Writer’s Update – October, 2015: In celebration of Chuck’s 100th birthday, I had the privilege of writing a four-part story of my culinary mentor’s long and intriguing life, beginning back in 1915. If you’d like to read it, you’ll find it here.
Whenever I visit with my friend Chuck, I feel as though time has stopped—or as though I’ve entered a magical time-out-of-time. Of course, the colors of the San Francisco sky and bay outside the window are always changing, as are the jewel hues of the ever-dapper Chuck’s beloved cashmere sweaters.
But regardless of the weather or sweater, there’s a twinkle in Chuck’s eye and an energetic curiosity in his posture as he leans forward to ask a question or clarify a point. And there are decades of memories hidden on bookshelves or nestled comfortably in antique armchairs, just waiting to take shape in one of Chuck’s stories.
Sitting with Chuck as we sip tea and indulge in chewy molasses cookies or buttery chocolate shortbread, it seems as though there is all the time in the world. Nothing about Chuck is rushed—his soft southern voice is as warm and careful and orderly as the culinary landscapes he has created.
Over the years, Chuck has patiently – often passionately – answered my questions by reaching back into the memories of a long and delicious life. Chuck’s culinary vision has made history—and his own plain-spoken words tell it best.
You first started cooking back in the early 1900s—how did you learn?
“I learned to cook by watching my grandmother and listening to everything she told me. I helped her in the kitchen every day. I watched and I listened and I asked questions. One of my favorite things was making pies with her. After she finished trimming the crust, she would give me the scraps and let me try to make my own pie.”
Have you ever made a mistake in the kitchen?
“Of course–that’s how you learn! Your mistakes teach you how to do things right the next time. And there are even times when a mistake leads to a wonderful discovery in the kitchen. Often times a mistake can turn out better than the original.”
Most people don’t realize that when you founded Williams-Sonoma back in 1956, you were in your forties. Before that, you had an intriguingly diverse work history—from working on a date farm as a teenager to fixing airplanes and being a carpenter as an adult. How did those jobs prepare you for being the original proprietor of the Williams-Sonoma stores?
“Working at the date farm taught me about good customer service. I mostly waited on customers in the shop and helped out with packing orders that would be sent by mail. I learned way back then that it’s important to make friends with every customer and address them by name so they feel comfortable. It’s important to work hard and do your work in an orderly fashion. I’ve always liked to do things for people—and do them well.
As for working as an airplane mechanic during World War II, I think that was one of the best things I ever did. When I was young, I was very much of a loner. Working overseas forced me to be with people all the time, so I was able to acquire some good social skills that have helped all my life.
The carpentry—well, you’ve asked me before how I learned to do everything I do and that was a good example. I just did it. If I had any problem, I’d drop by the lumber yard and I’d ask questions and they’d tell me how to do what I needed to do. Or I’d get my fixtures and equipment from a plumber and electrical supplier, and they’d come by to see how I was doing. And they’d tell me if I was doing it wrong. That’s how you learn!”
What was the world of kitchenware like when you first started the stores?
“You couldn’t buy good-quality cookware. That’s the reason I started the shop: to give people a break!
In those days, all most American cooks had to work with were a couple of fry pans and saucepans, a stockpot and maybe a Dutch oven. They were made of thin aluminum that got all bent out of shape and didn’t cook well.
The bakeware choices were very limited, too: you could get cake pans, pie pans, bread pans – and that was about it. And they just weren’t that good. Tools weren’t that good. You couldn’t buy a good knife – no way. And you couldn’t buy restaurant equipment because they wouldn’t let you in the door.
On my first trip to France in 1953, knowing how to cook myself, I loved looking at all the pots and pans and was amazed that everything was available there for everyone. So I made up my mind to do something about getting good French cookware back here to American home kitchens.”
Can you describe some of the experiences you had on those first European buying trips when you were searching for the world’s best kitchenware?
“I really never got over my first trip to Paris – in fact, every trip I’ve ever taken looking for merchandise has been an extension of that very first one. I loved poking around in the shops with all the specialized equipment for baking and cooking. After my own shop got going, I spent a month to six weeks every year traveling around looking for those kinds of things.
I wanted to introduce American cooks to the idea of having the right pan for a particular task: say, a sauté pan, braiser, omelet pan, quiche pan, tart pan and so on. For example, in my first store, one whole wall had four sections of baking pans in different styles and sizes.
