This post comes to us courtesy of Laura Martin Bacon, a writer, creative consultant, and longtime friend of Williams-Sonoma founder Chuck Williams. Chuck passed away on December 5, 2015. He was 100 years old.
Whenever I visited with my friend Chuck, I felt as though time had stopped—or as though I had entered a magical time-out-of-time. Of course, the colors of the San Francisco sky and bay outside the window were always changing, as were the jewel hues of the ever-dapper Chuck’s beloved cashmere sweaters.
But regardless of the weather—or the sweater—there was always a twinkle in Chuck’s eye and an energetic curiosity in his posture as he leaned forward to ask a question or clarify a point. And there were 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 sipped tea and indulged in chewy molasses cookies or buttery chocolate shortbread, it seemed as though there was all the time in the world. Nothing about Chuck was rushed—his soft southern voice was as warm and careful and orderly as the culinary landscapes he had created.
Over the years, Chuck had patiently – often passionately – answered my questions by reaching back into the memories of a long and delicious life. Chuck’s culinary vision made history—and here, 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).”
“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 almost 100 years young, Chuck! What is your secret to a long, happy life?
“My advice for a long and happy life? Love what you do – and always eat well!”
If you’d like to read more, please check out Chuck’s Story, a special four-part series chronicling the life of Williams-Sonoma founder Chuck Williams.