Olympic Gold. High Tea at The Ritz London.
by Natalie Pace.
Interview with executive chef John Williams.
Living the rich life doesn't always mean paying an arm and a leg for something. Sometimes the cheaper you are, the more you pay. That is the case with a lot of high teas, where you get over-dressed to be insulted by supercilious servers who drop off miniature sandwiches as if cucumbers and cream cheese are as priceless as gold. They then avoid you like The Plague until its time to collect your tip, which has already been added to the bill. If you want the Olympic Gold of high teas, put The Ritz London on your Bucket List, and get there soon, while John Williams is still the executive chef.
At the high tea at The Ritz London, you'll enjoy one of the most memorable meals of your life. You'll stuff yourself silly on healthy portions (and seconds and thirds if you wish) of your favorite sandwiches, scones, pastries and teas. The servers will spoil you royally, enticing you with more food and offering to take pictures of your group. And all the while, Ian Gomes', The Ritz Resident Pianist, seamlessly plays Lady Gaga, followed by Frank Sinatra and Snow Patrol, a little something for everyone to enjoy.
If you are in London for the Olympics and High Tea is all booked up, as it frequently is, then snag a reservation next door at The Ritz Restaurant. Executive Chef John Williams has been awarded a Royal Warrant from His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales for Banqueting and Catering Services -- the only chef to receive this honor. Seasonal, organic produce and meat, when available, inspire the daily menu selections. I've never had a more sumptuous terrine of goose liver (with rhubarb and walnuts) in all of the world -- including Paris. It was paired exquisitely by Head Sommelier Matteo Ramazzin, with an exceptional 2010 Lugana, Vigneto La Conchiglia, Citari from Veneto, Italy.
The food at The Ritz London was so impressive, particularly for those of us interested in Farm to Fork cuisine, that I asked for an interview with Chef John Williams, to learn a few of his secrets. In this interview, not only will you learn many of the techniques that inspire his Escoffier influenced British cuisine, you'll also discover what still sends shivers up his spine. If you're interested in learning these strategies in person, Chef Williams hosts master classes and even intimate group cooking experiences. Get more information at the end of the interview.
I've been fortunate enough to taste foie gras at the hand of more than one Michelin Star chef, and none is more delightful than yours. I love the touch of rhubarb.
It's got very nice acidity, and there is a little sweetness there with the caramel that we serve on the side, with the ginger bread.
It's a delight. Your sommelier paired it with a wine that was not too sweet -- a perfect compliment. What impressed me most, however, was the goose liver itself. How did you get it so creamy?
That's just a slow cook. We just break the foie gras open. Strip the veins. Season it. Marinate it with a little bit of white port. Then it is literally pressed into a terrine, vacuumed and cooked very, very slowly at about 52 degrees.
Do you believe in cooking with seasonal produce?
Very much so. You taste the difference. I hate strawberries outside of season.
They don't taste right. Not very sweet.
They are horrid. This is not me being an antagonistic chef. I naturally just do not think about the strawberry out of season. They are in the kitchen. We have to, in case the customer demands them. However, I would never dream of tasting it. I'm starting to taste in mid-May and by June, they will be brilliant. Once Wimbledon comes, everybody loves to have their strawberries.
I'm not pretending to have any gift at cooking. But what I love best is when I run out of some ingredient and have to scour the kitchen for a creative replacement. Does this ever happen in your kitchen?
Cooking is all about that. You are using all of your senses when you're cooking. When you're put under pressure and your brain is saying, "This is going to be bland," it makes you drive to bring some of the flavor out. And you'll say, "Will this work? Will that not work? If I make this stock a little bit this way…" And everything is trying to compensate, to make it better. You become sharper. And that would happen naturally to every cook, to anybody who cooks.
But now that you've been doing this so long, surely you've seen everything…
I'll tell you how they put me under pressure. We have a very long bank holiday weekend. Lobster, for me, you can only cook it alive. The customer says, "I want it for Tuesday." We don't have any supplies coming in then, but he wants it. Now, one, he's got my attention. But, two, I'm going to have to telephone and get some favor where somebody can get me lobsters live on Monday. Straight away, the process has changed. Those lobsters are going to be treated differently by me no matter what. I can tell you now he's going to have a better dish because I'm going to make sure that it is. It's the whole thing of desire. As I tell my cooks, you have to have that desire to make that extra special taste. You can only do that by making all of your senses really hone in and understand what will bring the best flavor or the best balance of flavor.