I also liked the way European plates were designed for different foods. For instance, I was fascinated by small dessert plates that go with other china, but are not part of the set. The design lends itself to dessert – it looks like a piece of tart belongs on the plate, not a salad. In America at that time, you’d have to wash dishes before dessert – or serve dessert that you don’t need a plate for!
I felt the same way about glassware. I worked with French, then Hungarian glassmakers to design glasses for different wines. I also sold cheese knives almost from the beginning. As soon as I’d see something in France, I’d bring it back. I wanted Americans to discover this type of table service. As long as they were traveling in Europe and experiencing it there, I thought they might as well have it available here.
In those early years, Europeans were also eating different foods than we were here in America. Mustard is a good example. I like to say that we changed American’s eating preference from French’s Mustard to good French mustard. We brought in good olive oil from France, then Italy. There was French wine vinegar. And, of course, balsamic vinegar from Modena (which I mistook for hair tonic the first time I saw it in Milan).”
You’ve always said that good food brings people together—and your own love for food has introduced you to all sorts of wonderful people. Could you please tell me about some of the food lovers who have given you the greatest inspiration and pleasure?
“When I started the shop, it was a time when people’s interest in French cooking – and cooking in general – was growing and deepening. It was an exciting period for all of us who loved to cook.
James Beard started coming by the Sutter Street shop that first year, and we became good friends. Whenever he came to San Francisco, we would always have a dinner or two at my house. He was easy to talk to about food and had a keen sense of what good food was. We spoke the same language.
There were others, too, like Helen Evans Brown and the wonderful food writer, Elizabeth David. And, of course, there was Julia Child. She influenced me in a number of ways. Most importantly, Julia encouraged me to take regular trips to France – and she had an impact on the shop, as well.
I didn’t even need to watch Julia’s show to know what she’d cooked on any given night. Because the next morning, customers would come into the shop wanting the exact pan or dish and size they’d seen Julia use on her show. Sometimes we had it, sometimes we didn’t.
There were several times I’d see her and say, ‘Next time, why don’t you let me know?’ Julia would laugh and tell me, ‘I really don’t know what I’m going to be doing, so I can’t let you know!’ That was Julia!”
You have impeccable taste—one of the keys to Williams-Sonoma’s success. How has your sense of taste changed (if at all) over the years?
“I’ve always felt that simple is best. We’ve always had the best quality merchandise. That is still true today.”
How has living in San Francisco throughout the decades influenced your own ideas about food?
“San Francisco has had a long history of wonderful food, interesting people, great cooking – and everything is so fresh. In those years you mention, just as it has always been in France, there was a focus on good, fresh food served very simply.”
You’re 99 years young. What is your secret to life?
“My advice for a long and happy life? Love what you do – and always eat well!”
Note: A version of this story was also featured by Williams-Sonoma Taste. Chuck loves to hear from everyone with a passion for food. If you’d like to send him a message (or an anecdote about something you’ve bought at Williams-Sonoma), please leave a comment for him either here or on the Williams-Sonoma blog. I’ll make sure that he gets it!
Recipe: Chuck’s Favorite Bittersweet Chocolate-Ginger Molasses Cookies
Chuck loves fine dark chocolate and down-home molasses cookies with equal fervor. To make him happy with every bite, I tweaked one of his own spiced cookie recipes to include decadent swirls of bittersweet chocolate. Feel free to play around with the spices to suit your own tastes (but Chuck would tell you “don’t skip the cardamom—it’s very important”). In the photo, Chuck is sharing the cookies with ZeBot Zebra, a culinarily curious zebra who teaches kids to explore the magic of food.
- 12 Tbs. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
- 1 egg
- 1/3 cup mild molasses
- 1 tbsp. pure vanilla extract (Chuck loves Nielsen-Massey)
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 1/4 tsp. sea salt
- 2 tsp. ground ginger
- 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp. allspice
- 1/4 tsp. cardamom
- About 8-oz. chopped bittersweet chocolate, melted
Prepare the baking sheets
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with silpats.
Mix the dough
In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until creamy. Add the egg, vanilla and molasses and beat until smooth. In another bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice or allspice. Reduce the speed to low, add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until blended.
Bake the cookies
Drop tablespoonful-sized scoops of the dough onto the prepared sheets, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Press down in a crisscross pattern with a fork (dipping in water as necessary to keep dough from sticking). Bake until the cookies are browned and firm to the touch, 10 to 12 minutes. Drizzle melted bittersweet chocolate over the cookies, then let cool completely. Makes about four dozen cookies.
Photos courtesy of Chuck Williams