“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time,” the late icon Maya Angelou once said, and indeed Black women have long been the canaries in the coal mine before controversy, corruption, and scandal emerge, providing the receipts and spending the time and energy to expose deception and scams.
It was Black women who spoke out loudly about Donald Trump in 2016. Black women who organized #MuteRKelly long before it was socially accepted that the R&B singer’s behavior was criminally wrong. Black women who created the MeToo movement and helmed Black Lives Matter —the most marginalized among us steadfastly trying to improve conditions for all of us.
And now it is Black women who have used the viral hashtag #DariusCrooks to share their stories about a chef and social media star who they say has been abusing his employees, stealing recipes, and scamming his customers—all claims that he has denied.
Darius “Cooks” Williams went from an unknown Chicago food blogger to social media influencer overnight in 2011 after Sunny Anderson, a Black cookbook author and co-host of Food Network’s The Kitchen, invited him to be an on-air guest on her hit show, Cooking For Real. According to Anderson in a recent interview with Southern Grit Magazine, their once sweet collaboration turned sour after she says he misled his customers into believing that she was attached to his failed grocery delivery service called Fresh2Go—a business venture she had declined to invest in when he first asked her a decade earlier.
“Hopefully people that do business with him will research him. When you add up everything, he took an opportunity and ruined it,” Anderson told Southern Grit. “At every turn he’s choosing to be dishonest and I hope he stops.”
Over the years, Williams would go on to develop a flashy brand with over 3 million followers across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as he sells cookbooks, hosts dinner series, and opens restaurants. Williams isn’t a classically trained chef and has often boasted online of how he’s become a millionaire by applying his grandmother’s cooking lessons.
But his warm public image took a turn for the worse over the last year and a half. As another business of his that promised to repair people’s credit was hit with a six-figure fine in Georgia, he abruptly shuttered his three restaurants in Atlanta and Chicago and a torrent of claims appeared on social media accusing him of taking advantage of Black women, mistreating employees, and ripping off customers.
Asked about the various claims about him, Williams told The Daily Beast that “I’m declining to comment at this time as they’re allegations. Thanks for understanding.”
Williams’ troubles began when he and his company, Above 701, Inc., agreed the previous December to a $145,750 settlement—including $110,000 in customer restitution and a $35,750 civil penalty to the state for violating the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act.
The consent judgement with the state attorney general also required the company to cease all business operations in the state after operating an illegal credit repair business by “requesting and accepting payment from consumers for its credit repair services before those services were provided” and “making misleading claims that it could get bankruptcies and debts permanently deleted from consumers’ credit reports, without adequately disclosing that negative credit information cannot be erased from a consumer’s credit report if the information is accurate.”
In an interview with Black Enterprise on the matter, Williams says that “I paid the 140, it’s over, everything is cool,” but also added: “I think they’re pulling from that saying ‘Oh, he’s a scammer.’ But it’s like no, the people who were on the roster, their credit scores increased.”
Last February, just before the pandemic and just after his business was hit with that six-figure fine, Williams abruptly closed his three restaurants, Soul Crab Atlanta and Soul Crab Chicago as well as Greens and Gravy in Atlanta, a decision he said was related to “mental health” issues.
Since then, several former employees have claimed that he was verbally and physically aggressive, didn’t pay them, and neglected the warnings of inspectors who hit them with health code violations.
An anonymous employee at Soul Crab Atlanta told Black Enterprise that the establishment “was so dirty and rat-infested that it couldn’t pass several state inspections” and that they had to spend their own money to keep the restaurant’s maintenance afloat.
“I’m patching stuff up. I got my whole crew in there on a Monday, cleaning and doing everything and Darius is on vacation in Dubai and literally, I’m in charge of a whole damn restaurant with 30 friggin’ employees and you in Dubai and we’ve got a major inspection tomorrow and you are overseas,” the former employee told the publication.
Other former employees of Williams have also claimed that he left them high and dry during the closing of his restaurants, with one of them complaining on social media that she was “paid pennies” by him and was mistreated when she used to bake his Carolina Pound Cakes and ship them.
Kiara Ross, a former employee of Soul Crab Atlanta, alleged on social media that Williams never paid her and physically assaulted her when she confronted him. She is now trying to raise funds via GoFundMe to sue him for “nonpayment and mistreatment.”
Speaking to Black Enterprise, Williams admitted to putting his “hands on [Ross]” but claims he didn’t know who she was at the time of the confrontation, while also adding that he was never formally arrested and charged.
Others online, many of them posting under the hashtag #DariusCrooks, also accuse him of swiping recipes from other food bloggers and not delivering what he promised customers who paid for his dinner series, with complaints about his business practices also piling up on the Better Business Bureau website.
“There’s a big difference between being inspired by someone’s work and then giving them credit for adapting their recipe. And he doesn’t do that at all,” Reina Gascón-López, owner/chef of the Sofrito Project, told Southern Grit Magazine. “And that’s what is so frustrating about the entire situation that’s unfolding. His fans and supporters enable his predatory and toxic behavior that’s so common in the culinary industry, both in and out of restaurants.”
Williams, a Black gay man, told Black Enterprise that a lot of the criticisms of him are from people who are “jealous” or who have misinterpreted “my speech, my mannerisms look to be that of a straight man.”
“I think what’s happening is, it’s the people who may not be familiar with my brand, because some of the hate mail I’m getting… you know, stop abusing Black women, keep your hands off Black women… and I’m openly gay but I don’t come across as gay,” he told the publication. “All I want to do is fry chicken and make macaroni and cheese, that’s it.”
But sexual orientation aside, Williams has garnered a reputation for attacking Black women online, selling his cookbooks with the discount codes “Sunny” and “Bad Wig” after Anderson criticized him publicly. He also did the same thing when Angela “the Kitchenista” Davis called him out on social media, which seemed to open up the floodgate of stories about him, with Williams then taking to YouTube to brag about how says he made $110,000 in a little more than a week off of the beef.
“You got to understand that the beef is not about you, the attack is not on you. The attack is on the greatness that lies inside of you,” he says in that video. “When you become great, people will attack that greatness.”
Such antics seem to be catching up with Williams, as popular comedian Kev On Stage has publicly disavowed his previous support of the chef.
Even for influential chefs with followings of their own like Anderson and Davis, it’s not easy to publicly call out someone like Williams, given how Black women are so often not believed until others back up their accounts as we’ve also seen in the cases of Shaun King, and R. Kelly and Russell Simmons, among others. It can take years, when it happens at all, and a tremendous toll in the meantime on the women who speak up.
For example, Deb Freeman, the Black food writer who first wrote about Williams’ controversies for Southern Grit Magazine, faced online attacks from many of his vociferous fans following its publication. It was only after the publication’s white male editor-in-chief publicly stood up for her that others in the media industry took notice.
That pattern of Black women being ignored or attacked when they speak up about men’s bad behavior needs to change. To those who claim to be progressive, ask yourself: When was the last time you took a Black woman’s word on something? If you can’t immediately think of a recent example, you’re a part of the problem.