Chef interviews

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John Williams

Interviewed December 2010

John Williams MBE is the head chef of the Ritz Hotel in London. The grand dining room of the Ritz showcases the classical cooking that John has refined in recent years.

Q – How long have you been cooking professionally?

I started cooking as an apprentice in August 1974 for £9 per week.

Q – Where did you train to cook?

I believe this is not a straightforward answer. As a chef you are always developing, but I trained in the Percy Arms in Otterburn. My most informative time was 7 years at the Royal Garden roof restaurant with Remy Fougere and at that time worked in Ma Cuisine with Guy Mouilleron. The combination of the two set me on the road to where I am now, but there were lots of influences from various people: Mario Lesnik was a fantastic saucier and the greatest ambassador who taught me so much was Michel Bourdin at the Connaught.

Q – How would you describe your style of cooking?

Classic cooking with evolution. For the Ritz, I like to believe we modernise little things that Escoffier would have been happy with! I now really focuse on the very best that Britain's terroir has to offer with a few additions from France. Maybe this is "Palace style" cuisine as I believe this is the last palace style hotel in England.

Q – Is there a secret for a successful restaurant?

Great hospitallity, great food, fantastic ambience and service, value for money, very hard work and of course the correct communication to make sure enough people know about what you stand for!

Q – Do you have a “signature dish” or favourite dish you enjoy cooking?

This often evolves however two dishes that have stayed with me are Saddle of Lamb Belle Epoque which is still on our menus, and Egg Faberge which is what it says: a truffle-decorated egg shaped mousseline of langoustine with a soft quail egg in the centre. It is cooked in duck egg shell as a mould and finished with langoustine tails.

Q – Do you have a favourite ingredient?

Lemon verbena or vanilla. I love fragrance and vanilla, although used throughout the world, is the heart and soul of any good pastry almost like a good flavoured stock in the kitchen.

Which restaurant do you most enjoy eating at on your night off?

The most enjoyable meal last year was the meal I ate at the Ledbury: great food and service but not pompous. Brett is a super cook.

What is your most interesting or fun experience from your time in restaurants?

Well I come from a very humble background and this profession has given me the opportunity to eat in some of the world's best restaurants, meet some incredible people cook for some very important people. I love the fact I have cooked several times for the Queen and other very important people.

What would be your “last request” dish?

Woodcock with a truffle and fine champagne sauce.

Is there another chef that you most admire?

Heston Blumenthal with the way he has looked at the past to develop the future.

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

Expose yourself to the very best in restaurants, the very best in hotels and the very best in pastry. Be humble, work hard and be honest to yourself and use all your senses in cooking.

Any final thoughts you’d like to add?     

I am looking forward to each new season and still get excited about the seasonal ingredients and to keep improving the food in the Ritz.

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