It’s 10am and five chefs are huddled around a desk in John Williams’ small kitchen office for their first morning meeting after the weekend (it would normally be earlier, but Williams, the long-standing executive chef of The Ritz, has held it back for our arrival).
The team is going through the restaurant’s numbers – 85 diners in for Saturday lunch, 130 for dinner, and 70 for lunch and 80 for dinner on the Sunday. Despite sounding like quite punchy figures, the chefs around the table are used to a lot more, describing the weekend operation as “very straightforward”.
“Keep it nice and simple, and keep it sharp.”
So, too, is today’s proceedings, judging by the comments and the relaxed feel of the room, even though it doesn’t sound it. There’s to be 350 diners in the Palm Court area of the hotel, with a number of different cakes required and numerous allergies and preferences to navigate – including strawberry, prawn and nut allergies, dairy, vegan and gluten-free diets, and a pregnant guest – with 65 in for lunch in the main restaurant, 70 for dinner, and 12 pre-theatre. Although that’s almost 500 covers, not including the many room service requests the kitchen will receive throughout the day, the 67-strong brigade is used to dealing with double this later in the week when the 120-cover restaurant is at full capacity and its private dining rooms – which can hold up to 200 covers – are in full swing. “That’s it, nice and easy,” says Williams, closing the meeting. “Keep it nice and simple, and keep it sharp.”
In June this year, Williams will have been at The Ritz for 15 years, having spent the past 35 years working in the kitchens of some of London’s most prestigious five-star hotels. Over these years, he has earned himself a reputation for being one of this country’s finest practitioners of classic French food, although he is known equally for his soft South Shields accent and tall chef’s toque, without which he is seldom seen. He’s cooked for royalty, including the Queen and the Queen Mother, on numerous occasions (although he admits The Prince of Wales is his favourite diner) and is the go-to chef for any high-end banquet. Today, we’re here with him and his team to see one of London’s top kitchens in action and discover what makes it, and its large brigade, tick.
In 2016, The Ritz was finally awarded a Michelin star, an accolade many in the industry felt was long overdue. And not without good reason: The Ritz’s food is immaculate. So how does he and his team uphold the incredibly high standards of London’s most famous hotel, day in, day out, serving so many customers so many different types of dishes, without letting standards slip?
“It’s a brigade that’s working full-on and very hard indeed,” is his response. “At the end of the day, cooking is about communication; it’s about making sure people understand. My job is to orchestrate and teach the staff what we really want and to ensure the customer is getting a great experience.”
As midday approaches, the team of chefs are busy finalising their mise en place as well as servicing requests from room service. In a room directly behind Williams’ office, a chef is well into his task of butchering chickens (the kitchen gets through 110 each week) while in the back pastry room (there are two pastry kitchens in The Ritz, and 19 pastry chefs) a team is busy preparing cakes and viennoiseries for the Palm Court as well as croissants for the following day’s breakfast service. Across from the pass in the separate pastry kitchen where a team of chefs, led by head pastry chef Lewis Wilson, is popping chocolates out of silicon moulds and cutting out sponge shapes for one of the day’s desserts.
It’s very different from the heat and hustle you might expect in a huge, busy hotel kitchen. Instead, there’s an air of calm to proceedings, evidently down to Williams’ leadership style. One, he says, that has evolved over the years running large and high-pressure kitchens.
“You can expect a little bit of everything [in a typical service],” he says with a wide smile. “Have I been a shouter? Yes, I’ve been a shouter. Am I a shouter now? No. I’m, 60 years old – if I’m shouting at 60 there’s a real problem.”
Instead, he quietly walks up and down the pass, pointing little things out, handing out advice and keeping a keen eye on things. “I’m not the kind of person that doesn’t allow noise. It’s a natural environment, a good environment, to help people get the best of out themselves. But it’s a very disciplined kitchen.”
