John Williams is an institution, his reputation for fine dining matched only by his talent as a mentor. The Ritz executive chef talks to Lisa Jenkins about his 46-year career, his fight for a Michelin star and how hotel restaurants have always been his calling.
Can we take a stroll through your career?
Well in a nutshell, I was first inspired by a TV chef, Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet, and his travels to restaurants around the world. He would visit restaurants and then try to recreate the dishes himself. He'd present three dishes on a long table, with beautiful wine, and grab two beautiful ladies from the audience. He was like the cat that got the cream and his body would grow in stature. I wanted some of that!
I started my studies with a professional cooks' course in 1973 with an amazing lecturer, Arthur Robertson. Early on we made spaghetti bolognese, which was edgy back then, and I made a good go of it. I remember him saying to me – you love this don't you? He's followed my career all the way through and only retired about eight years ago.
My first job was at the Percy Arms [in Otterburn, Newcastle upon Tyne], and during my first four months my head chef went sick. I volunteered to step up with my dish of choice, a version of trout à la meunière. I served it on silver platters with a centre made with almond-studded blue aspic. I stood the trout up on foil too and it looked spectacular! I got my first ever tip, a ten-shilling note, which was a lot of bloody money.
London was calling to me, though. You had to be in London for the money and the posh food. In 1975 I enrolled part-time at Westminster Kingsway College and started as a commis chef at the Royal Garden hotel in London under the scrutiny of chef Remy Fougere. Seven years later, when I was 25, he asked me to move to his restaurant, Le Crocodile, in Kensington, and I spent another two years there.
But I was missing hotels, so my next role took me to Claridge's as a premier sous chef. It took three interviews, mind – the third one was with Ron Jones [former general manager and Hotelier of the Year 1988] and four other senior managers. When I went to Claridge's, working with Michel Boudin, everything came alive, and I knew that was what I was destined to do. That was followed by a 20-month stint as maître chef des cuisines at the Berkeley, before I headed back to Claridge's to head up the kitchens as maître chefs des cuisines in 1995. I spent 18 years with the Savoy Group – a time where I saw massive change in the industry, as well as having the joy of working with Giles Shepard and Ramon Pajares.
Since joining the Ritz in 2004 as executive chef, what changes have you made?
I wanted to set the Ritz on fire and give the food a purpose, to reflect the powerful style of the restaurant, the building and its history. I knew the food style had to remain classic, but I wanted it to evolve for the modern-day diner. So, although we had to keep the integrity of the dishes, we used modern techniques and our food became lighter and the presentation of the dishes changed. The lighter, fresher dishes are easier to digest and they have a smaller calorific value to what we used to serve.
In terms of ingredients, we aim to be as British as we can. I've been using Bresse chicken and ducks from Miéral farm in France for years because I think they are the best and I prefer them. I also tend to buy goose and duck liver from France. We do have a focus on British seasonality, of course, and we use very little meat that isn't British. All our fish is from the UK – if it doesn't swim around our island, we don't use it. We also use a lot of small growers for our fruit and vegetables, and 95% of our breakfast goods and bread are made in house.
What did winning a Michelin star mean for you and the team?
When you have a big team, you all need to cook the same and teaching all the kitchen teams that synchronicity was important. We had to learn each other's strengths and weaknesses. Winning the star (in 2017) has meant that we've evolved again in the kitchen and it's given the team a sense of pride. Now we want two stars. To achieve that, it must be all about the finesse, a sharpness in flavour, the delivery, exemplary service, and a taste that makes people say ‘wow, that's special'. It's about lifting it all again, and the precision.
I strongly believe we will become stronger in the long term with a natural growth and we will learn from it
Why do you think it took 13 years to achieve the first star?
When you are in the kitchen five days a week, you know how good the food is, but an inspector from any guide is only coming in once or twice a year. The reality is that you don't always get everything perfect on each of those visits. Over time, the young chefs cooking with me (who have mostly been with me for a long time) all think like me and cook better than me. Using modern techniques contributed too and the desire to keep pushing and driving – to cook things that taste beautiful.
What have you been doing during lockdown?
I've been trying to second-guess what will happen with the industry. What's important for us is that we open safely. To do this at a hotel like the Ritz, it's important we look at the health and safety requirements seriously, but we need to ensure it looks right still. We must get the right balance and retain the Ritz style.
In terms of dining, the breakfast buffet will have to go – we won't be doing that. We are looking at the amount of handling that the food requires and how it gets to the customer. There are some things that we do in the restaurant that just can't happen in the post-Covid-19 era.
What's your secret to developing so many fantastic young chefs, like Spencer Metzger and Ian Musgrave?
