Interview: John Williams MBE
John Williams was in a fab mood. Early morning prep down in the kitchen was going well, the sun was out, and we were discussing his early days at The Ritz in a private dining area.
“It was just over ten years ago now, I was round the corner at Claridge’s as executive chef. I was in the kitchen when I received a phone call,” said John, a look of nostalgia clear in his eyes.
“I remember having only two conversations before I said I’d come to The Ritz. Simple as that. It was something I’d said I’d always loved to do but it never quite fitted. But this felt like natural progression.
“When I arrived, there were a couple of things that weren’t right. It wasn’t all about haute cuisine in the kitchen. In fact, the food was a bit eclectic.
“I’ve dabbled with different ingredients from all over the world during my time but it was important to strip it back at The Ritz. If a chef came to me and asked about yuzo juice, for example, I’d tell him straight away that we’re not using it. For The Ritz, it has to be British, or classic European.
“But it wasn’t just the food.
“On my first walk-through of the kitchen I saw metal stove pots, black ones. Don’t get me wrong, I like stove pots to cook in, but to serve in for private dining? Totally wrong. The Ritz is silver, divine china, stylish waiters, and vibrant young people with a desire to show that The Ritz is evolving, slowly.
“That was what it was about then when I arrived and all the way up to today: Gentle, slow and correct change. Evolution from the old fashioned, the thick, heavy style, like the pots. More finesse and sharpness in what we did.
“Little tweaks of evolution while keeping the correct style.
“The kitchen also needed help. It didn’t take me long to realise that the way things were was stressing out the cooks. So we segregated the kitchen, created a decompartmentalised scenario. Separate areas for separate hotel services so the main kitchen could focus on the restaurant only.
“We also had a massive a la carte and a very strong de jour menu. But there was no real style or approach to the food, and we had to ensure that every guest or diner received a minimum standard.
“Now we have eight or nine dishes on the a la carte for each course, with three smaller set menus coming off from that. They have three, five or seven courses, and our cheapest is £45 which provides real value considering the ingredients we use.
“It is also important to be able to change the menu regularly, which is not something that was happening when I arrived. Asparagus, for example, is only in season three weeks of the year. So after those three weeks, it gets taken off.”
It was at this point that a chef (or cook if you’re John) arrived to announce that service was starting and that John was needed.
“They’ll never believe you but my cooks are more important than John Williams to The Ritz,” said John as we said goodbye, “They’re doing it, I’m just orchestrating.”
“But above all, the most important thing is that it’s not John Williams, it’s The Ritz, and it always will be.”