Stepping up a gear
As service gets into full swing and the number of orders increases, the brigade steps up a gear. Orders are called out, either by Williams, premier sous chef Spencer Metzger or sous chef Deepak Mallya, which are always followed by a resounding ‘oui chef’ from the entire team. There is light-hearted banter between the chefs and there is also a necessary urgency, but voices are never raised, tempers never frayed. At the back of the kitchen stand three fresh-faced recruits, quietly watching the service unfold with looks of concentration on their faces.
“The kind of staff we have is a very focused group of people who want to cook to the very highest standards,” says Williams in his serious yet friendly manner. “The biggest challenge is to maintain standards and it has to be worked at constantly to make sure they are achieving it. My job is to orchestrate that and to make sure they have the skills, the right equipment and the motivation. In any good kitchen, it’s all about motivation and what makes you get up in the morning and want to cook great food and work hard to get a dish perfect. That’s what my job is. They are the people who deliver, without a doubt. Without them we are nothing.”
This respect is mutual. “When you’re with someone like chef, he’s been in the business a long time, he’s worked in the finest of places and hotels, and he’s got a knowledge and a passion for creating things that are magical for this hotel,” says 25-year-old Metzger. “If you go in the restaurant and you see the grand room, it’s got to be special. And [Williams] pushes you to push the food, to push the expectation of the guest, and to learn. To produce the food and work in a team like we are here really is amazing.”
Mallya echoes this view: “[Williams] is one of the last true kings of cooking, although he’s modest and would never admit that. To have his guidance is the most important; as you go through the years, it goes from teaching you how to cook to teaching you how to live, from your day-to-day life to becoming a manager at The Ritz. I would not have been able to do that without his guidance.”
Now in full swing, there is a calm intensity about the service. Dishes are plated on the pass on silver trays, typically accompanied by china jugs of sauces, are swiftly cloched and then whisked away by a team of servers dressed smartly in white jackets with lapels and silver buttons carrying the trays chest height as they almost run out of the kitchen.
It’s well timed and often eerily noiseless, with dishes rarely sitting on the pass for more than a few seconds once called, with the servers returning shortly afterwards to replace the china cloches on the rack above the pass. The gangway is busy but the movement of the staff is balletic as they navigate their paths to their destinations.
Renovated almost five years ago, executive chef Williams had a hand in the design of the kitchen and the choice of equipment. At his request, it is fully induction, to help create an environment conducive to spending upwards of 12 hours a day in chef whites and toques, with the main kitchen split into fish, grill and sauce sections. There are various induction ranges as well as planchas on each section, on which food is cooked directly – “it uses fewer pans and is a more sincere style of cooking” – with the only non-electrical appliance being a portable charcoal grill. “The equipment we have put in there is not a gimmick but a necessity that will drive the business forward. That was the thought process behind how we built it.”
Williams regards the kitchen as the engine room of any grand deluxe hotel, and his one at The Ritz is a Rolls-Royce, he says. It needs to be. Not only does it operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day but, unlike many kitchens, which only service one dining room, it also has to cater for the hotel’s 20 private dining room menus, five cocktail function menus and buffet menus as well as the food for room service, the bar and the Palm Court. Then there’s breakfast, morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, cocktail hour, dinner and supper.
“A [standard] restaurant cannot compare to the creativity of a place like this,” says Williams. “With a hotel such as this, the customer is the driving force every single time. I just have to deliver what they want.”
Adapt, Adapt, Adapt
As a case in point, the kitchen brigade finds itself in the unusual position of, one minute, assembling a signature dish of salt-baked celeriac with a rich truffle sauce and the next whipping up an egg white and cheese omelette and chicken goujons and chips. In a hotel where expectations are sky high and demanding, the kitchen is there to meet the different needs of its clientele.
Herein lies the beauty of working at The Ritz. As a training ground for young, aspiring chefs, kitchens such as Williams’ are unparalleled in teaching vital cooking techniques, from making an omelette and boning out chickens to mastering the dark art of sauces.
