Chef features and interviews
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John Williams, Executive Chef, The Ritz London
He’s the recipient of an MBE and a CMA from the French Government for services to French cuisine (the first British chef to receive such an honour) and John Williams has been consistently proving why since he was named executive chef at The Ritz in 2004. For a modest man from Tyneside, South Shields, becoming executive chef at one of London’s most exclusive and famous hotels is an inspiring feat. John’s classical approach to cooking has seen The Ritz Restaurant thrive under his leadership. In addition to The Ritz Restaurant menu, he is also in charge of the menus for The Palm Court, The Rivoli Bar, Room Service and the private dining rooms at William Kent House at The Ritz.
John also acts as chairman of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, demonstrating his eagerness to support a new crop of budding chefs alongside his own ambitions. Though, as executive chef at The Ritz, apprentices have a task on their hands to match John’s success.
First of all, Chef Williams, thank you for inviting us in today. It's fantastic to see such a large brigade in action. Let's start by asking - What does it mean to be the Executive Chef of The Ritz Hotel London?
That's actually a very good question. It's something to be very, very proud of. I certainly am. It's something that I have always aspired to and I have worked in many classic hotels over the last twenty five years, so, yes, I would say "˜Proud' more than anything. I really do enjoy the fact that I am the Executive Chef at The Ritz London.
You mentioned that you have worked at some classic hotels, such as Claridges, The Berkley - how important was it for you to come to an operation that had its own restaurant?
Very important, I am a cook; that's what I do: you can call me all sorts of different things, but my whole inspiration, my whole joy is the cooking aspect of the role. I don't want people to think I am standing at the stove all the time - I am a little bit old for that, but in the same sense it is about what you are creating and I am a great believer that chefs evolve in a very specific fashion right from the start of their career.
Chefs learn by tasting. To start with they actually make most dishes too complex and over complicated. They then iron this out and become more simplistic; but whatever level you are at, you have to continue evolving your cuisine all the time; in my opinion, this is a very important journey for chefs to take. The moment that someone like me stops evolving, they're effectively dead in this industry, and that is what actually happens so many times, which is why being physically involved in cooking holds so much precedence over the business aspect of jobs like this.
The role of the hotel Executive Chef is very, very different now compared to fifteen/twenty years ago. Then you had great hotel chefs; industry heavyweights such as Kromberg, Edelman, Mosimann, Bourdin; they were chefs with great tradition and great restaurants but now the role has changed. You cannot compare their role with what is required today.
I think, first and foremost, that chefs have been on a journey throughout the ages - from the seventies, what happened here in Great Britain was the tours of France; there were the great chefs of France - the Roux brothers, obviously, Michel Bourdin (Chef de Cuisine at The Connaught) and the like ... they came across, they learnt to speak English and they educated cooks here in England. And then the General Managers started to say "At what price?" In other words, they asked what it was costing and what the labour costs were. Then what happened was that they realised that the costs were high; but you are seeing great food, so there is then pressure to sustain the quality but bring the costs in-line, and what happens then is that the focus is taken away from the cooking, I'm not saying that we shouldn't make money - it's very important to do that - but the moment you actually focus on one thing you lose another element. It's very important that we never lose sight of the reason we are here, and that is to cook. But that evolution has to come back and you have to train people to run their own restaurants and to really make sure that the right cooking is in the very best hotels.
How do you think cooking has evolved in the last twenty years? I say it in the nicest possible way - you are very classical and I don't mean that in a bad way because, in my opinion, there are too many kids (I don't want to sound patronising but...) they want to do molecular from day one. The first thing they say is "What about molecular in this ..." but is having a classical base still fundamentally important?
I think the best man that has ever answered that question is Heston (Blumenthal) himself. The first thing he will tell you is "You've got to learn how to cook before you evolve into your own style" and that's what he did. That is hugely important. How did we evolve? I think we've progressed in great strides; I think we have an understanding of how to expect flavours to be now; we have learnt much better techniques. I'd like to think the very best cooks we have in this country will deliver their own style - but it will be from a classic basis.
So how would I describe the way we cook? ... I would say it's evolution with a light touch and I think that's how it has actually progressed. It didn't really start changing until the 1970s - you know, if you look through menus from the 1900s right back to the 1970s, I guarantee, there were the same things on them.
Yes, yes. Chef, you have a very big brigade here - 55 in the team, it's a traditional Partie system, but that system and hotel style is becoming, to a degree, out-sourced. How big an impact is that on chefs acquiring the right skills? What I am trying to say is ... not everyone has a fishmonger or a butcher on the staff, so are we losing those key skills from the industry today?