We work collaboratively, discussing the dishes we are doing, and that's what keeps me enjoying my job. They are highly driven and inspire me, and I hope I give them the leeway to grow. As they grow you get better results too, like with Spencer winning the Roux Scholarship and Ian getting through to the national heats of the Bocuse d'Or. Spencer is exceptional and has been with me since he was an apprentice (when he was still at school at 15) – nearly 10 years. As we continue to evolve chefs like Ian and Deepak [Mallya, sous chef ] and chefs before them, they keep teaching all of us new techniques.
I had very good opportunities in my early career. At the Royal Garden, Fugere allowed me to grow and I hope that I do that, although, I might be a bit more stringent!
Most of my team stay with me for a long time and generally they start at apprentice level and go through all the sections – it's an incredible training in its purest form. After their apprenticeship they become more confident and start coming to me and making suggestions. I try to give them structure by helping and guiding them. I'm there for most services, in the background. I suppose I'm like a father figure now. It's a busy environment and they are under pressure, but it's important to be able to put your arm around them and support them.
Was it your love of mentoring that led to your role as executive chairman of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts (RACA)?
I've been involved in the academy and the apprenticeships for a long time. The current RACA apprenticeships will start again in July (with a smaller number of students in the kitchen to begin with) and all of the RACA apprentices are going back to work full-time. We've kept in touch with them and we are supporting them back into work. The colleges have kept in touch with them via Zoom.
Recently, as executive chairman, I've been working on our sustainability strategy, which is very important for the academy. Post-Covid-19 it will be even more important to know where our food is coming from, especially with Brexit as well.
As an academy, we hope to lobby the government about some of the meat products coming into the UK. Our guests want to know about animal welfare and insecticides, animal rearing, etc. I will drive this for the academy and get this message across to all our members.
We interact with people at all levels of the industry, from Adopt A School to our apprenticeships, our Annual Awards of Excellence and our Master of Culinary Arts accreditation.
What impact do you think the coronavirus pandemic will have on the industry as a whole?
It's caused a lot of tough times, and it's not over yet. There will be shrinkage, and most certainly in London. I believe it will take the industry more than a year to come back properly, but it will come back with strength and changes. Most restaurants will have to change how they operate – reduced staffing levels will mean you have to simplify menus and service. I strongly believe we will become stronger in the long term with a natural growth and we will learn from it.
It's important we look at the health and safety requirements seriously, but we need to ensure it looks right still. We must get the right balance and retain the Ritz style
What advice would you share with other chefs?
Concentrate on the ingredients. Start afresh –and say to yourself: product, product, product. Give the farmers and producers more opportunity and work with them. Good cooking in my opinion always starts with good product.
If we focus on the ingredients, like we did when I was young and training, and combine that with our know-how and just keep it simple, we could be so much stronger and even better at delivering hospitality.
It's always important as well, to keep benchmarking yourself against other restaurants – eating out as often as you can, and post-lockdown we should all be supporting each other.
What have been the outstanding moments of your career?
The Cateys Special Award [in 2017] was very important to me in that it meant I'd done the right thing in the industry, but it was a shock when I got it! I consider it a mark of respect.
Another highlight was meeting chef Paul Bocuse during a culinary tour of France – a tour I'd always dreamed about from reading the book Great Chefs of France. I ate in about seven or eight three-Michelin-starred restaurants, including his, but I missed him in the kitchen. The next day I went back and when he returned from the market, I sat with him and we talked, and he blessed me like the Pope! He said, "My son, this job is not a race, it's a marathon, but I think you'll be OK."
Other people and restaurants that have inspired me are Hélène Darroze at the Connaught and Davis and Brook at Claridge's, [both in London]. One of the best meals I've ever had was at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck [in Bray, Berkshire] – I loved it for its engagement and precision.
But when it comes to memorable cooking occasions, I've adored cooking for all the special people at all the hotels I've worked at, but, especially the royal family. I love cooking for the Queen and the Prince of Wales: it's an honour to cook for them and they know what they like. If they are happy then you know you're hitting the right mark, and the Queen is always very honest.
And, I couldn't finish talking about memorable moments without mentioning my MBE. What an honour!
John Williams CV
1974 Commis chef, the Percy Arms hotel, Otterburn, Newcastle upon Tyne
1976-1985 Chef, Royal Garden hotel, London
1984-1986 Chef-director, Restaurant Le Crocodile, Kensington, London
1986-1993 Premier sous chef, Claridge's, London
1993-1995 Maître chef des cuisines, the Berkeley, London
1995-2004 Maître chef des cuisines, Claridge's, London
2004-present Executive chef, the Ritz London, and executive chairman, RACA
2008 Awarded MBE
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