart and staying competitive in the culinary game?
OPN :: I try to set myself apart by just being me.. having fun and doing what I love.. I want to collab with every person in Chicago..keeping good company around..the support group I have pushes me to do more and explore.
RR :: What would you say one challenge, if any, has been as an independent chef?
OPN :: Just getting your name out there..and getting people to try new things. I know it’s kinda hard seeing a black guy fusing Asian food.. but slide through…lol
RR :: Chicken wontons w/Lemon pepper and mild sauce… we know that this pair is inspired by some of THE BEST Chicago ‘hood chicken restaurant spots. How did you know this type of taste (and culture flavor) would work well with such a traditional Chinese food?
OPN :: To be honest it was easy.. I pretty much wanted to capture eating a piece of chicken from Harold’s or Uncle Remus. I braised the Chicken in Charred Ginger and Onion, Lemon Zest, black pepper corns among a few other things.. stuffed the wontons and that was it.. finished with lemon pepper and Mild sauce and Chicken Shmaltz. (THIS WAS SO GOOD TOO!)
RR :: What’s next for On Pho ‘Nem?
OPN :: Next thing I want to do is become more established in the Chi, then take it on the road and do Pop-ups all over — hopefully collab with other chefs and just creative people [in general].
You can catch all On Pho ‘Nem’s latest and upcoming events as well as request for his cooking craft at your event by connecting with him on Instagram at