John Williams is the chef in charge of all the chefs in one of the world’s most glamorous hotels, The Ritz, London.
It’s a place loved by royals and romantics, and somewhere that holds a very special place in the heart of the man who learned his passion for food from a curry-loving dad and family-feeding mother.
In his new book The Ritz London: The Cookbook, John concludes, “I am the luckiest man in the world. I’m a Geordie from a hard, working-class background, but when this place is in full swing and I walk down the long gallery, past The Palm Court as afternoon tea is served and the pianist plays, and then step into the grandeur of the extraordinarily special restaurant… at that moment I feel as if I am a millionaire”.
His book is a collection of recipes for dishes that are served to guests at The Ritz, which opened its doors in the spring of 1906. They include favourites from afternoon tea in The Palm Court, canapés and cocktails in The Rivoli Bar, and specialities from William Kent House, where private functions and banquets are held.
The book is also the story of John’s life, from apprentice to still-humble ‘chef of chefs’.
Few restaurants are as magnificent as the one at The Ritz and few can boast a history as rich. Kings have visited with their queens (and their mistresses). Prime ministers and presidents have sat beneath the dazzling chandeliers, plotting the future of nations. Across the white linen tables, stars of stage and screen have clinked champagne flutes and fallen in love.
“In The Restaurant, lives have changed. Mine did: I was offered the role of executive chef over lunch there”, recalls John.
“How very different life is now to my early years… I grew up in South Shields, the second oldest of six children. My father, a fisherman, spent 13 days at a time at sea; home for a couple of nights and then off again, so really it was Mam who raised us.
“I remember playing football on a Sunday morning – I was seven or eight. Mam shouted, “John! Help me with the potatoes.” I dashed into the kitchen and scraped the Jersey Royals. As they boiled, she handed me a bunch of mint. “Chop that!” I put the chopped mint in a bowl, added vinegar, water, a spoonful of sugar and mixed. Then I put the bowl into the oven, as instructed by my mother. That’s how she made mint sauce… and she still has that bowl (it’s a bit chipped now).
“When the potatoes were cooked, I said, ‘I’m starving.’ I was always a hungry lad. ‘Have this, John.’ She took a plate and spooned onto it four or five steaming hot Jersey Royals. She slathered on butter, which melted and coated them so they were glossy and irresistible. As I tucked in, she smiled and for reassurance said, ‘Do you like that?’ I did”.
Those Sunday lunches were the stuff of legend, “massive roast with Yorkshire puddings, five different veg and potatoes, and that meant two types of potatoes, such as creamed and boiled. Plus lashings of gravy!”
His stories are full of nostalgia and charm: “On Saturdays I’d help with the shopping. We’d go to the greengrocer’s: wooden crates, floor to head height, of apples and pears, oranges and lemons, “French beans, broad beans – you name it, he had it. What you bought went into brown paper bags, and the man sealed each bag by spinning it by the two top corners.
“We got strawberries in punnets – they were fresh from a farm and, I can tell you, they would never see a refrigerator. We’d set off home, the aroma of warm strawberries seeping through the punnet into the bag and up to our noses. Halfway home, Mam would suddenly stop and step from the sun into the shade beneath a tree and say, “John, give us the strawberries.”
“Then from the punnet, which was now wet and crimson with strawberry juice, we’d each pick a strawberry, the biggest we could see, and bite into it. Rich, plump and juicy enough to quench the thirst in an instant.
“At the pork butcher’s shop we got Dad’s black pudding and pig’s trotters, or a joint of pork for roasting. Mam would nod toward me as she said to the butcher, ‘Give him thruppence of tripe, please.’ With his hands the size of bear paws, the butcher would take a small bag and fill it with tripe. He’d then give the tripe a proper dousing of malt vinegar – splish, splosh – and a shower of salt and pepper. That was my treat for going to the shops. On the way home, I’d eat it all up.
“Mam also cooked ‘plate pies’, savoury and sweet. For savoury, she’d line the plate with pastry, cover it with minced meat and add a pastry topping. I’d try to help when she made apple and blackberry plate pies, fascinated by the blackberry juice bleeding into the apple flesh. She’d take a little bit of butter, a little bit of flour, a little bit of sugar and a touch of water and then, ‘That looks all right…’ She did not cook measure by measure. She just knew what to do, and she always made food that was filling because she had a big family to fill”.
When the opportunity arose to study catering at college, John took it, even though at that time it was considered a “girly” choice.
“Most of the lads at school would end up as fishermen, shipbuilders or down the mines. I was adamant. “I want to cook.”
And what a success he’s made of the decision, reaching the Ritz heady heights.
The Ritz opened on 24 May 1906. Since then it has been the setting for many moments that have made history. Meanwhile, César Ritz, who died in 1918, described it modestly as, “a small house to which I am proud to see my name attached.”
Guests have spanned history. From Churchill to Thatcher, from Ghandi to the Aga Khan, from Chaplin to Jagger and Warhol.
JOHN’S CULINARY CV:
At 16, John enrolled at catering college, and then began his cooking career at The Percy Arms Hotel, in Otterburn, Northumberland.
Moving to London in 1975, he grafted in the kitchens of The Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, ascending the ranks to become chef de cuisine.
In 1986, after a couple of years as chef directeur of Restaurant Le Crocodile in Kensington, John joined the brigade at Claridge’s. He fell in love with the hotel profession; the passion has never faded. John was premier sous chef at Claridge’s. He left the hotel in 1984 to oversee the kitchens at The Berkeley, before returning to Claridge’s, this time in the role of maître chef des cuisines. John held that position until 2004, when he was appointed executive chef at The Ritz London.
In the same year he was made executive chairman of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, a post he retains to this day.
In 2005 he became the first British chef to be honoured with the Chevalier de l’Ordre du Merite Agricole, for services to French cuisine. He is also an acknowledged disciple of Escoffier (Le Conseil Magistral de Disciples d’Auguste Escoffier).
His heaving mantelpiece of well-deserved prizes and accolades includes a Catey for his “outstanding contribution to the industry”, and Tatler’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2016 The Restaurant at The Ritz won its first Michelin star. John’s services to hospitality were rewarded with an (MBE) in 2008.