The Questionnaire: John Williams

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John Williams MBE, Executive Chef at The Ritz

The cookbook that has most influenced your cooking

The book which has been most dynamic in my life is the Great Chefs of France: The Masters of Haute Cuisine and Their Secrets by Quentin Crewe. It’s about the author’s journey through France experiencing Michelin starred restaurants. He vividly describes the dishes he tasted at La Pyramide, the 3-star great Chef Fernand Point’s restaurant in Vienne. Point is considered the grandfather of Michelin;  he developed and trained 17 of the 21 three-star chefs of the time in his kitchen. The great chefs, Paul Bocuse, Michel Guérard, Francois Bise  and the philosophies and heritage behind their dishes, are all heavily featured in the book. This set me off on a journey and really inspired me as a Chef. The book cost about a week’s wages at the time and unfortunately someone took it from me. Twenty years later one of my cooks gave me another copy as a gift and I still cherish it today.

Most memorable food you ate in childhood

I can’t go without Sunday Lunch. My favourite is Roast Lamb with Jersey Royal potatoes and peas and broad beans.  I really enjoy cooking for good friends and family at my house – that’s my perfect Sunday. My mother would cook Sunday lunch (she was the one who taught me to cook) and I used to eat three plates full. I was a hungry lad! I also remember my mother’s Pudding in the Corner: minced beef, chopped onions, carrots, peas and celery braised in a gravy with baked dumplings which were crispy on top. I used to love this supper as a boy.

Your favourite food shop

There is a great farm near where I live, Battler’s Green Farm, http://www.battlersgreenfarm.co.uk, which has a traditional fishmonger, a farm shop, a butcher, pick-your-own fruit and vegetables in the complex. Its produce is of a very good quality and it’s a working farm. I’m often in there at the weekend.

Most memorable meal in film/literature/painting

The cooking programme, The Galloping Gourmet, made a strong impression on me. Graham Kerr was the original television Chef. He traveled all around the globe eating and experiencing different cuisines and the finest restaurants such as Michel Guérard’s in France, and then back in Canada, he would recreate the dishes in the studio. He was always surrounded by beautiful ladies,  eating amazing food and drinking fine wine. It inspired me to cook

Your worst kitchen disaster

My first job, aged 16, was  Commis Chef at the Percy Arms Hotel in Otterburn. I was an apprentice in the kitchen, straight out of school. I had been working in the kitchen there for about three months, when  my food and beverage manager came to tell me that the Head Chef was ill (and the Sous Chef was on holiday) and so it would only be me and the 1st Commis in the Kitchen that evening for the dinner service. I was bombastic! I really wanted to impress and so I decided to change the menu. For one of the signature dishes, Trout Amandine, I decided to put my stamp onto it.  I presented the dish on a silver tray within a blue aspic jelly, to represent the sea, and stood the trout on its side, as if swimming, surrounded by the almonds, representing pebbles in the sea.  On the night, we sold about 10 (out of the 25 or so covers). It was a bit like dominos in The Restaurant as the clients were really drawn to its creativity. I even got a 50p tip from one client (which was quite significant on a salary of £9 a week).  Looking back it was a totally stupid thing to do and my Head Chef took it off the menu the next day, but I was full of enthusiasm and eager to make my mark. Within six months I had moved  to London, qualified  as a Chef at Westminster College and begun work at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington.

The first thing you taught your children to cook/ or were taught yourself

A lemon tart. My daughter wanted to learn to make tarts so I taught her. It’s a great memory.

What would you like your final meal to be?

Always seafood. I would be outside in the sunshine in the South of France and to start, I would have wild beluga caviar on a blini with a little sour cream followed by a platter of fruits de mer, freshly cooked, not chilled but cooling down, with simple mayonnaise and aioli. I absolutely adore that.

What is your secret talent [in or out of the kitchen]?

Golf is my hobby and I love to get out on the golf course whenever I’m not in the kitchen. I also love a day at the horse races and try to go every year to Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood. It’s very social and a great day out. This October I am going to Ascot for British Champions Day with some good friends, and afterwards we will go and see my former Sous Chef Adam Smith who is now the Executive Chef at Coworth Park hotel out near Ascot.

What did you eat for breakfast today?

This morning I had a very special porridge which I made with organic rolled flat oats, a pinch of salt, water, Greek yoghurt (it’s got no fat because I’m on a diet) and flavoured with vanilla and cinnamon and mixed with bananas, prunes, walnuts, hazelnuts and brazil nuts and blueberries. Delicious!

Which seasonal food do you most look forward to?

I’m so passionate about working with the best quality ingredients in season. I really get excited about the celebration of the Glorious 12th which signals the start of the game season [in August]. I love grouse. Spring is one of my favourite times of the year and I love spring produce such as broad beans, asparagus, spring lamb, wild salmon, morels….

Most over-rated/ under-rated food/seasoning/gadget

I think pheasant is often disappointing today. It is fed on corn now and so it’s lost its character in my opinion. My favourite gadget is the Evergrow Herb Fridge which we have in The Ritz Kitchen which allows me to grow fresh herbs to use in the dishes – it even texts us when they need watering. You can’t get more local and fresh than that…

The Ritz was awarded its first Michelin star this year, www.theritzlondon.com