Everything French was pure magic to our founder, Chuck Williams. To start a delicious culinary conversation, the only ingredient you’d need was the word “France” – and Chuck would instantly serve up stories with the flair of a Parisian bistro kitchen. His many cookware buying trips through France over the decades both informed his cooking and established the many heritage French brands that we still feature today.
When it came to his love for France’s iconic cuisine, Chuck had some buzzwords that eloquently describe the way we continue to cook today: “Seasonality. Freshness. Imagination. Honesty. Simplicity.”
To celebrate his French legacy (and his birthday on October 2nd!), we’re sharing eight of the recipe classics (in no particular order) Chuck loved best.
Chuck believed that the success of a dish can depend on using the right pan for the task – and crepes are a great example. After tasting them on his first trip to Paris in 1953, he wanted American cooks to be able recreate those classic flavors and textures at home.
For the perfect pan, he turned to De Buyer – a French company that’s been famous for great cookware since 1830. “We brought these blue steel pans to American home cooks around 1980 – and you can count on them to make perfectly uniform crepes every time.”
France’s local specialties were favorites with Chuck – including bouillabaise, the famous Provençal fish stew. To make a home-cooked version, he’d recommend the reliable enameled-cast iron cookware he came to know and love on his early trips to France – and used in his own kitchen for over 50 years.
When Chuck first discovered Le Creuset, it came in a single reddish orange color called “flame.” He bought cookware directly from the factory and introduced it to American home cooks, who loved the way it could go right from the stovetop or oven to the table. These days, Williams Sonoma sells Le Creuset in a rainbow of colors – including beautiful exclusives.
Chuck liked to recount the history of French onion soup. It became a culinary legend in the 19th century Paris market district of Les Halles, where the local revelers and market workers would congregate at neighborhood bistros for a post-midnight pick-me-up after a night on the town.
One of Chuck’s favorite ways to serve homemade soup was in an Apilco lion’s head bowl (which goes happily from broiler to table). He discovered the beauty and versatility of the classic French white porcelain on his second buying trip to France in 1960 – and the collection has been a Williams Sonoma favorite ever since.
Chuck would tell fond stories of strolling through the neighborhoods of Paris and discovering the local bistros. His conversations with bistro cooks taught him a lot about the power of simple dishes like Steak Frites, which could often be found among the plats du jour (daily specials).
Chuck used this inspiration to bring back cookware that makes it easy to recreate that authentic sizzle in a home kitchen. In the 1970s, he discovered Francis Staub’s high-performance French enameled cast-iron cookware – and it’s one of our all-time favorites for making bistro classics (and lots of other things) at home.
Travels in Europe introduced many Americans – including Chuck – to the simple happiness of fresh-from-the-oven breads like brioche. He advised that brioche does best with a long, slow rise (think: overnight). And Chuck would always say that those iconic French flavors are worth the wait.
For homemade brioche, we’re fans of the classic fluted baking dish from one of Chuck’s favorite French makers, Emile Henry. It’s handcrafted using local Burgundian clay that heats gently and evenly, so your brioche bakes with the same perfection Chuck discovered in the rich, buttery bread he fell in love with in France.
Coq au vin is one of the timeless French dishes that was legendary with Americans during the 1950s (and beyond). Chuck talked about the recipe’s influence on American cooks, along with the French way of cooking using the freshest, seasonal ingredients. Another French influence? Classic copper cookware.
On Chuck’s first buying trip to France in 1959, he visited Mauviel—a small, family-owned company in Normandy that supplied copper cookware to Europe’s top restaurants. He immediately began carrying the French pots and pans at Williams Sonoma, where they became instant favorites in American kitchens.
Chuck took quiet pride in the fact that he’d encouraged American cooks to whip up classic French soufflés – and he was always happy to share the secrets to making them. His favorite tips? Room temperature egg whites, an unlined copper bowl and a balloon whisk.
He’d reminisce about the way soufflés seemed to defy gravity and how their show-stopping loftiness elevated American cooking in the late 1950s and early 60s. Chuck’s preferred baking essential? Apilco’s iconic white porcelain souffle dish!
If you were baking with Chuck, he’d tell you a literary madeleine story. He’d talk about how these little sponge cakes were immortalized by Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past. And he’d say the best way to enjoy them is just as he imagined Proust did: “warm from the oven with just a bit of crispness on the outside.”
Professional madeleine pans were some of the first bakeware that Chuck brought back from France in the late 1950s. Of course, those were the traditional ones, made of tinned steel or aluminum. Today, baking madeleines can be even easier with innovative silicone and Goldtouch nonstick pans.
Today, we’re proud to continue to foster Chuck’s legacy—not just by continuing to support and cook with these wonderful heritage brands he brought to America so many years ago, but by seeking to discover so many new ones that help us explore the wonderful world of food.