Sure, I think that is very understandable in a restaurant outlet, however in a hotel kitchen, nine times out of ten there is enough space. A lot of the time, it is purely down to cost, but where it is not, then it is very important that these skills are upheld for several reasons: the pure essence of learning the skills and craft of a fish section or a meat section, the preparation carried out in the sauce section, or experience in the pastry section: these are all very beneficial for any young chef's training and will really hone their skills.
The restaurant element of training will give chefs a very different style. Now, can I tell you why I think the Partie system is important - it's not just for the organisation, it does help with the organisation, of course, but it's also for hygiene reasons. There is less chance of cross-contamination because you have separation, a raw fish prep area and a cooked fish area, and so on, so it is very simple in my eyes which way is the best way - without doubt it's the traditional Partie system.
The problem we have in modern buildings and the kitchens within them is that they are not built to provide the facilities for that - they are designed on American lines and that is not always the best way forward, but I totally understand why operators do this.
Yes. You mentioned earlier youngsters learning the skills - how difficult is it to attract young Chefs into hotels when they have got the "Rock and Roll" of Marcus Waring and Heston, who are now very high profile (deservedly so) and are on the TV a lot and in the trade magazines. Does it make your job more difficult attracting the next generation of hotel chefs ?
I don't think so. I think it is always tough getting the right people, and everyone in this industry will tell you that. What is extremely important is that you attract the right kind of people. It's a young man's industry and I have many links with a lot of very fine colleges, and I am Chairman of the Academy of Culinary Arts. I feel so fortunate - I am in a very special house here at The Ritz London. I think if you knew how many applicants we get for jobs every day ... sometimes we get ten applicants a day, one of whom might be suitable for an interview and a working trial. I like them to come in, and when they do they learn more about us; we don't learn much about them but they actually see what we are about, as an operation and a team, and if they like what they see then it is very beneficial for them and a good step forward. But I also use the network of friends that I've built up. Today, I have got two guys coming to see me on the recommendation of someone who worked for me on three occasions in the past. He said that I was his mentor and that they should come and see me, so they have come down from Manchester to hopefully learn what the job is all about here at The Ritz.
Where do you see food going in the next five years? I mean, we have been through quite a revolution from classic cuisine to molecular cookery.
That's another very good question because I think everyone will tell you there is "˜this, that and the other', that food is very diverse. Heston is even bringing back a certain element of classic cooking.
And for me, it's always important that we listen to the customer. The big things that are coming through at the moment are lightness of touch and fewer calories. The calorie aspect is important - we don't need as many calories so I think food is going to become lighter and I think the evolution is already there. I think as far as the mix of ingredients goes, and so on, I don't see that changing very much and that is very important in how we operate and how we understand what the customer's needs are. The one thing that I am quite sure of is food will become more pure - purer in flavour, purer in ingredients, and I think that is very crucial. We shall evaluate the quality of ingredients and products much more, we shall look more at the husbandry of animals and livestock, at how we grow vegetables and cereals and so on, and where we source them. The one thing we have got to be careful of is how they are grown: I think this will be a very big issue in the future.
Last, but by no means least, how do you see the role of the hotel Executive Chef changing over the next ten years and how are you preparing your chefs for that change?
I think it has already changed so much. The reality of what we have got to do is clear: what I say to my cooks so they get the right evolution and are prepared for that top position is learn how to cook - get good techniques, understand flavours, really make sure that you can be an excellent cook - that is the number one thing. The second thing is to be a leader. You have got to be a very good leader, people have got to want to follow you, so that aspect of the job is hugely important; and then you have to be able to plan well and organise and really bring things off whilst also having spontaneity. Last but by no means least, you must have a good business mind so that you understand what will make a profit because whether you are going to be an Executive Chef or a businessman you have to make that money in the correct fashion - you need to be honest; you need integrity about your selling price that you are actually giving to that customer; value for money. I think those things are so important because if you don't understand food costs you'll not have a business. So if we put all these things together it's quite difficult because the natural, creative, practical side of a chef's brain that he uses is one thing, but the business side is the other and over many, many years you'll see in the last century there have been very few people who have been the most wonderful inspirational cooks who were equally good on the business side. We have had them but not many, and it just happens to be exactly the same at the moment. I'd like to think that I have studied it enough and worked at it enough that I do have some of those attributes - but that is really for someone else to say.
Chef Williams, thank you very, very much. It has been a huge privilege to come here today and to see a wonderful operation like this.
You're very welcome. I hope you have seen a different side of cuisine.
Absolutely. Thank you.