Food Arts presents the July/August 1992 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Chuck Williams, king of cookware.
Williams, founder and vice chairman of the board of Williams-Sonoma, the San Francisco-based kitchenware empire, never dreamed he would become a guru of gourmet cookware when he opened a hardware store in 1956 in Sonoma, California. The self-taught building contractor had purchased an old building that happened to house a hardware store. Since the store had no housewares, Williams decided to add them. He had recently made his first trip to Paris and had fallen in love with the city, the cuisine and, particularly, the cookware, which he was eager to introduce in the United States. "That trip changed my life," he recalls.
Soon he was importing his French finds and was on his way to developing the intriguing array of products that would put his store on the map. "Right after World War II, Revere Ware was sort of the 'in' thing. But other than that, pots and pans were made of aluminum, and the quality wasn't that good," Williams recalls. "There was nothing in the way of good heavy equipment. We had pie pans and cake pans, but we really didn't know anything about charlotte molds, crêpe pans or omelet pans." Realizing that many of his customers were actually from San Francisco, two years later Williams moved his store to the city.
When a returned expatriate cooking teacher named Julia Child burst onto the nation's television screens, Williams was at the ready with the soufflé dishes, ramekins and loose-bottom tart pans that the viewers needed to master the art of French cooking.
Williams had not anticipated the gourmet revolution that would create a vast market for esoteric French cooking and baking equipment. It was an unusual idea at the time to import cooking and baking equipment intended for use in French restaurant, display it as beautifully as a Dutch still life and sell it to the American home cook. "I bought things because I liked them and gradually built up a business out of attracting people who liked what I liked," he says. Two of his favorite best sellers are a ceramic chicken-shaped water jug, which he first saw at The Hassler Hotel in Rome (this water jug was so popular in the hotel bar that American guests ordered scotch and chicken water), and pop-up sponges, which he came upon in the French equivalent of a dime store.
In 1972 Williams mailed out the first Williams-Sonoma Catalog for Cooks to local customers. "I always explained what everything was and gave recipes. It really worked," he says. By 1978 business was booming and Williams, who had never been one to delegate, was exhausted. His good friend Eddie Marcus (the son of the founder of Neiman Marcus catalog), told him he either had to close up shop or expand. Choosing expansion, he incorporated and later sold the business to entrepreneur Howard Lester, who would run the business; Williams would continue to do the buying and oversee the catalog. Today there are over 100 Williams-Sonoma stores, eight of them in Japan. The corporation also now owns Gardener's Eden, Hold Everything, and Pottery Barn.
Williams, 76, says he is starting to retire and has given up control of the catalog. But he has also taken on a new project. He is general editor of the Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Library, a 20-volume series to be published jointly by Williams-Sonoma and Time-Life Books. The first four volumes Pies and Tarts, Grilling, Pasta, and Hors d'Oeuvres, will debut in August. "This generation hasn't had the exposure to cooking that previous generations have," Williams says. "They can use these books to learn the basics."