The pandemic took down her restaurant, but Mimi Williams is already planning a rebirth.
By Mimi Williams as told to Amber Gibson
Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.
Executive chef Mimi Williams became a partner at Counterpart Vegan in July 2020. In the following October, the restaurant began serving the only exclusively vegan tasting menu in Los Angeles. Williams and her partners made the difficult decision to close Counterpart in December amidst increasing restaurant restrictions and rising COVID cases in LA. The hunt for a new location is underway, supported in part by a Gofundme campaign.
December for us was so hard. The outdoor dining ban was a huge blow. We had just started this wonderful momentum with our vegan pasta tasting menu, and it was a huge setback to close again for the second time. Being a small business without any government assistance, and having our landlord pull back support, it just became futile. We really fought, but we had to close our doors two weeks before Christmas. We very graciously bowed out. I’m very grateful that my team supported me up until the last minute. It’s the end of us in that space, but it’s not the end for us at Counterpart.
We wished each other Merry Christmas, had some Champagne, and really left the same way that we started. I always shed the tears. It was a really happy ending. We work so well together and brought forth such a wonderful energy that really translated with all of the dishes we created. We had vegan tamales and French toast, soups, stews, handmade pastas. I had a wonderful group of team members with me executing all of these visions that I had. They were an amazing part of my success at Counterpart.
As an owner, sometimes the choice is incredibly difficult to make, even though it’s the right decision. I have cried with several of my really close colleagues that have also had to close their restaurants permanently. These are people that I revered as gods early in my career. It really humbles you, and it’s a brutal reminder that it wasn’t just us that had to face the hard decision to close. I had to take time off to regain some mental clarity. I’m also the mother to a 12-year-old, and being a mother is something I never take for granted. I love my daughter more than anything. Counterpart is my baby too—my second child.
We were incredibly lucky to place our team members who still wanted to work. Some of my team opted to do something else rather than continue to work in a restaurant. I’m fortunate to work with two of my team members from Counterpart in Santa Monica now. I was like, you’re not going to get rid of me that easy. You’re definitely coming with me. The ones that just wanted to be furloughed are still sending me pictures of what they made for dinner, and they’re gardening and camping. Everyone left and went their own way, but we’re still very much together.
I’m currently working as a consulting executive chef at Bardonna in Santa Monica. I decided to take more of a consulting role, and I’m slowly integrating my style into a menu that is already there. I’ve introduced a lot of house-made pastries and vegan options. Sometimes people are afraid of change, but I usually hit the nail on the head with the changes. They’re subtle but very noticeable. As a consultant, I spend the majority of my time in a test kitchen. My role is to come in and redevelop and reformulate all of the recipes. I have to test them and make sure they work prior to introducing them to the team, get everything costed, and so on.
I spend my time away from everyone else with my head in my recipe books and computer. There’s not a day that I don’t wake up with my notebook next to my bed thinking about daily specials, things I’d love to do at the new Counterpart. The creativity wheel is definitely still rolling. I’m devastated that I can’t have our carrot lox anymore. I don’t make it at home because it’s so much work—it takes about a week to make. I miss it so much but, I’m working on carrot bacon right now.
We are actively hunting and looking for a new space. It’s incredibly exciting. I’m talking to a beverage consultant who’s helping with cocktail ideas. Counterpart is still active, in Google Drives and on Zoom meetings, and we’re very much still talking about what we’re going to do in terms of menu items and pasta. I have some of the old team members still reaching out to me, and my old sous chef is so incredibly excited to come back.
I’ve always been heavily invested in the artistry behind what I’m doing as a young professional. I’m really not one of these people out here looking for a large paycheck. My passion is about what I’m creating. When I started at Counterpart, we were ordering 90 percent pre-prepared products. By the time I became an owner, we were making 90 percent of our ingredients in-house, from handmade tortillas to vegan cheeses. I’m very big on scratch-made. It tastes better, it’s more cost effective, and it really translated to our customers.
When I was offered the opportunity to become an owner, it took me by surprise in a way because I was just so invested in what I was creating. We had a line out the door, and our Instagram was blowing up. Business had never been better. I was just happy to see that somebody else was noticing all of the amazing things I was doing. I was so honored to be the creative vision behind this wonderful, empowering movement.
I always joke that I was vegan before it was cool. Veganism has been a trend that’s climbing as people become more health-conscious about what they’re eating. It’s been a huge goal and dream of mine to become an executive chef, especially being a Black woman working in kitchen environments for the last 15 years. You have challenging obstacles that you have to push through.
When I graduated college and left some of the toxic kitchen environments I’d worked in, I promised myself that I would be one of the most forthcoming and welcoming leaders when I was fortunate enough to lead a team. I revere my team as my family.
The tasting menu at Counterpart may have been short-lived, but it will be back. It became a new outlet for me to showcase that veganism is limitless. As a chef, I’m constantly trying to figure out how I can take something further, and I struggle as a vegan in LA to find options that aren’t a raw sandwich wrap or Impossible burger. I love pasta, and it’s something I grew up eating and missed. It just came together very effortlessly.
We dove so deep into structuring these recipes so people who are meat eaters are blown away by the tasting menu, saying this is the best lasagna they’re ever had. And then I giggle when I tell them it’s made with walnuts and mushrooms. Meanwhile, they swear there’s meat in there. That is my favorite reaction to get from a guest. You don’t have to give up on delicious well-composed cuisine to eat vegan.
I opted to have no processed Impossible meat or any processed items on the menu, and it really elevated and transcended the food to a place where I even surprised myself. It’s like eating a magic trick at some point, and that’s a huge part of where my passion comes. I am so excited to continue my progress. Of course pasta has a soft spot in my heart, and vegan pasta is something that people just don’t have access to. As simple as it is, it’s not on a lot of menus. I wanted to showcase the power of simplicity.
We are already working on our new menu for the new space. We will be transitioning to all-day brunch and dinner service seven days a week, maybe five days a week. I’m still trying to decide if I want to do dinner on Sunday. I don’t want to lose my momentum. I’ll go to the ends of the earth to reopen this place.