You can tell when food has been cooked with love… or passion…
I used to love the word passion. But every cook will come in and say, "I'm a passionate chef." The moment that they say passion to me now, I say, "Forget it." Nine times out of ten, they say that because they think that's what the chef wants to hear, "Passion. Passion." I say, "No. I want to see passion." That's the difference.
These are elusive qualities -- happiness, love, passion. You cannot grab for them and strangle them into existence. They are born from doing the work that seeds the circumstances for them to be born naturally.
I like that. "Strangle them into existence."
It's right, no? So, how do you see that in someone?
I've got 57 chefs. I have one who will actually go way beyond anything I do. He's going to be so much better. The reason that I say that is that modern technology has changed. He has what I call the real desire. He's faster at everything. Not because of speed. He's just naturally able to move more quickly. He works much cleaner. The food is more precise. The preparation is more thorough. When he is physically cooking, the taste is 100 times finer.
It's constant attention and reinvention, isn't it?
That's what cooking is all about. Use all of your senses. Smell, taste and look at the food. Listen to the food, not just when you are snapping something or chopping something, when you're cooking, too. Is it cooking at the right temperature? Is it crackling to get the carmelization that you want? Does it feel right when you touch it? When you tick all of those boxes, you know you've got a good product. It's simple, isn't it?
You think it is. To me, it's a horror!
You can tick those boxes straight away. If I say, "Does it look good?" You'll say, "Yes, it looks good. Look at that color." If I say, "Snap it." You'll tell me straight away.
What do you say to the rest of the world that still thinks the British are a joke when it comes to food?
People have taken an interest in food. Everybody has got a cooking book on their coffee table. I'm not saying everybody uses them, but they have some interest towards food. Whether you are a professional or whether you are producing it in your home, bad food is no longer acceptable -- for a long time. It's very important in our culture to be able to serve nice food.
I've been pleasantly surprised. Not just in your great kitchen, but even in the pubs.
The funny thing is we've always had great produce. If you think of us as an island, our seafood is stunning and so much of it goes to France. The Scotch beef is some of the finest beef. There are three or four areas in the world where there is great beef and everybody will have their favorites, but as far as taste, it is a great piece of meat.
Take asparagus and green vegetables -- British asparagus is stunning. And then if I take you into game, if I mention salmon or the lamb -- the French cry for our lamb. Any great chef in France will always say, "The lamb!" We've always had the product. All we had to do was to get our act together and do some simple things well.
When did the shift happen?
This is my version of what happened at the hotel and restaurant level. We always had French chefs who were running major operations, whether it was a private house or a great restaurant or hotel. They would bring along their French sous chefs. They never spoke any English. Even the language in a kitchen like ours, up until about 1975, was French. I don't really speak French, but you can say any word in food or a kitchen command in French, and I'm there because that's the way I was taught.
In 1975-76, there were some chefs who were very famous who decided that they needed to teach people to cook. They said, "I don't want to work all the time. I want you to work and I want you to learn." Immediately their sous chefs were British, who then went out into their own kitchens. That was the changing point.
Do you care about using local meat and produce? Does that matter?
Yes, it is very important. I actually buy meat from Highgrove, and it's probably the most pure, organic beef that you can get. Their beef is stunning. The marbling, the texture, the flavor is superb.
What do you think about organic?
Saying something is organic doesn't make it better than natural. If I say that I would like to buy some organic lamb, the farmers laugh at me and say, "Well, these are up in the moors. What do you think is sprayed there? It's organic anyway."
If you ask me wild salmon as opposed to organic salmon, it hasn't got a hope in hell. Wild salmon is the way! It's a totally different species. If we measure the farmed fish against wild fish, it doesn't have any comparison. If we measure organic farmed against farmed where they are putting antibiotics and the like, of course, it's 100 times better.
Is there one secret tip that you can give all chefs?
The most important thing is getting the food from its point of origin, to the plate and into the mouth at the quickest speed. This will ultimately give you the biggest head start of anything with regard to taste.
So, local is very important.
Local is very important. If you take something from the ground, and eat it raw, the taste is 25 times better on the first day, and then each day it loses a little bit. It's as simple as that. If we talk about organic vegetables, they're superb. You will always see a slight difference in flavor.
I love the flavor of organic. Particularly tomatoes.
Seasonal is another thing that is very important. Something that is seasonally correct is 100 times tastier.
The Ritz London holds The Prince of Wales' Royal Warrant. This was issued prior to you becoming executive chef at The Ritz London, however, you have maintained it.
The Royal Warrant is so important because we're British. We're the only hotel that holds the Royal Warrant for Catering and Banqueting to The Palace and The Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales is also the patron of The Academy of Culinary Arts, which I am chairman of.
