John Williams came from humble beginnings as the son of a fisherman in Tyneside to be executive head chef at the Ritz and chairman of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts. He tells Janie Manzoori-Stamford about the chefs that influenced him along the way and the importance of an evolutionary approach to cookery
You've been at the Ritz since 2004. What was your career background before joining the iconic hotel?
I started at a very small country house hotel in Northumberland and very quickly I knew that if I wanted to become a serious chef I had to go where there was money. I wasn't even 17 when I came down to London to work at the Royal Garden hotel, where I stayed for a year. I was very homesick and went back to the North-east, but only for three days. I came back to the same job in London and stayed there for another seven years.
That was the real start of my career. The chef there was Rémy Fougère and he really developed me. He was a good teacher: he would take me to France and show me all kinds of great restaurants. We opened a restaurant in Church Street in Kensington, which I did for a couple of years before I came to a crossroads in my career. I asked myself what I wanted to do: I wanted to be a head chef at a big hotel.
How did you achieve that aspiration?
I was 27 and offered the opportunity to go to Claridge's as the premier sous chef with Mario Lesnik. It was a place of great tradition. Once I walked in I knew for certain that THIS was it. It's a fantastic place, with its heritage and history. I stayed there for nine years until I moved on to the Berkeley [at the time a sister hotel in the Savoy Group] as executive chef. I stayed for two years, working very hard and doing everything I wanted, before I was offered the chance to go back to Claridge's as executive chef.
In between all of this I was approached on a couple of occasions to come and work at the Ritz but it never quite fitted. I said then that one day I would be chef of the Ritz. At some point, hotel chefs will say "that's my style of hotel", and Claridge's and the Ritz are mine.
What is it about Claridge's and the Ritz that inspire you?
How do you do that?
By concentrating on ingredients that are in season we keep the food fresh and vibrant - but it's also about haute cuisine because that's what it should be. We respect the classic dishes, but cooking has changed slightly. It is lighter. Cooking techniques for things such as stocks and sauces have changed in the sense that they'll be purer, with more flavour, yet less reduced. It's the reduction that makes things rich. The less reduction, cream and butter, the better. We still need these ingredients but it's how we use them. That's the evolution that's very relevant.
We should shout about the beautiful British ingredients more. In the past we've changed our menus four times a year, alongside a daily changing menu. I stopped all of that because the British season doesn't last that long. As soon as an ingredient is here, it goes on the menu. When it's finishing, I take it off. It's as simple as that.
What do you think your relatively modest upbringing in Tyneside has brought to the Ritz and what sparked your interest in food? I come from a family of six. My dad was a fisherman and I used to get on the boats and do crab and lobster fishing to help. Food was always around and Sunday lunch was very important in a big family. The first job I remember was scraping the Jersey Royals and I'd be rewarded with two or three with melted butter. That's still how I eat them today.
There was also the Galloping Gourmet, [TV personality] Graham Kerr. He used to travel to restaurants all over the world, where he would see the dish, eat it and go back into the studio and try to reproduce it. He would have the most beautiful wine on the table, with two chairs on either side, which he would fill with the two most beautiful looking ladies from the audience. He'd put one either side of him, pour the wine, and dive in with an expression that said "I've made it!". I looked at him and thought: "I want to do that." It never happened quite like that, though!
How does being a hotel chef differ from being â¨a restaurant chef? I've got a thing about hotel chefs. A restaurant chef, nine times out of 10, is someone who is cooking his own food, putting his own personality and style into it, which is great. There are some great restaurant chefs. A hotel chef has to have a lot more to him, I believe. Yes, he has to have his speciality, but he has to cook for guests from all walks of life in every different scenario - breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon tea, snacks. It's a service that's added on to the hotel facility. The hotel guests are king. You have to follow the guests, whereas in restaurants sometimes the guest follows the chef. It's a subtle difference.
Frederick Forster, 2011 National Chef of the Year and head chef at the Boundary, once said that of all the people he has worked with you've had the biggest influence on him and his career. How do you inspire young people? First and foremost, to be really honest, if I inspire them to do something good for me while they're here, they're doing a good job for me. It works hand in hand.
I'm often asked to say hello to our new starters when they do their induction and I'll ask them if they know who Cesar Ritz was and they'll all know. I'll tell them about how he has gone down in history and that every one of us has the opportunity to do the same somewhere like this. We just have to do something really good and leave a mark. People get that.
I quite enjoy motivating people with things like that. It's important that someone like me, who is a little bit older, hands those things on so that people really strive for greatness. I have to show people the personal side and help them understand their strengths, weaknesses and the approach needed to manage a big brigade. You have to be tough, but you have to be humane.
We have a responsibility, and as chairman of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts my ambition is to make our cooking of a much higher standing across the board. If I can do it, then the next generation has got to be better.
