He may be better known for cooking for Margaret Thatcher at The Ritz Restaurant, or rubbing shoulders with royals and Presidents when they come to visit, but Executive Chef John Williams began his career with a bold decision to leave the North East.
At the age of just sixteen, he left his South Shields home for the freedom to experiment with luxurious food in the capital. Over time, his culinary flair was refined into the haute cuisine that still causes a stir to this day. Today, with an MBE and a Michelin Star to his name, the 60-year-old has decided to impart his gastronomic know-how with a new recipe book.
We sat down with Williams at the Piccadilly landmark to get a taste of his journey from fisherman’s fry to fine dining, working in London’s most exclusive hotel and the importance of leaving a legacy…
Do you have a particular mindset you get into when cooking?
“When I’m cooking, I sort of go into myself. I think at a different level. I try to understand and analyse the different things that will happen; what makes a good stock and how do I make one? I can be in the middle of the kitchen, shouting about all the cheques, and then I can suddenly go into a pan and finish a sauce. It’s the only thing I’m patient with! I’m not patient with people.
“I actually measure everything in the confidence of my taste, of what I learned from my mother — so she must have done something right! It’s a little bit of her in there. I think my parents would’ve been quite proud of the cookbook especially.”
How has your style changed when working in different kitchens?
“The room actually makes you cook in a specific way. When I first started here at The Ritz, I distinctively remember I didn’t have a particularly good day so I whistled and took everyone upstairs. I said: ‘Look at this room, look at the artwork and look at the way it is,’
“Everyone went: ‘Oh my god, it’s fantastic, Chef!’ And I said: ‘Do you think the food is suitable for this room?’ That’s when lots of these young chefs told me they were sorry, and that it had to be much better. That was the start of a new era. You need to see and understand how powerful the room is. Because, if you serve the wrong things in a room like that, it will crash and not be a nice experience.”
How dependent are you on your team? Do they make you proud?
“What I’m proud of is that they’re British lads and I want to create the next few generations of chefs to make sure we’re moving in the right direction. I’ve got people in there that will be capable of running this place in five years time. Without them, I’m nothing.
“They’re all quite young, but they keep me in a job because they’re energised and want to be revolutionary in cooking. What I do is guide them and make sure their cooking fits under this house. So, the education comes in two levels: What you want to do and how you move forward. They get it, believe me.”
Who is your favourite person you’ve ever cooked for?
“Probably the Prince of Wales. I am a great royalist and think there’s a lot of thought which goes into everything he does. He certainly understands what makes great food, the qualities of good breeding, organics, health and wellbeing.
“I think he’s ahead of his time. It was his idea to start a campaign to encourage people to eat mutton in this country. He said, ‘we don’t want one mutton dish, let’s have three!’ So we did a trio in a specific style and it worked very well.”
Do you hope you’ll leave a legacy at The Ritz?
“I’m a great believer that everyone should leave a legacy in a place where they’ve worked. When we have inductions here, we talk about César Ritz and his legacy. But I’ll say if you come to a place like this, what would be better than for people to cry that you’re leaving?
“You know you’ve done a bloody good job there. So that’s what I want everyone to aspire to. Myself, the legacy I want to leave is the quality of cooking that we’re producing at this particular time so people can look at it and say: ‘That was a good time for The Ritz’.”
The Ritz London: The Cookbook by John Williams MBE is published by Mitchell Beazley, £30. Learn more here…