If anyone knows how to whip up a testimony from trauma, it’s Jerry Houston.
He doesn’t shy away from talking about the obstacles he endured while growing up in Savannah, Georgia. His parents weren’t stable authority figures in his life. In fact, his father told him he wouldn’t make it out of high school.
Houston is now a 19-year-old freshman hospitality management major at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. He went viral on Tik Tok for cooking up hearty, Southern meals on a budget from his dorm. His more than 310,000 Tik Tok followers and 32,600 Instagram followers drool over his videos as he makes dishes like creamy baked mac and cheese and lemon pepper wings. Houston told me how he hustled for his happiness and success instead of letting his past have a hold on him.
“I don’t let the things that I’ve experienced hinder me,” he said. “I more so let it push me to be better than what I am.”
Cooking is mostly a self-taught talent for Houston. As he bounced around from home to home during his grade-school years, he wasn’t allowed in the kitchen. He couldn’t even touch the punch. So, he went to YouTube to learn the learn the basics.
When he was only in seventh grade, Houston decided to flex his culinary skills at a school-district wide cooking competition by serving up an Asian stir fry. The dish not only won him first place among 15 teams of high schoolers, but it was a huge self-esteem boost for Houston.
“I knew I would place somehow, but I just didn’t know what I would place because there were so many teams,” Houston said. “When they called my name and they stated I won first, I was overwhelmed with excitement. I rushed to the stage.”
After moving in with his maternal grandmother, who actually gave him a chance in the kitchen, Houston deepened his passion to dish out good meals. She taught him how to make oxtails, collard greens, potato salad, sweet potato pie and banana pudding. Over time, Houston developed a sixth sense for detecting missing seasonings. Food has since become his creative outlet and a joy that he proudly shares with others.
“When I cook and bake, I take that energy that I could use to put negativity out into the world and try to make something very remarkable and just give it my all,” Houston said. “I put in a great input for a great output. So, if I have customers eating a meal, or if I’m enjoying that meal for myself, I want it to be a one-time experience you would want to relive every moment of your life.”
It didn’t take long for Houston’s cooking skills to catch the campus’ attention. In August 2020, Houston made dinner for friends, one of whom made a Snapchat post. Houston heard a knock on his door and opened it to find a line of students. A dinner for eight into a meal for nearly 20 students. Houston posted about the meal on Tik Tok, which has since received more than 15 million views.
As his followers grew, so did his popularity. His friends would send him screenshots of people in Georgia and South Carolina giving him high praise. Even his dorm residential adviser’s grandmother wanted to know more about the university’s Tik Tok star. Although people treated him like a celebrity, Houston makes sure to keep a humbled mindset. When he meets a new fan, he makes it his mission to get to know them and follows them back on their social media so he can continue to engage with their content.
“I don’t want people to feel like I’m Hollywood,” Houston said. “With all the things that I went through in life, I know I’m not better than anyone on this planet. We’re all the same.”
Serving good meals in an act of service for Houston. He has hosted at least five dinners on campus for the student body. Each person pays a small fee that goes towards groceries. On Nov. 18, Houston fed more than 30 students for Thanksgiving. After sharing laughs, moments of gratitude and taking group photos with classmates, around 10 p.m. Houston and his friends drove 40 minutes to downtown Savannah and handed out 20 plates to the homeless. It was a heart wrenching experience. He said one homeless man took a plate, but instead of eating it, the man decided to hold off to find someone who hadn’t eaten in days.
“So our acts of kindness reflected on someone else’s act of kindness to where they can pass that meal on to someone else,” Houston said. “We shed a couple of tears. It really makes you grateful for what you have.”
Houston’s life has taught him the shape-shifting meaning of family. It’s not always blood, he said. As a high school junior, Houston was temporarily homeless after his father put him out of his house. His sixth grade teacher, Prince Bacon, and her husband, Clarence, took him in. What was supposed to be a weekend stay, turned into Houston’s permanent residence until he graduated from high school.
Houston said he is grateful for those who look out for him and cheer him on. He considers the Bacons, his friends and even his social media fans family members.
“It can be those individuals that God brings into your life for a season or for a lifetime experience, those individuals who admire you, care about you and want you to achieve in any way possible in any and every aspect of life,” he said. “It’s the people who let you know when you’re wrong and how you can fix it. Those individuals who just look up to you and cherish every moment they get to spend with you even if it’s just a month or two. So that’s what family means to me.”