Leading Lights: John Williams MBE

The son of a Tyneside fisherman, John Williams MBE has been on a remarkable culinary journey culminating in his current role as executive chef at the world-famous Ritz hotel in London, a position he has held for the last 13 years. Here, he talks about the principles and drivers that have steered him on his route to the top…

What does it mean to you to be named AA Chef of the Year? It’s very humbling. It’s a great honour to be recognised by your peers, I’m very proud of it. But it’s also a reflection of the work my team do. It’s not only about me but about the whole kitchen brigade, it’s an award for everyone.

Which of all of your accolades means to the most to you and why? The accolade that means the most to me is our Michelin star, which we were awarded first in 2017, because it is an acknowledgement of a particular standard that most people would recognise globally. It recognises the best in craft and quality in a special environment.

You’ve been working at The Ritz since 2004. What has kept you there so long? I don’t really like to move. Also, it takes a long time to build standards in a kitchen, to change and continuously evolve our different outlets. To me, every day is an opportunity to get better and to improve something which is what I’ve been doing since joining The Ritz 13 years ago.

At the Ritz you head up a team of 64 chefs. How difficult is to manage so many people and personalities? Please describe your style of management. One of the most important things in the kitchen is that it must be structured. People need to understand there are different levels of management within a kitchen brigade and we are a classic style of pyramid… but we turn it upside down! I am at the bottom pushing everyone. It is important for me to work and set the example, be highly-driven and to reward good work no matter when and why. It is not easy though, because before rewarding I must be tough. A correct leadership is very important, it’s about honesty and integrity. Also, it is key to have a vision so I can see where The Ritz will be in five years’ time, to evolve while retaining a classic approach to the hotel.

How much cooking do you actually get time to do – and how important is it that you are hands-on? I am always in the kitchen during service to check dishes and to make sure that people understand what they are supposed be doing.

Why is so important to retain the principles of the restaurant’s founder Auguste Escoffier? To move forward, we need to look back. Food has to be relevant to the modern diners because what we were eating 30 years ago is very different from what we eat today.

You’re renowned for wearing your tall chef’s hat. What is the thought process behind your decision to wear it and what impression do you think it sends to fellow chefs? First of all, I have to wear my hat in the kitchen for hygiene reasons. Also, I want to set the right example for the team, because they all have to wear their hat. When people ask me why I wear such a tall hat, I like to say (as a joke), that it makes me taller and slimmer!

You came down to London from Tyneside at 16. Please describe your first impressions of the city and your new working environment. My first impression of London was that it was very different, very cosmopolitan, with people from all over the world. I wanted to cook “haute” cuisine and to learn about this style of food, so I had to come to London. I’ve been very fortunate to work in very fine places and cook for very special guests, such as the Royal Family. For me, coming to London also meant that I would be able to cook for special people.

As Chairman of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, you play an important role in educating the chefs of the future. What advice can you offer young aspiring chefs aiming for the top? Young aspiring chefs should always start with an apprenticeship because it is the most effective and quickest way to learn about the different methods of cooking in the kitchen. They will get there much faster. It is also very important to use a good common sense, and to use all senses when cooking. What I mean is, if a dish has a nice texture, smells good, looks good and taste good, it means that it’s fine. The dish has to tick all the senses basically. Also young chefs must work hard and be smart and always go to a renowned chef to learn and get better.

And now for three questions that we ask all of our Leading Lights…

1. What are your three kitchen secrets? i) Shellfish should be cooked in salted water, almost like sea water, so the flavours are more pronounced and become sweeter. ii) Brine is much better than salt, there is a better all-round taste. iii) Never over hang game, otherwise the meat can decompose.

2. What is your favourite ingredient and why? I love lemon verbena, it is a wonderful aromatic citrus herb and it can be used in any single course. Here we have a lemon verbena cream with Douglas fir and pine which we use in one of our desserts.

3. Please could you share your favourite recipe, along with your reasons for choosing it? My favourite recipe is native lobster with ginger and a lemon verbena gel. I’ve cooked this dish in different forms for 30 years. The sauce is made from lobster’s shell, star anises, ginger and lemon verbena. Click here for the full recipe

>>To view the full March issue of Stir it up magazine please click here<<