CellarVie Wines Meets...John Williams MBE

The much-gilded current Chairman of The British Academy of the Culinary Arts, who has earned a CMA from the French Government for services to French cuisine - the first British chef to receive such an honour - discusses what it means to work as the Executive Chef in London’s iconic Ritz Restaurant.

The Ritz is an iconic London landmark; could you briefly articulate what it’s like to work in such a famous institution?

It is a little piece of history and you have to respect what the building is, as it tells you what to cook.

Why does the Ritz have such an enduring appeal?

Its style is pure glamour and it is unique.

How would you describe the Ritz and its ethos to someone unfamiliar with this famous establishment?

Evolutionary yet classical, elegant, magical, legendary, unique, and it has stunning décor.

What is the secret to a successful restaurant?

To have wonderful guests, and quality of warm friendly service and ambience. Value for money, excellent seasonal ingredients and menus that are executed simply and well.

What inspired you to become a chef and who were your culinary heroes growing up?

The Galloping Gourmet (Graham Kerr) inspired me initially, beyond that – Paul Bocuse, Geroge Blance, Louis Outhier, Alan Chapel and Michel Guerard.

Your father was a fisherman and you were born on Tyneside; how did your upbringing shape your career and your passion for food?

We certainly had lots of fish, and I used to help my mother scrape the Jersey Royals and make the mint sauce for the roast.

Who taught you to cook?

Realistically I was inspired by people but I was teaching myself to a degree.

What is the best advice you have ever received and who imparted this wisdom to you?

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Michel Bourdin.

What are your cooking principals in the kitchen?

Classical to the core in every way; sauté, poach, roast, bake, well steam, boil, simmer. Make stocks and sauces well and you will have the basics of a good kitchen.

How would you describe the cuisine on offer at The Ritz restaurant?

Classical evolutionary haute cuisine

The main dining room area of the Ritz is breathtakingly beautiful; presumably your food must match this peerless dining experience?

That’s exactly why we cook the food we do, interestingly Faye Maschler said something similar when reviewing our breakfast.

How important is to you that the ingredients and produce used in the Ritz restaurant are of the highest quality available, and seasonally relevant?

If you have seasonal food of the moment that has got to the table in the shortest possible time, i.e. from the sea, earth, air, then you don’t need to be clever to make it good, just blend the correct ingredients and balance.

How often does the menu change at the Ritz and what challenge does this present?

I change the menus all the time, but in 6 week periods because that how long the British seasons last.
In modern cuisine there seems to be a real emphasis on appearance, design and the theatrics of a dish; do you think there is a danger that flavour is being compromised by appearance?

Of course this can be a problem I always tell my cooks, if you cook fresh food well you will present it well.

What do you eat at home and for comfort away from the restaurant?

A weekend roast or grilled meat with salad and vegetables.

Is there a moment in your career that really stands out as a highlight?

To be honest, I live in the moment, so now.

How nerve wracking is it to serve Her Majesty, how many times have you done it, and did she ever give you any feedback?

Over the years I have cooked for the Queen about 20 times and yes, she has given feedback, usually via the palace.

Do you have a failsafe recipe or desert island recipe you love to use?

Leg of Lamb Sarladaise, I’ve been cooking it for 35 years.

What advice would you give someone wanting to become a chef?

Study, work, hard and be honest to yourself and your customers.

How would describe the current restaurant ‘scene’ in London at the moment?

Volcanic, so many restaurants, there are good ones opening but they are killing some of the weaker ones. It’s all very eclectic and cosmopolitan.

Of the current crop of respected chefs, who do you admire?

Heston Blumenthal, Simon Rogan.

Outside of your own, what is your favourite restaurant in London?

Royal Hospital Road, Gordon Ramsey.

What is your desert island meal and wine and which three people, dead or alive, would you share it with?

My future wife, who ever she may be, Nicole Sherzinger, The Prince of Wales, and Mohamed Ali.

Live at The Ritz, is now on Friday’s and Saturdays

Article first appeared in Under the Skin Magazine, Autumn Edition 2014. CellarVie Wines' quarterly print publication accompanies all orders on www.cellarviewines.com 


Written by: Ben Moss

Ben Moss 


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