“Any young chef should come through a grand hotel like this. Once they learn the foundations such as how to bake, make a sauce and a stew they can be really great ambassadors for cookery,” says Williams. “They can be creative afterwards. It actually takes much longer to understand those things than most people realise. Youngsters today are very impatient; they want to be at the top before they should be. Here they are nurtured; they are put under a lot of pressure but they are learning in the correct way.”
“In some restaurants these days, there’s a lot of different techniques that I admire,” says Mallya. “But then you have some people come here and they have these techniques but they don’t have the basic knowledge of cooking, which is making stock and sauces. Those are the most important things in cooking. With those, you can develop, but without those, I don’t think you can really say that’s cooking.
“Sauce is probably one of the things I love the most, and I tell people ‘if you’re ever going to come and work at The Ritz you shouldn’t leave here without learning the sauces. Sauces nowadays are not quite the same as they used to be, but here we do them properly.”
“My job is to orchestrate and teach the staff what we really want and to ensure the customer is getting a great experience.”
To be a decent chef in a kitchen like this requires a minimum of 15 years’ experience, Williams believes. “You can’t learn it in any other time and that’s not what we’re good at in this industry. The thing that goes in so many kitchens is the foundation of classic cooking. Without that, there is no cooking, and all young chefs should realise that.”
Williams’ emphasis is strictly on the classical side of cooking – he actively pushes back against the notion of ‘traditional’ cooking, which he sees as stuffy and outmoded. His approach, one that finally won the restaurant a Michelin star, has been to stay true to classic French dishes and techniques but modernise them where necessary, with the help of his “more youthful” team. “The youngsters are the ones that drive creativity. They keep me in a job at the end of the day. They make things happen – I hold onto culinary technique.”
He’s also learnt when things just can’t be touched, admitting there was ‘anarchy’ after he threatened to tweak the recipe for Crêpes Suzette. “I don’t dare to touch things like that,” he says with a wink.
Built on traditions
The Ritz’s Crêpes Suzette is an important dish, and not just because of its time-honoured recipe that Williams dare not tamper with. Brought to the diner on a gleaming silver trolley by immaculately dressed waiting staff and prepared tableside with fire and flair, it is much more than its constituent parts of pancakes, orange juice and Grand Marnier. As with the canard à la presse or the beef Wellington carved at the table, it’s where the skill of the chef and the majesty of front of house collide – something that all chefs in the kitchen need always bear in mind, he insists.
Just before service, Williams leads us to the dining room, without doubt one of the most impressive in London. “The rooms set the stage for a particular type of cooking – classic through and through. These places force you in a particular direction. The chef is no longer the person in charge; it’s the establishment that makes you create the correct kind of food.”
The carpeted dining room with ornate chandeliers and a pink colour palette (designed to complement a lady’s blush make-up) might only be a set of steps away from the clinical, strip-lighted environment of the kitchen below but it’s a world away in feel. Yet it’s a world Williams is equally comfortable in, and one he wants all of his chefs to experience.
He recalls taking everybody upstairs to the dining room one autumnal day following a particularity poor lunch service six weeks into his tenure and getting them to look at the ceiling, the entrance, the furniture, even the way the light comes into the room though its huge windows. He asked them whether they thought their food deserved a place in this particular restaurant, and says 70% of the youngsters didn’t believe it had.
“That was the turning point as far as I was concerned, it made such an impression on me that some of the guys hadn’t actually seen the room. Now we make it a natural process to ensure everybody sees the dining areas. It sets the scene,” says Williams.
Senior staff are also allowed to experience dining at The Ritz first hand, with Williams often pairing sous chefs with a station head waiter for a meal. “It builds a respect between them because they often don’t understand one another’s jobs and its frustrations and hardships. It took me a long time to understand the problems a person front of house has. It creates a strong bond.”
And then it’s time to head back down to the bowels of the hotel, to add yet another service to the tally. It’s something that, despite having been here 15 years, still gives him a frisson of excitement. “It gives me a real thrill to say I’m chef of The Ritz and this is where I cook,” he says, with one final sweep of the arm. “It’s a powerful thing.”