Thursday, May 8, 2014

A big send-off for David "Big Dave" Williams

I've just returned from the funeral service for a man who had a reputation as being one of Charlotte's best cooks. He was adored by business titans including Hugh McColl Jr. and was sketched by famous fresco artist Ben Long. But most importantly he was a man of kindness and character who was loved by his enormous family and his many friends who gathered at A. E. Grier and Sons Funeral Home this afternoon to say goodbye.

David Frank Williams, known as "Big Dave," died May 3 at Presbyterian Hospital. His obituary in the paper was small and didn't have a photo, so I wanted to make sure those who knew and loved him were aware that he died at age 71.

It was an absolutely beautiful service and so spiritual and meaningful that afterward I felt sanctified.

It also reminded me that sometimes after people die, we learn fascinating things about them that we wished we had known while they were alive. But many, including David, aren't braggers, so they don't go around tooting their own horn.

In the funeral program, we learned that although Dave was born in Charlotte and attended York Road High School, he started his restaurant career working at the famous Hotel Piccadilly on 45th Street and Broadway in New York City. The hotel near Times Square was torn down in the early 1980s is now the site of the Marriott Marquis, but when Dave was there in its heyday he served a list of famous people including Elizabeth Taylor, Sammy Davis Jr. and President John F. Kennedy.

When he returned to Charlotte he worked at a hotspot of the time, a restaurant called Shenanigans on Independence Boulevard. In the late 1980s, he started working at Fenwick's and was there until his retirement a couple of years ago.

If you've never been to Fenwick's, it's truly a little gem on Charlotte's restaurant scene. It's owned by Catherine and Don Rabb. Observer Food section readers know Catherine as our popular wine columnist and she's also a senior instructor at Johnson & Wales.

My father had a knack for sniffing out great places, so when I became a student at Queens it didn't take him long to find Fenwick's. One of the biggest treats in the world for me was when he would come visit and take me to Fenwick's for a Blue Cheese Burger. I thought it was the best thing ever. Dave would cook it and Don's good looking son Dane would serve it while I sat there with my father that I loved so much. Let me tell you, I was one happy girl.

Several years later when I moved to the Eastover neighborhood right behind Fenwick's, my husband and I became regulars and we still call it our club. All the wonderful people we've met there over the years are our Fenwick's Friends.

Through it all Dave was always there, always supervising the grill and always had a smile on his face. He also always had a toothpick at work. When Don Rabb got up to speak at the funeral on behalf of all the Fenwick's staff, he told a funny story about how one of Dave's wealthy regular customers gave him a gold toothpick as a gift, but he never brought that one to work.

Our Food Editor Kathleen Purvis wasn't able to attend the funeral because she was signing copies of two of her books at a big author event today, but she told me that Dave never missed a day of work unless he was on vacation. She was a big fan of his and loved to watch the magical way he could work that grill with all different kinds of meats and fish going at once and they were all cooked to perfection. Fans of his fried oysters say they were the best they've ever had anywhere.

Dave's son, "Little Dave" works there now and is also a fantastic cook. He's added a few innovative things to the menu and is known for his baking skills (Fenwick's desserts are divine).

And now another of Don and Catherine's good looking sons, Dustin, is working there and to me he looks so much like his older half-brother Dane. The cycle of life goes on. Big Dave is joyous and at peace in heaven. And all his Fenwick's Friends, and all those who loved him, will never forget him and his calming presence that radiated strength and character. And his smile.

Follow Olivia on Twitter @oliviafortson