The self-taught Michelin chef is a keen guardian of the grand traditions of the Ritz, writes William Sitwell.
At the heart of the Ritz kitchen, the throbbing pulse of one of the great hotels of the world in Mayfair, is a quiet, modern and cool office. With a PA at his side, this is the private domain of executive chef John Williams MBE, famed throughout his industry as one of the great hotel chefs of the world. Having now been at the Ritz for twelve years, aged 58 and with 65 chefs under his control, he sits calmly contemplating the ensuing lunch service.
On three sides of the room are windows looking into the kitchen. To his left is the butchery and fish section. If the chef doesn’t like the look of something happening in there, he taps his pen on the window.
Ahead is the main kitchen. Here young men and the odd girl busy themselves, all wearing small round hats apart from two who are the sous chefs, the second most senior chefs to Williams. They have no hats on, but when Williams emerges to patrol the pass, to walk among the stations and to prod and poke, to comment and to cook, they will put hats on. He will wear his tall, grand chef’s hat; you can’t miss him and you can’t miss the Geordie tones of a man born in South Shields.
Meanwhile, each of the three windows has blinds and I ask in what circumstances they are drawn.
‘This afternoon the blinds will come down,’ he says gravely. ‘Someone’s in trouble.’ Williams doesn’t do shouty bollockings — it will be a quiet word, as he explains, to ‘put someone straight and try to help them manage better’. Managing is, he says, ‘like organising an army. We have a very heavy structure and after all that’s why it’s called a kitchen brigade.’
There is a very clear and traditional hierarchy. Sous chefs break down to chefs de parties, demi chefs, first chefs, apprentices and trainees. And the man in the tall hat patrols the kitchens and occasionally nips upstairs to check on the atmosphere in the ornate dining room and possibly greet a diner or two. The hat, he admits, is both for hygiene and because ‘it makes me look a bit slimmer’.
He is at pains to add: ‘I do physically cook. If we want to compete as a grand hotel you have to keep cooking. It’s the only way to really inspire young chefs and show leadership.’ And while he does of course have a very large budget to manage, ‘For me this job is cooking,’ he says. ‘And that can lead to those wonderful moments when a chef becomes something special. Seeing that can be very emotional for me.’
Watching young talent emerge and produce stylish, classic and elegant food — which crucially matches the panache, formality and grandeur of the Ritz — reminds Williams of when he was much younger.
‘I was working in London at the age of nineteen and I remember walking towards Piccadilly from Green Park. I passed by the Ritz and saw a display of crockery that had been rescued from a shipwrecked liner. Apparently you could pay a premium in the restaurant and have your food served on that famous china. I stopped and looked at it in the window and said to myself that I wanted to cook there. Now that I’m here I’m always aware that it’s a very special place and a privilege to work in.’
Williams finally came to the Ritz after stints at great hotels such as Claridge’s and the Royal Garden Hotel. But his life started as one of five children, the son of a fisherman. ‘I was the second eldest and I evolved into Mum’s helper,’ he says. So he helped her shop, savouring the likes of fresh strawberries in the summer (‘I can still smell the paper bag they would be in and relish the fact that they never went near a fridge’) and loving the fish his father would bring home. ‘People would follow him like a seagull,’ he says. ‘On Sundays I would help my mother make things like mint sauce and I would love to scrape the skins off Jersey Royals in spring. I still just adore the taste of Jerseys with melted butter.’
But it was the Seventies TV chef Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet, that really inspired Williams. ‘I watched him travelling the world, and making the dishes back in the studio. He had a long table and after a slug of wine would taste his food. I watched the expression on his face as he ate and thought to myself, “Shit, I want some of that.”’
Williams enrolled on a course in his late teens and got an apprenticeship at a hotel in Otterburn. ‘My first job was plucking and drawing grouse and I thought it was the worst thing I had smelled in my life. I’d never seen those birds before but now I absolutely love them.’
Soon he was coming across ingredients brought back from France by the French manager’s wife and he resolved to go to London because he realised that the likes of foie gras were not going to be used in cooking in Northumberland.
‘I needed to go to where the money was,’ he says. After a number of jobs he found his true métier in the smartest hotels and has always relished, as he puts it, ‘wanting to cook for some very special people’.
Today the Ritz is one of the few hotels where you can’t cross the threshold wearing jeans and trainers and must wear a suit and tie in the dining room. ‘It’s a place that people love to dress up for,’ he says, ‘and the dress code is part of our values, it’s what makes us unique. Whereas many of our rivals seem to have an element of Americanism, the Ritz has kept its style and heritage in every sense. So I love that and I love that we dress up. I only wish that more ladies would wear hats.’
Lunchtime service beckons and Williams’s indulgent menu — which never strays too far from the principles of the restaurant’s founder, Auguste Escoffier, at the turn of the 19th century — today includes an elixir of tomato. It’s a classic Ritz dish combining old-fashioned consommé jelly, fresh water crayfish, and parmesan.
Williams talks of it with passion, as he does when he mentions the game he loves to cook and serve. The mere mention of the likes of grouse and woodcock has him shouting with joy. He pops his very tall hat on and this man, so proud to be at the helm of one of the world’s most famous hotel restaurants, leaves the quiet of his cool office and enters the fray, ready to check on, tinker with, and cook the likes of Norfolk crab, goose liver terrine, veal sweetbreads, lobster, fillets of veal, and his beloved grouse.