Chef Interview: John Williams, MBE (Ritz, March 2011)

Posted on: April 17th, 2011 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Executive Chef of The Ritz: John Williams MBE

The current Chairman of The British Academy of the Culinary Arts, John Williams has transformed the fortunes of The Ritz restaurant. From humble beginnings John has climbed to the heights of Executive Chef at a number of London’s great hotels. His tireless endeavors for the culinary industry have seen him recognised with an MBE.

John found time to speak to Simon Carter and Daniel Darwood of fine-dining-guide, interview took place in late March 2011 in John’s office, in the heart of the (large) basement kitchen(s) of the Ritz Hotel.

Tell us some background about yourself?

As the son of a Tyneside fisherman, I developed my passion for food at an early age. I was brought up on fish – mainly cod and haddock, we sometimes got Langoustine claws but never the tails as they were too expensive. I was taught by my mother to cook and my culinary interests further developed with cookery classes at school and continued as I studied for my City and Guilds at South Shields College and later at Westminster College.

I took up my first position as a Commis Chef at the Percy Arms Hotel in Otterburn in 1974. Two days before my birthday – August 18th – my first job was plucking a grouse and was an incredible early memory. Later, on the advice of a sous chef in my first job who had worked at The Mirabelle, I moved to London and went to the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, working my way through the kitchen operation until my appointment as Chef de Cuisine in 1982.

In 1984 I accepted the position of Chef Director at the Restaurant Le Crocodile in Kensington Church Street before joining the distinguished Savoy Group of Hotels and Restaurants in 1986. During my 19 year tenure with the Savoy Group, I served as Premier Sous Chef at Claridge’s and Maitre Chef des Cuisines at The Berkeley before moving to head up Claridge’s kitchens as Maitre Chef des Cuisines in 1995. After nine years in this position, I got a call from the general manager of The Ritz and he asked me what it would take for me to come to the hotel. I felt that the respect for this building and the history of The Ritz was a marvelous opportunity moving forward – A project with a long-term vision to move quietly and slowly (to not frighten people) but make significant impact and change. So, in 2004, I joined the Ritz London as the Executive Chef, and we’re moving constantly in the right direction with aims and objectives to be leaders in our field.

What are your current roles and responsibilities at The Ritz?

The Executive Chef Role. I am responsible for the running and overseeing of all food products at The Ritz. This includes the Restaurant, Palm Court, private dining rooms, Staff, the bar and room service. Everything.

The bar is small on food requirements, the private dining is a growing business while the Palm Court is averaging over 400 covers a day in afternoon tea; five sittings of over 80 covers a time and is pretty intense! I am very proud of our private dining – a stunning environment and again specific in terms of what we will serve. Room service is a different requirement again, the sort of food products that you can ‘kick your shoes off to, relax and watch television.

The Dining Room (main restaurant) is the most beautiful room and also a sales tool for the ‘peoples’ hotel’ – Shortly after I arrived I noticed people would queue up just to come in and take photographs of the room, it is arguably one of the finest eating spaces in world restaurants. I remember, in the early days, there was a service that wasn’t going to my liking, it just wasn’t right, so I called the chefs together and took them into the Dining Room. They were in awe of what they saw, and I said to them – “I never ever want to serve food that does not do justice to this room, the food and the décor of the room must be remembered together by diners for the overall greatness of the experience.”

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

Of the French style but including some British elements. My job is to be the arbitrator of food that suits the style of ‘the house’ – it has to be evolutionary not revolutionary. The evolution in cuisine is important as it we must cater to the regular conservative eaters and the more adventurous diners in equal measure. However, were the food too revolutionary or cutting edge, I wouldn’t have lasted long in my job, that is not what ‘the house’ is about, however it must have a classic element while being of the moment, be fresh in terms of style as well as ingredients. Through steady development and hard work we’ve built a reputation and a strong business but we are always wanting to be proactive in getting the message across of how we deliver in the modern age while respecting the spirit of The Ritz.

What is the creative process of producing a new dish?

Number one is I am the arbitrator of ‘Is it Ritz’ when we produce new dishes. We have a du Jour menu that changes completely, lunch and dinner, every day. That is a prolific amount of creativity. We have a very strong team of chefs – ranging in ages from 30 to 38 years of age – they have independent restaurant experience from working with Marco (Pierre White) to Phil (Howard). They will bring a dish together with the du jour in mind and we will work on it and perfect it, the dish is always evolving. Over time some of these dishes will develop into the a la carte menu.

How often does the menu change?

We are highly seasonal, the menu changes four times a year. We will keep some big sellers and classics from menu to menu – the crab roll as an example. There will also be retained dishes from the previous spring into this spring for instance. If you think of the du jour menu – that’s six new dishes times seven, or 42 new dishes; the level of creativity in the kitchen means there’s a flow of change to the menu.