Who has been the greatest influence on your career? There are a few people who have influenced me - some I've already mentioned, such as Rémy Fougère and Mario Lesnik. Michel Bourdin is a great mentor and I still keep in touch with him even though he has retired. He brought a lot to this country, along with the Roux brothers, and while a lot of these guys had an influence on me Michel was the talker to me. He would point me in the right direction and forever encourage me. A man that I speak to now, in a different way but with sincere respect, is Brian Turner. He's very on the level and he'll always ground you.
The Academy of Culinary Arts was recently granted Royal status. What does that mean to the organisation and its members? It's something we've always quietly wanted. The men that started the academy - Michel Bourdin, Albert and Michel Roux, Richard Shepherd, Brian Turner - these guys have worked tirelessly to get from where they were then to where we are now. It's immense. It's a pat on the back. What we try to do is make sure that the development and training of cooks is better and progressing. That's got to be passed on in many different ways.
How has the academy evolved to remain relevant today? Michel Bourdin and the Roux brothers used to get together on a Saturday morning to discuss similar kinds of problems, be it ingredients or staffing, and they linked those meetings with the Academie Culinaire de France in Paris. As it evolved it became more active. We wanted HRH the Prince of Wales to be our patron but we couldn't ask a British Royal to become a patron of the Academie Culinaire de France, so there was a name change but the affiliation with France was still there. That gave us the opportunity to grow with the Prince of Wales's stamp of approval and allowed us to do a few more things with our Chefs Adopt a School and apprenticeships programmes.
Tell me about the apprenticeships programme. It's the best there is in this country. It's a three-year scheme and I currently have nine in my kitchen. In my career, I've had two sous chefs that started as apprentices. It spreads learning like building pyramids. Each layer you create becomes the peak of another triangle.
That was the emphasis of how the academy operated in France and they wanted to rule the world and pass French cooking around. That's why they had these academies. The difference with us Brits is there are fewer French people proportionately, in that it's a mixed academy. It's as cosmopolitan as the UK and our best ambassadors and the people with the most history are the French that brought it here. It's very important that we salute them for what they've done. In history we will remember those guys and say that was the turning point for British food.
Who is on the current board of governors? The very finest hospitality people from the past 30 to 40 years, be they hoteliers or restaurateurs. They are all passionate about the academy and they bring a different dimension to it. We need that broad cross-section of skills, they help to spread the word and it engenders respect. The academy is nothing if it doesn't educate. It's so important that people who come into the academy have that ethos of giving. One of the first questions I ask people who want to come into the academy is why, and often they say "good networking". They've missed the point. It's about giving back, about looking after somebody and training them. "Oh yeah, I'll do that as well," they say - and you know you've got the wrong one!
I want the elite cooks in this country to be in the academy and there are very few that aren't, for various reasons. Sometimes that's because they're in the middle of working their hardest at their career and they'll join us a few years later. We can't develop cookery without the best chefs.
You've talked about the turning point for British food. How did that happen? In the 1970s there was a surge to improve the quality of food. Bernard Gaume used to go on a Michelin tour twice a year with his restaurant manager just to learn the new specialities and bring them back to the Carlton Tower's Rib Room, as it was then. Caterer and Hotelkeeper used to follow him, and people used to read it for this.
Then the English lads realised that they had to visit Michelin-starred restaurants and started saying that they wanted better food. And it was non-stop. When I first started we weren't doing long, long hours but the desire and drive to create better-quality food and not look anywhere else was what produced the extra hours.
Were there any obstacles standing in the way? The improvements were starting to be seen but then the hotel general managers would start questioning the cost. Computers came in the 1980s and 1990s and those guys that had been pushing for quality without really keeping an eye on their costs were suddenly challenged. The GMs would tell them they were responsible for X-million pounds and that they had to deliver. To a degree, hotel chefs took their eyes off the ball in terms of the food.
Restaurant chefs, on the other hand, they delivered because they knew that if they didn't they wouldn't get business. It was life or death for them, whereas the hotel chefs were making sure the money was right. They were not giving what I'd call hospitality in the way the restaurant chefs were.
In the 1990s, a lot of those chefs I mentioned were head chefs in hotels. They were great names in our industry with a massive amount of respect. Do you see those same names now? Executive chefs in hotels now are asked to manage the restaurant in a certain style. When you're an executive chef, the cooking is one side of your brain and the business is the other and they do fight at times.
Which side wins? At the end of the day I've got to make money. The business has got to run. Sometimes I tell all the cooks that if they want to be a big head chef, there are two things you need: first, you've got to be able to cook and deliver great food for your customers and make them happy; second, you've got to keep your owners happy with the profit. If you've got those two things, you become king of your own destiny. It's a simple formula and I always respect that.