I'm proud to serve our Royal Family and the hotel should be very proud to serve the Royal Family. It distinguishes you. It's almost an acknowledgement.
The 'Halo Effect.'
Yes. That, to me, is a real accolade. I am very much a Royalist, and a loyalist in the sense that I want to actually serve them. For many years, I served The Queen, the Queen Mother, The Prince of Wales, and I'm very proud every time that I do that.
Did you have the opportunity to serve The Queen on her 80th birthday?
She came here, and she had quite a large party. That was special. I also did a special private 70th birthday party for her. But that wasn't here.
It's the only thing that can send shivers up my spine and make me nervous with anticipation, even now. I want it to be perfect. Not that you're not looking for that all the time, but whom would I cook for who is bigger?
Not in this realm. Another realm perhaps… Do you have any last words about your style of cooking or what you're trying to create here at The Ritz London?
Everybody knows me as a classical chef. If anyone wants to know anything about classical cuisine, they should come here.
What is also very, very important is that this is a building that is 100 years old. For me, it's holding onto those roots, while evolving for modern day tastes. What we are doing is preserving the traditions of The Ritz, while servicing the modern day client and their needs. No matter what, food has become so much lighter.
How does a classical chef lighten up his cuisine?
The way we used to cook was everything reduced right down, then add cream, then reduce that back down. It was heart attack food. People couldn't even put it in their palette now. Diets are forcing this even more. Cooking is evolving. As equipment changes, everything gets a little sharper. The classic ingredients that go well together, still go well together. There will always be opportunity to improve something in a new way.
Getting better today largely means healthier, right?
Whether it's fats or cream, people are so careful. We've abused our bodies. If you think of some of the modern day products that people are eating. If you took all of that away and kept to real food, that's a better diet. If we kept to real vegetables. And we had a little bit of fish one day, a little bit of chicken the next, a little beef the next, kept the vegetables going, had some fruit, had some cereal. That's what people should look at. I get upset with a lot of chemicals. I don't think chemicals are good for you.
Sounds like you'll never be hired as executive chef of a junk food restaurant.
They are growing muscle tissue. Within six months, they expect they can grow this tissue and create a hamburger. There is not going to be any good in that. It's the same when they are mixing the DNA. Can you imagine that to make a tomato stronger in the winter, they'll take a piece of DNA from fish in the Arctic, which is very cold. What's that doing to the tomato? I don't think it's about being purist. I think it's being correct. I don't want you to think that I'm not all for science and improvement.
It sounds like you're just not for Frankenstein science.
Exactly. Put things in your body that God would allow you to. Don't make them up. We're not here for that.
That puts you in alignment with The Prince of Wales commitment to rare breeds and seed integrity.
Everything The Prince of Wales predicted, whether it's with plants or foods, they are all coming true now. I think he's a bit of a genius. People were not listening to him. They said, "You know. He's always off with his plants and doing this…" He's a very, very clever man.
I'll give you another little example. I was doing something for him and there were six of us. He said, "Who made this sauce?" I said, "Actually, I did."
He said, "You know when you get that reduction and that consistency on the palette where it holds on your tongue." He totally understood what a good sauce was. And I thought, "How did he know that?" That was just talking to a chef. But he goes around talking to farmers, too. He seems to understand everything as if it were his specialist subject! I think he's a genius.
And you promise that you haven't taken him in the kitchen and shown him how to cook a great sauce.
No. This was through eating, and thinking about it, and probably doing a little cooking privately. It was just understanding what one eats and what qualities that particular flavor had and why.
Is there a way for other aspiring cooks to learn directly from you?
Yes. I do some master classes throughout the year. It could be seafood. Spring vegetables. Game in the fall. Then I also do, on a regular basis, whenever we can, an interactive dining experience, where people are dining in one of our private rooms, but each course, they come down. All of the guests come into the kitchen. One of them is given the jacket and they cook the course with me. It's very relaxing and great fun. We take it easy, eat and play.
Well, I'll definitely be back for that… And for more of your goose liver terrine.
If you love to cook, Chef John Williams is hosting a series of Master classes on the art of fine dining. The next opportunity is to learn about chocolate and macaroons on September 26, 2012. 250 pounds gets you a champagne reception, a master class and a sumptuous 4-course dinner with immaculate wine pairings. Contact Victoria Payne at email@example.com to reserve your place or firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to combine your class with a stay in one of the Hotel's opulent Louis XVI inspired guestrooms or suites.
About Chef John Williams
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