What is the size and make up of the brigade?

There’s 54 in total – including my PA and a kitchen purchaser. The hotel is 136 bedrooms but the food and beverage production is quite a scale.

How many covers are you doing in the restaurant?

The flow of business is now strong in the restaurant. We probably experience four or five times the volume of trade that was typical seven or so years ago. There’s between 60 and 80 covers of a weekday lunch or dinner going up to 100 to 120 for weekend lunch or dinner.

What are the best selling dishes?

On the a la Carte, the crab roll is very popular, the Cote de Veau that is served at the table and the modern classic lobster dish. In pastry terms, we have an innovative and creative pastry chef who is producing some wonderful food, one of his creations that is a great seller is the pear cigar.

What’s your view on the ever changing technologies available to chefs?

Embrace them! Anything that can improve the end product and make your processes more efficient has to be embraced. For example, we have been using water baths for seven years as it has something to offer in modern day cooking. You have to look at what you are trying to achieve and if technology advancements will make a positive difference then use them…

What’s your view on some of the trends in modern cuisine?

Let’s take fusion as an example. I’m a firm believer that you can take any variety of ingredients and if the flavour, texture and temperature combination works then the dish works. However, fusion implies a step further – the mixing of cultures – and to me fusion may imply ‘con-fusion.’

The heart of cuisine is that people eat food in a certain area for a reason – history, culture, climate, accessibility to ingredients and so on, the heritage and natural harmonies in cuisine is something important to be cherished and nurtured.

Cooking must also come from the heart, if it comes from within and is something you love to eat you then you will find an increasing tendency toward purity and simplicity. I appreciate that as I have evolved my cooking it has become more pure and focused and consequently better than it ever has been in the past.

How do you go about sourcing produce?

Taste-led. I won’t deliberately source something because it comes with the right label, I will look at the quality of the product first – that is all about the taste of the final dish. Having said that, I do have some wonderful organic lamb from Home Farm (the Prince of Wales estate) and Aberdeen Angus beef. The sustainability of fish debate is a worthy one and to be taken seriously.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that if you have a fish on your plate that was in the sea the day before then you have a much better chance of it tasting stunningly fresh then someone who has held that fish for three days. Likewise, with root vegetables taken directly from the ground and delivered to the plate immediately will have the best taste; or meat that has experienced the correct husbandry and the right preparation. There’s a small window – a point – where meat and game are prepared to their best, so sourcing and preparation are vitally important.

The complex element is that we must have delivery consistently day in day out, at the right time, the right quality, and the right price. You have to look at the end of objective of what you are trying to deliver on a plate to customers and work backwards to get the right sourcing in every respect.

Everything changed with the birth of computers and the spreadsheet. At about the same time, in around the mid-1970s, a revolution was happening in grand hotels, chefs were visiting France and seeing extraordinary creativity. The result was a tremendous amount of work to change menus that would have an impact forever – Ferdinand Point’s inspired nouvelle cuisine was coming into play and the quality of ingredients and sourcing was dramatically changing. The computer and the spreadsheet however, dictated that the business had a budget and the budget had to be managed carefully.

At this point perhaps the grand hotel chef started to become more a manager of budgets and the creative, food-on-a-plate-led chefs were moving to independent restaurants, where the focus was on the end product rather than the spreadsheet.

How many chefs can you name from the late 70s and early 80s? 90% of them would have been in hotels, whereas now it is with independent restaurants. At The Ritz I have been determined to hit the right balance; one that satisfies the hospitality needs – the very best quality of end product – of and to the customer while at the same time managing the budgets effectively.

Tell us about some of the bodies you represent/events organised?

I have just come out of a meeting about Le Bocuse d’Or, probably the biggest competition in the world. My aim, as part of the organising committee, is to produce a chef that will compete and win the Bocuse d’Or. We now have sponsorship and everything else in place to move forward with that objective.

I am chairman of The Academy of Culinary Arts. The Prince of Wales is patron and it remains affiliated to the body in France. It is all about training and nurturing talent in Britain for the future. The Master of the Culinary Arts awards demonstrate the highest level of skills in pastry, kitchen and service. It is probably the most important thing to me outside of The Ritz.

What are your objectives for the future of The Ritz?

To have an outstanding restaurant full of happy customers, whose expectations have been exceeded on every level, and to continue to be recognised as one of the finest restaurants in London.

And so it was time to leave – the kitchen at least – as we were about to sample some of the food that John had been speaking about so passionately. Clearly a man of great vision and natural energy as well as talent: One left impressed with John’s warmth and humility but at the same time aware that we were talking to a leader of men.