This feature is the first in Chuck’s Story, a series chronicling the life of Williams-Sonoma founder Chuck Williams, who celebrates his 100th birthday on October 2. This post comes to us courtesy of Laura Martin Bacon, a writer, creative consultant, and Chuck’s longtime friend.
If you sit down with Chuck Williams and ask him about the flavors of home, he’ll tell you about the meals his maternal grandmother cooked on her 1920s Quick Meal porcelain stove. Rich, hearty soups made with fresh vegetables from the backyard garden. Long-simmered beef stews and big pots of navy beans, fragrant with smoky ham hocks and sweet onions. “Simple dishes—these were the foods of my childhood,” Chuck says. “When I was a boy in northern Florida, it seemed that the only thing that got people together at the table was food—and the only thing that kept them there was more food.”
“In those early years, I spent a lot of happy time in my grandmother’s kitchen,” Chuck recalls. “Our family moved around a lot, so we lived with my mother’s parents off and on. “I first learned how to cook from my grandmother—it’s so much easier to learn a skill when someone takes the time to show you how to do it. Often times she’d give me a job to do and say do as much as you can, then give it to me and I’ll finish it off. She’d tell me: you do this with that ingredient—and here’s how you use this one. This is how to hold the tool and this is how you move it.”
“When my grandmother would make divinity fudge or a lemon meringue pie, she would have me beat the egg whites for her,” Chuck recounts. “This was before electric mixers, so I had to use a big oval platter and a fork. It took forever, but I didn’t mind. Being in the kitchen with her made me happy.”
Chuck will tell you that before his grandparents journeyed to Florida on their houseboat, ‘The Lima Bean,’ they owned a restaurant in Lima, Ohio. “In those days, you didn’t go to school to learn the fundamentals of restaurant cooking — or any cooking. You just did it,” Chuck says. He fondly describes his grandmother’s homemade pies, and watching as she cut chilled butter into flour, adding just enough cold water to transform a shaggy lump of dough into pastry that would roll easily into a silken sheet. “My grandmother baked wonderful pies, mostly apple or berry, but occasionally custard, which my grandfather liked,” Chuck remembers. “Her crusts were always perfect: light and flaky. She was so good making the fillings that she didn’t even need a mixing bowl — she just poured all her ingredients directly into the crust.”
Chuck will tell you about how he came to know the pleasures of crafting something with his own hands and watching it take shape. Of savoring the sweet, spicy aroma as his creation baked, then enjoying it warm from the oven. “If there was any pastry left, I wanted to do something with it myself—make a little tiny pie or anything that was really mine. It was so much fun. It looked good and it tasted good because it was good!”
It’s not surprising that Chuck has always been passionate about wanting to do things for himself. Even at a young age, Chuck had a knack for ingenuity (check out the photo below, where he demonstrates a stylish new use for a classic charlotte mold). Both of Chuck’s grandparents were known for their self-reliance. Long before most homes had the luxury of refrigeration, his grandfather built a basic electric refrigerator out of a larger old-fashioned icebox.
It was from his inventive grandfather that Chuck discovered the true meaning of innovation — to make something new. “We respected what we had and made the most of it,” Chuck says. “We learned out of necessity.” Just as a good cook can turn any ingredient into a wonderful dish, Chuck and his family always seemed to transform necessity into something useful and nourishing.
In Depression-era Florida, special occasions often meant deviled crab—an iconic regional dish made with fresh-caught crab. As a boy, Chuck would accompany his father and friends on fishing trips, where he was known to catch more crabs than the adults. Chuck took gleeful pride in his ability to stand on the dock of the St. John’s river and watch for the telltale scuttle of crab claws, then drop his net precisely where he predicted the crustacean would go next. His quiet patience and observation turned out to be talents that would serve him well in the years to come.
A keen sense of curiosity and wonder, along with a patient persistence, were defining ingredients in his life. Self-reliance and ingenuity were also key, Chuck says.
As the Great Depression continued, he was really going to need them.
Tune in tomorrow for the second part of this four-part series on the life of Chuck Williams.
Select photos from Merchant of Sonoma, by William Warren.