On a recent Sunday evening, Justin Williams pulled up to the Thai Kitchen restaurant in East Anchorage in a white sedan. He was wearing a Ghostbusters baseball hat, and a colorful sweater with the words “Power to the People.” He looks like any other customer.
But he’s actually a bit of a local food celebrity.
Williams’ video review of the yellow curry he ordered would reach hundreds or even thousands of followers on his Facebook and Instagram pages. He only began reviewing food online at the beginning of the pandemic, but now, in a city suddenly obsessed with take-out, people recognize him at the grocery store, he said, and chefs and restaurant owners have courted him in the hopes that his reviews will boost their revenues.
“It is kind of silly to think that people like watching other people eat this much. Like, what’s wrong with you?” he said.
A few months ago, he was bored and feeling down. He had been laid off from his office job because of the pandemic, and was collecting unemployment. He isn’t a chef or a gourmand, he just likes to eat. On a whim, he threw up a video of himself eating his favorite burger from Arctic Roadrunner on a local foodie Facebook group. It blew up, he said.
“Everyone loved it. Engagement was crazy. The comments were crazy. I’ve never made a post on Facebook in my life that had this kind of engagement. You know, and so everyone was like this, who is this guy? He’s hilarious, he should do more!” he said
His next videos were even more popular.
The videos are usually lightly edited, often filmed in the front seat of his car, sometimes with the addition of his sidekick, his boisterous five-year-old daughter.
He’s naturally exuberant about food: from soul food to artisanal ice cream to taco platters. And he’s funny.
He doesn’t quite understand how his feed got so popular, but he says it shows something about the state of the world.
“It tells me that people care about food as much as I do, and that people need to be entertained,” he said.
He also wonders if it would work for someone else or in a different place.
“Would this still work if I weren’t Black? You know, like, is it because I’m a minority doing this? Is it because I’m in Anchorage, because I’m trying different kinds of food? Is it because we’re in a pandemic right now?” he said.
He’s even used it to bridge the acerbic politics of our time, where restaurants have become unlikely centers of the pandemic’s political divide. In a review of Kriner’s Diner, which was the focal point of a heated political stand earlier this summer, he wrote off political criticisms by saying, essentially: more food for me.
But, he said, he hopes that food can help bring people together
“It really knocks down a lot of sociological barriers that I think we have with one another and invites a bunch of different people who don’t look alike or think alike, or believe the same things to the same table. And very few things do that. Music can do that sometimes sex, but definitely food,” he said.
While Williams addresses these issues with warmth and entertainment above all else, there’s no denying that it’s a heavy time for restaurant owners and foodies alike.
When he heard one of his favorite restaurants, Red Chair Cafe, was closing its doors, it hit him hard. He said in a teary review that he would frequent the place often at his lunch at a tough job at the Office of Children’s Services. After looking at photos of neglected children for work all day, he said in a review that the food was a rare moment of solace for him.
Some day, after the pandemic is over, he hopes he can give the inventor of the steampunk potatoes from Red Chair a hug. For now, he’s just hoping people will keep going to local restaurants for take out, and leave a generous tip.