Chuck Williams

If you are a foodie, with more than just a passing interest in food, you may have heard that Chuck Williams, the world champion of foodies, died at his San Francisco home on Dec. 5 at age 100.

Williams founded Williams-Sonoma, the now ubiquitous purveyor of pricey culinary equipment in tony locations around the globe.

Chuck opened his first store in 1956 at age 40 in the then-rural town of Sonoma, Calif. (Although we never met, I call him by his first name because he and his store have been an integral part of my life for decades.)

Chuck was born in Jacksonville, Fla., but moved with his family during the Great Depression to California, where his father opened a garage. The business failed, and his father abandoned the family.

Chuck found work at a very young age on a date farm. He was taken in by the owners of the farm, and stayed until he finished high school.

During WWII, he worked for Lockheed International as an airplane mechanic. After the war, he moved to Sonoma and started what was to become a successful construction company. In 1953, he took a life-changing trip to Europe.

He had always loved food and cooking but was particularly impressed with French cuisine. Even more impressive were the tools he observed being used in professional French kitchens and available to the general public in Parisian kitchenware shops.

Upon his return to Sonoma, he purchased an old hardware store and gradually transitioned it to sell kitchenware, a novel concept at the time. The shop was so successful, he expanded and moved it to San Francisco, opening the mother of all kitchen stores in 1958.

In 1971, Chuck was among the first to market his wares through a mail order catalog. The genesis of my interest in wine and gourmet cooking can be traced to the receipt of Chuck’s catalog, along with public television’s airing of Julia Child’s 200 programs on classical French cooking.

I soon realized if I wanted to make a cheese soufflé, I needed a soufflé mold. If I wanted to make Julia’s Gratin Dauphinois (scalloped potatoes with milk and cheese), I would need a French slicing/shredding device calledla veritable mandoline,a device that could slice potatoes and other vegetables to a uniform thickness as specified by Julia’s recipe.

Williams-Sonoma offered the needed mandoline (dangerous, you could cut your finger off, but oh so useful), along with pots, molds, pasta machines, ravioli cutters and potato ricers (a must for any cook wishing to avoid the heartbreak of lumpy mashed potatoes).

Before the Internet and before Williams-Sonoma stores were located nearby, Chuck’s culinary finds were offered in his catalogs. Among his many finds that became mainstays of my kitchen were Le Creuset enamel-coated cast iron cookware from France, Kitchenaid mixers back when the only color they came in was white, Bundt cake pans made by Nordic Ware, California olive oil, Balsamic vinegar and Peugeot salt and pepper grinders (when I thought Peugeot only made cars).

Chuck sold his interest in the stores in 1978 but remained as chairman of the company until 1986. He was extensively involved in the company for the rest of his life. He was editor or contributor to most of the cookbooks published by Williams-Sonoma, which to date have sold more than 100 million copies.

I will miss Chuck, but his legacy lives on through the beautiful merchandise in his frequent catalogs and in his stores, which still elevate my blink rate upon entering.

I lust after the French La Cornue stoves, which offer WS’s customers the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Rolls Royce of cooking machines.

As long as I am admitting to lustfulness, I confess to lusting after the Mauviel copper fish poacher. I don’t often poach fish, though I might if I owned the $1,350 poacher to use on my $8,600 baby blue La Cornue range.

Alas, though not on a La Cornue, as long as I am able to cook, I will daily utilize a myriad array of kitchen tools introduced to the world and my kitchen by Chuck Williams.


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