Remembering Julius Russell, Caterer to the Stars and Mentor to Black Chicago Chefs

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Julius Russell was an influential chef, caterer, and a much-needed mentor in Chicago’s community of Black chefs. A South Side native, Russell founded a private chef and catering brand, A Tale of Two Chefs, and frequently shared his French and Creole culinary expertise — using his familiar resonant baritone — on TV and other media.

“For young Black chefs, he was the Green Book — he could be your personal Green Book,” says private chef and consultant Maurice Wells, a longtime friend and mentee.

Russell also cooked for celebrity clients, including NBA stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West. Chicago’s culinary community is mourning the loss of Russell, who died from natural causes on Saturday, March 30. He was 53. Funeral services were held on Tuesday, April 16 at Calahan Funeral Home in Englewood.

Wells says his friend knew the importance of being a role model and didn’t care about the costs: “He’d send you an Uber, he’d buy you lunch, he’d go to Restaurant Depot and grab a bunch of things just so you could learn how to properly chop onions to make soup and stock.”

Julius Russell smiles onstage at an event.
Julius Russell appeared at food festivals including Chicago Gourmet and Taste of Chicago.
Maurice Wells

Born in 1970 at Cook County Hospital and raised in Englewood, Russell spent his career cultivating a persona that reflected his wide range of kitchen experiences. Within him, he espoused, there were two chefs: Chef Julius, a skilled French culinary technician who honed his skill at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris; and “Chef Tiki,” a heartfelt advocate for indulgent comfort food (a value instilled in childhood at his mother’s and grandmothers’ tables) and Creole cuisine, which he studied at the New Orleans School of Cooking.

“He enjoyed cooking more than many chefs I know,” says Brian Jupiter, the chef and co-owner of Frontier in West Town and Ina Mae Tavern in Wicker Park.

For more than a decade, Jupiter counted Russell as a friend and collaborator: “Food excited him… When we’d do these menus together, he’d change the menu like 20 times! His mind was always on food and creating.”

Though he had little interest in the grind of a restaurant kitchen, Russell held pop-ups and cooking demonstrations around town food festivals like Taste of Chicago and Chicago Gourmet. He became a familiar face with TV appearances on Fox 32 Chicago and WGN. he built a following within the athletic community, cooking for pro stars and even appearing on a 2009 episode of The Big Ten Cookout on the Big Ten Network. Though he spoke virtually no Spanish, Russell served as a culinary ambassador, working with the Chilean government from 2013 to 2019 to highlight the country’s food scene in the U.S.

Wells credits Russell’s late wife, public relations and marketing specialist Jada Russell, for teaching her husband how to share his story and food with the world. She died from breast cancer in 2019 within months of her diagnosis. After his wife’s death, the chef raised funds for cancer research and supporting awareness projects like the American Cancer Society’s Men Wear Pink program.

Wells and Russell were also writing a book together — a kind of roadmap for young Black chefs — which Wells still plans to complete.

“When you see people who are as unselfish with knowledge and time as he was, that’s always going to leave a big void,” Jupiter says. “Chefs like myself and the [Virtue chef] Erick Williams of the world, we have to absorb some of that and make sure — even more than we have before — that people feel like they [have someone to] rely on when they feel stuck on their journey in this industry.”

Correction: The story has been corrected with Mr. Russell’s age as 53.

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