A Change of Heart 

Soul food gets a healthy makeover by a chef on a mission.

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He grew up in the kitchens at Sylvia's, a famous soul-food restaurant in Harlem owned by his grandmother, where three generations have been fed and many have packed on pounds. Williams learned firsthand the power of food to betray or to heal.

He resists the notion that soul food must be drenched in fats and sugars, and devised neo-soul cooking to bring nutritional balance to the cuisine, even though die-hards say there's no way to make collards other than with pig fat and hours of boiling.

His recipes are compiled in a cookbook that landed him a spot on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and cheffing upscale dos in the Hamptons and elsewhere — but only after losing half his body size in a last-gasp revelation that he wanted to walk freely again. The pounds rolled off as he changed his habits but kept his affection for the tastes of his past.

Backed by rousing gospel numbers from an ensemble called In Due Season, Williams brought his message to a crowd of 200 converts at downtown's Bolling Haxall House last week, swerving from recipe tips (crushed Special K and yogurt in the chicken batter; olive oil and garlic on the yams) to a private history of despondence over his weight and his eventual calling to help others find health and balance in their lives.

As guests sampled cornbread and biscuits, catfish and low-fat mac and cheese, they heard testimonials from women in The Joy Program, a network of 15 local churches that offer health and wellness groups through the American Heart Association and Bon Secours. Participants have lost pounds and inches, as well as points off their cholesterol and blood-pressure readings, and gained appreciation for the virtues of water, exercise and portion control.

Williams coyly tasted the dishes — his recipes were prepared by Mosaic catering — and pronounced the chicken and Beulah's Best Beans particularly good, though it's nerve-racking, he said, to let others do his cooking.

But the keynote speaker shouldn't have to worry about such details as plating blueberry buckle with drizzles of jam for dessert. For Williams, it was a night to change lives, one recipe at a time. S

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