How a South Shields chef went from peeling spuds to winning a Michelin star at The Ritz
This year The Ritz in London will appear in the Michelin Guide for the first time - and it's all thanks to a South Shields-born chef and his team. Katy Wheeler speaks to executive chef John Williams.
From peeling spuds in his mum’s South Tyneside kitchen to cooking for the Queen at one of the country’s most opulent dining rooms, John Williams’s career is one that’s filled with a kaleidoscope of flavours.
The son of a fisherman, it was as a child growing up in Morton Street, near the Lawe Top in South Shields, that John discovered his passion for food.
It’s a culinary flair that’s been honed, refined and matured like a fine wine over the decades as he earned his stripes in some of London’s top kitchens.
Today, the 58-year-old oversees the food at one of the world’s most prestigious hotels: the ever-so grand Ritz. From the hotel’s expansive kitchen with its perfectly-polished copper pans, he and his team craft dishes that are as intricate as the hotel’s gilded neoclassical statues, from breakfasts for hotel guests to private dinners for the Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William.
The heat was turned up even more when inspectors from the Michelin Guide paid a visit with their notoriously scrupulous palate last year. They were impressed. So much so, the hotel is now the proud owner of its first, much-coveted, Michelin star in the current Michelin Guide.
John recalls how it all began, back in his mum’s fridge-free kitchen in Shields.
“There was six of us and with my dad being away a lot my mother needed as much help as possible, and I was the one chosen,” he explains. “It started with helping with shopping and a little bit of cooking.
“One of my first jobs was her saying to me ‘chop us some mint’ for her to make mint sauce. I also scraped Jersey Royal potatoes. As a treat I’d have five big Jersey Royals with butter on and I still do that today. In fact they have to hide them from me in The Ritz kitchen before service,” he explained in his South Tyneside twang.
Growing up in Shields, surrounded by seafood and curries, would help set John on a journey of ingredient discovery.
“We’d have a thing called the fisherman’s fry and dad would give fish to the neighbours: kipper, haddock, cod and prawns. We’d never get the tails though as that would be made into scampi.
“I remember little things like going up to Laygate to see the fruit and veg man and going to the pork butchers for pigs’ trotters and tripe. My dad loved curry. There used to be an Indian restaurant called Sharjah that we’d go to. Little things like that really got me interested in food.”
As his taste for food developed, a TV show which ran in the late 60s really captured John’s young imagination.
“When I was about 13 there was a TV show called The Galloping Gourmet with Graham Kerr,” John recalls. “He’d travel the world and then take recipes he’d learnt and recreate them in front of a studio audience. He’d serve the dishes on this 12ft table, alongside the most beautiful, exquisite wine. He’d get two attractive ladies to sit either side of him and give a cheesy smile to camera. And I thought ‘that’s what I want’ ... and I’m still looking for it.” he joked.
As well as his own determination, John’s teachers helped him realise his childhood dream.
“I went to Mortimer Road School and they were fantastic teachers: proper teachers who cared and looked after kids. We did cooking at school, but it was only domestic science,” he said. “One of the teachers said there was a course they were trialling at the Marine and Technical College for one day a week with a professional chef, who became my first real teacher in cooking.
“The first dish I made was a spaghetti Bolognese and he stood over me and said ‘you like this, don’t you’. He spotted that in me.
“Cooking wasn’t a very masculine thing at the time but I’d take stuff home at times. I remember the first thing I made for my dad was a curry and he said ‘you’re alreeet at this’. ”
John went on to undertake an apprenticeship for two years at The Percy Arms in Otterburn, working split shifts and two breakfasts a week for £9, alongside attending college.
Even then, John knew where he wanted his fervour for food to take him.
“It was a great place to start in many aspects, but I had a vision of my own,” he said. “Even at 16 and a half I already knew that if wanted to cook, I wanted to do it in a city with money, and that was London.”
At 17 he took up a job at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington. He had a brief period of homesickness, but a short stint back in the North East persuaded him that London was where he would make his name, and he went back to the Royal Garden Hotel for a further seven years.
Stints followed as chef patron and director at a restaurant off Kensington High Street, executive sous chef in the world-famous Claridge’s (when he was just 27, no less) and as executive chef at The Berkeley, before returning to Claridge’s.
It was at Claridge’s, another of London’s great classical hotels, that he realised this was the field of cooking for him.
“I walked into Claridge’s and loved the idea that I would be cooking for affluent people,” he explained. “Not because of who they are, but because of the opportunities of ingredients it gave me. When there’s more money, there’s more budget for the produce you can buy and, at that time, I wanted to know as many ingredients as possible from across the world. Today, I utilise British ingredients, but you go on a journey as a chef in terms of how you cook, source and deliver your style.”
John had turned down the top job in The Ritz kitchen three times before he felt the time was right, in 2004, to don the mantle. It was a job that came full circle from his time as a hungry young chef who went to London to find his fortune.
“I remember at 18 walking under the arches at The Ritz and in the window they had the story of the wreckage of a ship. For an extra £10 people could eat from the antique silver and china of the shipwreck and I walked away thinking ‘one day I’m going to work there’,” he said.
The 5* hotel, which opened in 1906 in London’s Piccadilly, is famed world-wide for its unadulterated luxury and John says he’s proud to uphold its grand traditions.
“The restaurant has a very specific style and, though we’ve evolved, we still have that very classic style of cooking and I’m known as a classical-style chef,” said John, who is also Chairman of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts.
“We’ve always managed to keep relevant, but classic, which is in keeping with the Marie Antoinette style of the dining room. It’s no good having world foods which just distract from the style of the room.
“All of the other hotels seem to have got rid of their heritage, but what we’ve done is to keep it relevant to today, which has made us unique.”
Earning a Michelin star is the jewel in the crown of an already well-respected dining establishment.
Speaking about why 2017 was the year a star was born at The Ritz, John said: “I haven’t got the exact reason but I think the inspectors feel we’ve turned a corner and have made small tweaks.
“You can have the most beautiful dish but if it doesn’t get to the customer in a timely way, the dish disintegrates, it’s very much a team effort.”
John says he doesn’t get back to South Shields as much as he’d like, but he still visits his mum, who lives in Commercial Road, and to see his best mate, and North East restaurateur, Terry Laybourne who runs the successful 21 Hospitality Group.
And, though he made his name under The Ritz’s iconic bright lights, there’s no way he’s letting go of that Sanddancer lilt.