From South Shields to The Ritz via plate pies, roast dinners and state banquets, we talk food with Ritz executive chef John Williams MBE
You’d be forgiven for assuming that life for Ritz executive chef John Williams, a man the French, no less, have honoured with their equivalent of the MBE for services to their cuisine, would comprise wall-to-wall foie gras and beluga.
The reality of heading up the kitchens at one of the world’s smartest hotels is probably not far off, though Williams’ personal taste remains true to its foundations in South Shields, where as a child he was his mother’s kitchen helper.
Plate pies, roast dinners with Yorkshire pudding, and prawn claws his father brought home from the quay form the culinary memories of a man who would go on to be awarded an MBE and the French equivalent, the CMA, in recognition of his commitment to French cuisine.
His office overlooks a new suite of kitchens at The Ritz staffed by 65 cooks, and there remains the hint of a Shields twang to his voice, despite 40 years in London’s top hotels, including The Berkeley and Claridges, where he was executive chef. Trained in classical French style by the legendary Remy Fougere, with whom he went on to open a restaurant at London’s Royal Garden Hotel, he says: “We use the best ingredients we had 100 years ago, we’ve just improved on the simplicity with which we used to cook. We’d boil, roast and poach, while the French were more advanced; bringing in their techniques has improved
Williams, 58, began his career at The Percy Arms Hotel in Otterburn, Northumberland with an introduction to fresh ingredients. “I will never forget the smell of the grouse I was given to pluck on my first day,” he says. “I still head out on August 12 to find that smell – and memories come flooding back.”
The second of six children, life was simple. “We didn’t have a lot, but I loved my mother’s cooking. She’d shout me in from playing football to scrape the Jersey royals and I’d get four with melted butter as my reward. I used to do the mint sauce for the lamb as well and I’ve been in love with Jerseys and mint sauce ever since,” he says.
He was also inspired by an early celebrity chef, Graham Kerr – TV’s Galloping Gourmet. “I remember watching him travel to the best restaurants in the world to eat the finest food and I wanted some of the same,” he says. “I’ve used influences from my mother throughout my menus,” he adds. “Her take on dumplings, the ones as big as your fist which soak up your gravy, influenced a Ritz dish with braised veal shin. That was posher of course, but the basic foundations of her mince and dumplings were there.”
His favourite Ritz dishes include langoustines served with spiced carrot purée and lemon verbena sauce, which takes him straight back to childhood days sucking out the sweet meat from the prawn claws his father brought home.
He also enjoys The Ritz’s braised turbot served on cauliflower purée with braised morels, broad beans and baby leeks with champagne sauce, and a pigeon dish from the current menu with a truffle and foie gras sauce which he considers “the most beautiful sauce in the world”.
At home, his tastes are simpler, his go-to a simple roast chicken with sage and onion stuffing – though the Yorkshire pudding which would have accompanied chicken and every other roast back home in South Shields is reserved solely for beef. “I’ve become a bit of a snob,” admits John.
With 40 years cooking for the great and the good behind him, he could dine out on celebrity stories for the rest of eternity. “I’m only a cook, but I’ve met some amazing people and I live like a king with access to some of the finest food and wines in the world,” he says, though his favourite story is of a Prime Minister who favoured ready meals. He went to see Margaret Thatcher to discuss the menu ahead of cooking for her 70th birthday. “She looked deep into my eyes and told me how busy she was, and how she loved to stop and sit down for dinner with Dennis. ‘You know what we like most’ she said, ‘anything that goes ping in the microwave and comes from Marks and Spencer, which means you’re in charge of this dinner’.”
He’s gathered many plaudits and honours, but the most recent, The Ritz’s first-ever Michelin star, is his proudest. The star was a long time coming, he says, because an establishment like The Ritz is so huge, with the restaurant, the Palm Court, Rivoli Bar, private dining rooms and the room service serving hundreds of diners daily – the whole judged as one entity by the people at Michelin, who will also judge one small restaurant with, say, 50 covers and one daily service, by the same standard.
“I always believed we were as good as any star restaurant and this recognition makes the cooks realise why they’re here,” he says. “It meant a lot to see them get the praise they deserved.”
John is executive chairman of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts and his dream is to establish a school for young cooks. For now, it is time to oversee the lunch service and he has a state banquet to plan (he’s not at liberty to say who for). Not bad for a lad who grew up scraping Jerseys in South Shields.
Recipe: Roast grouse, celeriac, salted grapes and walnuts
Recipe: Roast chicken with stuffing
Recipe: Lemon posset with exotic fruits