December 6, 2016
Alex Williams is a familiar sight at Texas Tech University.
It's not that his face is easily recognized or his is a household name. No, Williams is well-known because at every home football game, his stride is one of two 50,000 fans see racing down the field as the Goin' Band from Raiderland converges around him.
Williams, one of the drum majors of the Goin' Band, is a senior in music education who wants to teach music in England when he graduates. He is a tuba player from Mansfield who has risen through the ranks to be one of two students who leads the finest band in the land into Jones AT&T Stadium on Saturdays in the fall.
He also is a gourmet chef who wrote and published a cookbook on the side, making him the Red Raiders' celebrity chef. "No Money, No Time, No Problem" is a collection of recipes that got him through collegiate life with health, wallet and schedule intact.
"My friends think I'm crazy because I'm taking the two hardest classes you can as a music major," he admitted the week after Thanksgiving, end of the semester in sight. "I already knew it would be hard going into it, and for some reason I decided to publish a cookbook while I was at it."
Williams spent a lot of time in the kitchen with his parents. His father had only one rule: Williams had a to try a bite of everything made. One bite.
"Usually that wasn't a problem, but when it came to things like Brussels sprouts and sauerkraut and anything that didn't sound good, I was just like, 'eww, no,'" Williams said. "But he made me try it."
Williams applied the same rule as he got older and began traveling. No matter how weird the food in front of him looked, he tried a bite.
He went to cooking classes during the summer. Executive chefs from throughout the Dallas area taught students the ins and outs of knife skills, cooking techniques and what foods work together.
"It was cool because I was working with expensive ingredients, expensive kitchens and expensive restaurants, but I was like 12 years old," he said.
Peanut Butter Banana Bread
Although he did plenty of cooking for himself growing up, it got serious when he got to college and realized, between studying and band practice, he didn't have a lot of time to actually cook. He didn't want to eat boxed casseroles or ramen noodles, though.
Getting his own kitchen marked the turning point in his relationship with food as he started meal prepping, developing recipe ideas and going a little off-script.
"I watched a lot of Food Network and kind of became obsessed with it, and then I started experimenting with food," Williams said. "Over the years it developed into something where I understood the science of food, I understood what flavors complemented each other, and I understood a lot about nutrition – what should be on the plate, not just what is flavorful."
But he still wasn't writing a cookbook. That idea came over the summer as a friend chronicled one of his kitchen adventures on Snapchat, titling her story "Cooking with Alex Williams."
"She was like, 'you should have your own show,'" he remembered. "And then another kid said, 'you know, you should write a cookbook.' Obviously a cookbook is easier than a show. I thought, 'you know what? I should.'"
Stuffed Acorn Squash
Williams prepared "No Money, No Time, No Problem" intending to solve a number of cooking problems – tight budgets, busy schedules, minimal cooking skills, lack of knowledge about food, what's healthy and what works. But he also didn't want his recipes to be a smorgasbord of ingredients that checked off each box. The food should look nice on the plate and it should taste good, in addition to meeting all of those other needs.
It's a lot to do in 92 pages, but he feels pretty good about the outcome, especially since he routinely refers to the book.
"Whenever I meal prep, I usually try to think of a new recipe every week, but sometimes it's just so fast-paced; I'm just too busy," he said. "I jump to a recipe I already know is easy."
The cookbook includes 40 recipes ranging from all three meals to desserts and snacks. Some, like the chocolate cake with gingersnap amaretto cream cheese frosting, look fancy and look like they take a long time. In reality, he said, that recipe takes an hour of work plus two hours of down time, and as it's a "naked cake" – frosting between the layers but not covering the whole cake – it's easy to put together and both looks and tastes amazing.
Ice Cream Sandwiches
Others literally take five minutes. Williams' favorite fast meal is the coronation chicken salad; it's like regular chicken salad but with a curry twist. It's based on a dish served at a British princess' coronation. If the chicken is already cooked, adding the ingredients and mixing it takes five minutes.
"Not to toot my own horn, but I love it," he admitted.
The book includes recipes from a variety of cultures; much of Williams' inspiration came from seeing a dish that he wanted to replicate or improve upon or an ingredient with which he wanted to experiment. It also includes wine pairings, recipes for spice mixes and lists of kitchen essentials, including dishes and ingredients.
On top of that, it includes a glossary of cooking terms in case a cook doesn't know what a julienne cut is, ideas for substitutions to make recipes easier, quicker, healthier or less costly, a list of cooking tips and a blank page for note-taking while cooking.
"That way you learn while you're cooking," he said.
Williams can talk about julienning, chiffonade cuts and wine pairings with ease, but one question stymied him: What's his favorite recipe?
Dr. Pepper Popcorn
"That's a really hard one," Williams said, pulling the book to him and flipping through it. "Every time someone's looking at this book they'll flip to one and I'll be like, 'Ooh, that's my favorite.' And then they'll flip the page and I'll be like, 'Oh no, that's my favorite."
He kept flipping pages, narrating as he went.
"These are original recipes, not the basic things you see all over Pinterest. I try to make things you can take to a dinner party and impress your friends.
"You could make an entire day's worth of food. And it's big servings, so if you're cooking for one you could make three breakfasts, four lunches and five desserts.
"I know one person who has already bought the book, and they didn't expect to like the kale chips but they've made them three times already. My friend tried them and said, 'Wow, these taste like pizza. But they're healthy!'"
More people than his friends like the cookbook so far. His first batch was more than 100 cookbooks. Williams estimated about 70 percent of his buyers are busy parents, 25 percent are busy college students and 5 percent are followers of his Instagram account who are as far-flung as the East Coast and even one in Finland.
All the while he flipped pages.
"Oh, I know what my favorite one is, absolutely," Williams said, turning back a few pages. "Roasted blueberry ice cream sandwiches. Those are so good. They are addicting."
The recipe started out as a healthy Pinterest recipe. Williams, although he believes in healthy food and in making food healthy, does not extend that philosophy to dessert.
"For me, when it comes to dessert, I'm like, just have dessert," he said. "Enjoy it."
He came up with a better oatmeal cookie recipe – one that held up in the freezer but still stayed soft – and suggested people use homemade vanilla ice cream, although he included ice cream from the store as an acceptable substitute. They're indulgent and delicious, he said. He may have eaten four in a day when he made them.